by Emma Reed
I used to hate the hairdresser’s chair (and I have visited many in the quest for hair nirvana). This emotion was not follicle related. It was to do with one simple question: ‘So, what do you do?’ Like a verbal tic, my rapid-fire response rushed out. ‘Oh, I used to be a lawyer.’ Used to be. There I sat, desperately clinging on to a version of me that belonged long in the past.
The real answer to this question ricocheted around my head. ‘Well, I spend most days sobbing into a bottomless laundry bin, staring blankly at a diary inked with a million obligations and soaking up the emotional load of a family and a needy dog. I do this while regularly googling self-discovery ashram retreats.’ Sometimes, I’ve just lied – stopping short of saying I was part of Cirque du Soleil.
Once the anchor of performance appraisals and completed cases had gone, I was adrift. Juggling the demands of clients was replaced with an uncanny ability to eat spaghetti bolognese while breastfeeding my baby and talking on speakerphone, with only minor collateral damage. (To me, not the baby.) Simple tasks were peppered with perfectly placed tripwires: one baby spraying the walls with projectile vomit on the way to bath time, an outbreak of chickenpox on the first day of a holiday abroad. I would have given myself a solid nine out of ten for crisis management.
I spent those early years beating myself up with a virtual birch twig. I felt guilty for being fortunate to actually have a choice about returning to work, guilty for wanting to take the time to raise my children and guilty for not staying to try and tick the partnership box at my firm. All this wrapped up in the fug of exhaustion. While I was grappling with this internal confusion, I also had to navigate the external perceptions of motherhood and identity.
To health professionals, I was ‘Mum.’ ‘How is Mum today?’ they would ask me. After a confused pause while I thought about my own mother before ealising they were addressing me, I would inwardly squirm. I felt both infantilised and anonymous. Why would I want to discuss how I was or was not coping with someone who could not even use my name?
The simple word ‘occupation’ on forms also caused me to freeze. I hated the label ‘housewife,’ with all its 1950s connotations, and couldn’t bring myself to write it. Equally, ‘stay at home mum’ jarred with me. Not only did it feel like such a clunky description, but conjured up an image of a passive figure waiting in their box at home – while life carried on outside. It brought home to me how you simply cannot distil the role of a mother into these ineffectual labels. For me, at this time, it just served to reinforce feelings of not being enough. I wasn’t CEO of myself at this time, let alone anything else.
Joining my local NCT group highlighted the struggles so many mothers face with their identity. There was a rawness and vulnerability there. We dissected maternity leave issues, laughed and cried over body issues. We were a diverse bunch, thrown together by the common birth month of our children, learning how to relate to ourselves and each other. Sometimes it was a blessed relief to sink into this group and not feel alone, yet at other times, I didn’t want to discuss the minutiae of feeding and sleeping routines; I wanted to talk about a book, a film, the news… anything to keep me connected to the wider world.
I discovered that it’s hard to be a good role model to your kids when you are in a state of flux about your own identity. An innocent question such as, ‘What did you get up to today, Mum?’ can send you cartwheeling into a spiral of doubt. (‘Well I got that pesky NASA application in after I wheeled the bins out.’)
The school gate years frustrated me. I love meeting new people and I don’t have a quota on friendships; I’ll happily talk to anyone. However, I entered a new territory of clearly demarcated lines. Tribes and cliques formed that mystified me. You were either in or you were out. Someone would pour their woes out to you one day and blank you the next. My own playground years were easy by comparison.
I didn’t understand the rules nor did I want to play by them. I felt confused, not knowing where I fitted in, and I felt adrift again. I needed to find my anchor. It’s taken a while, but I have finally found it in freelance writing. It is my way of connecting to myself and to others. I spent a long time ignoring it, but it refused to go away until I listened.
Above all, what I have learned is that we mothers are many things. Our identities shift and evolve and all the things you’re experiencing now are the vital building blocks to the future you. Don’t feel that you must step into the boxes and categories society is so keen to create for you – you can step around them and create your own path.
I don’t fear the hairdresser’s chair anymore, although I am sometimes tempted to try the Cirque du Soleil line. However, I know that ultimately, it is not about what I do; it is about who I am.