Lisa Radhika Kaul
I chose to become a full-time mother. However, by the time my child was two, I came to feel like I was floating aboard a spaceship called motherhood which was orbiting around a planet that seemed suspiciously like my “true” self. I wondered where “I as a person” ended, and where “I as a mother” began, or more potently, whether there was an “I” in mother.
Is there a substantive difference between the “I who is a person” and the “I who is a mother?” Are these two “I’s” really so easily separable? I wonder why I privilege “I-the-person” as having a greater claim to authenticity. Is it because it pre-dates and precedes its late arriving self “I-the mother?” I wonder whether claims to indigeneity are tantamount to a representation of the “true self?”
As I attempted to answer some of these questions, I began to compose a montage of my past life in order to define my “true self.” I noticed that not only was I construing this “true self” as a more “perfect” self, I was also constructing an idealised and essentialist version of my old self in order to differentiate it from my self as a mother. I defined my old self largely in terms of her achievements. “She” was synonymous with getting things done, and being filled with unlimited potential. Nothing could shackle or contain her. By contrast my “self as a mother” seemed like she could barely get a list together, let alone have the chance to tick-off the items on it. I still continued to do much of what “she” did and in the manner in which “she” did. However, I began to imbue my actions with a different meaning and significance, or as they say in psychological speak, I began to indulge in “self-concept dislocation.”
I radically changed the way in which I looked at myself and thought about myself. So, for example, while I was very proud that “she” had taught herself to bake bread to mark her thirtieth birthday, and “she” cooked dinners that were expressions of her creative self, I- the mother, saw the kitchen and the attendant art of cooking as yet another bit of drudgery. I could no longer marvel at the fact that cooking was another feather in my cap. Instead, when a friend described me as a “domestic goddess,” I viewed her remark as a painful insult, adding salt to an open injury. I had experienced my share of “this is not who I am” moments while doing anthropological fieldwork. Yet, none of those experiences created a dent in my identity or maimed my sense of self, as full-time motherhood seemed to do.
Something propelled me to discount all that I did as a mother as well as disallowed me from seeing my actions as achievements. I wonder whether it was the lack of external approbation or my own jaundiced vision that could only view all my actions as par for the course of motherhood and hence unworthy of comment. Was it because I had nothing to compare my actions against, because it was all I seemed to be doing, whereas I had been used to doing so much more? Or was it because the invisibility, intangibility and seamlessness of the act of mothering made it difficult for me to view it as an achievement? After all, there was no office to be gone to; no calling cards to be had; no pay-checks to be seen. Perhaps I had succumbed to the endless blitz of messages that disallowed me from even considering motherhood in toto to be an achievement.
Or had the equation changed? Had I journeyed to a foreign country whose language I was yet to learn? Was I in a land where I could act out and perform words, but could not map them against a matrix of meaning?
In retrospect, I realize that the division between “I who is a person” and “I who is a mother” was really a gloss for something else. I conjured up this split as a smokescreen to explain my disenchantment with my situation: I had to come to terms with a chronic illness which was taking a heavy toll on my capabilities, and I had to take stock of who I really was and could realistically become. I began to doubt my decision to “opt out” and I blamed it on motherhood.
I cannot help wonder whether these polarities would have been so apparent had I been conditioned to view my life as divided into several distinct stages, rather than as traversing a single uni-linear trajectory? I wonder whether I would have felt so torn if I had been able to entertain the possibility of living “serially,” rather than “simultaneously.”
Motherhood, I realise now, is not an adequate source of the self. It is not a space waiting to become place through an investment of time and memory. Rather it is a journey, which can mutate into a pilgrimage, but ought never to become a destination.
There is an “I” in motherhood. It is the “I” of the immigrant.
As a mother I became an immigrant in my own life. My sense of dislocation, disjunction, cognitive dissonance, and alienation clearly mirrors that of the new immigrant. Like the immigrant who can no longer claim to define “home” in the singular, but continues to hanker after “it,” I too, have longed to “return” to something that is a clearer and purer reflection of who I think I am. Like other transplants, I try to set down new roots, while trying my best to preserve old ones. Like other migrants I canonise my old life and ways, even as I try to create a niche for myself in my new life. Like the immigrant I grapple with a new vocabulary and idiom for my life, while trying to become a citizen of a new land. And like the immigrant, I stand traversing several continents, histories, times, and moments, each of which can be evoked by a random sight, sound, or color and can overwhelm my life and present.
I suppose a part of me shall always strain at the bit, waiting to bolt. I will have some glorious runs on wide-open steppes, but I will also stay cooped up in a barn. As long as I can remember that motherhood is not a performance, I will be fine. One day, I might look back at this stage as my home. Until then, my “I”- a lone vertical stick, circumscribed by two parallel lines – will go forth in its unique incompleteness on this magnificent journey.
 Sanford, L and M. Donovan. 1985. Women and Self Esteem, NY: Viking Press, cited in Sanders, D and M. Bullen. 1992. Staying Home. From Full Time Professional to Full Time Parent. Boston: Little Brown and Co. p. 87
 Belkin, L.2002. Life’s Work. Confessions of an unbalanced mom. NY: Simon and Schuster. p.65
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