A Few Good Moms: Can you handle the truth about being Mom?

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The mom watches from a distance while her children run around the playground. Suddenly she feels something brush against her and looks down to see a young girl holding her hand, mistaking it for her mother’s. Finally the child looks up and realizes that this woman is a stranger – but even so waits awhile before releasing her grasp.

You want the truth about being Mom? I think you can handle it.

When I was in graduate school I studied the social construction of personal identity. The idea is that who you are is determined not only by what you believe in your own mind, but also is underscored and affirmed by how others perceive you.

Sometimes an interesting line is crossed between internal and external perceptions once a woman enters motherhood, whereby an external view of that woman as “Mom” becomes the most essential aspect of who she is as a person.

For many women, there is no conflict here – they would self-describe as mothers first, or say that motherhood is the most significant work they will ever do, or argue that their families are the most important thing in their lives.

Sometimes, though, it can feel a little shocking to realize that you are seen primarily – and sometimes exclusively – as Mom, regardless of your other skills, experiences, interests, and achievements.

Being Mom is a mixed bag. Mothers are often revered; they may have a uniquely impactful power (the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world). On the other hand, many women experience a side of motherhood that makes them feel invisible, or asexual, or unsophisticated. The middle-aged mom often engages in a constant battle to look nothing like a mom – although her hair, clothing, and car often give her away.

It would seem that there are worse things in life than looking like what you actually are, but in this case perhaps women wonder if “being Mom” means that you won’t be viewed as anything else.

This hit home for me many years ago during the summer when my young boys participated on a swim team at a local pool. One afternoon a crowd of moms perched on the lounge chairs, feet from the water, as our little ones prepared to swim laps or worked on their form from the side.

As practice started, the coaches (young male college students) stripped off their sweats and T-shirts, tossed them aside, and stood before us in tiny speedos that were barely more than underwear. The scene looked a little something like a Magic Mike XL movie trailer.

A collective sharp intake of breath escaped from the lounge chairs as this unfolded, with several stunned mothers exchanging shocked glances. There was no warning or hesitation before the sudden and extensive undressing. And this is what was most striking about it: the casual way these young men disrobed within inches of us demonstrated that our presence wasn’t a consideration. We were just a bunch of moms.

For some reason this episode has stayed with me, and I think it is less about what I saw and more about how I was seen on that day.

I recently joked to a friend that I couldn’t complain about having little time to write due to kid duties, because without the kids I wouldn’t have anything to say. She immediately admonished me for that comment, and I get her point. Of course I am a person independent from my children, but the truth is, some days the ways in which I am my own person are harder and harder to see – even by me.

Want to get a better handle on being Mom? Read the viral classic about motherhood as invisibility cloak, check out some good news with Dove’s experiment about how women perceive themselves and are perceived, and expand your kid-free horizons with a lecture at Queens University of Charlotte.