One thing that many people struggle with in motherhood (and, to a lesser extent, fatherhood) is how to fit this idea of “Me: The Mother” into all of their other conceptions of themselves. Me: The Cook, Me: The Intellect, Me: The Fun-Haver, Me: The Joker, etc., etc. How will this new role fit among the many other roles you’ve created for yourself?
But instead of the common refrain that women have been lied to about having it all, I want to say instead that women (and men) have been lied to about having or being anything.
One of the central tenants of Buddhism is non-attachment. This means that our foundation is not shaken by our pleasure or our pain. It’s a state of having overcome the pain of reality not conforming to our wishes. We should not attach ourselves or our sense of well-being on external factors, as everything is transient, and we don’t have control over much of the world.
A deep application of non-attachment is the concept of anatta, or non-self. That is, we shouldn’t attach ourselves to our…selves. Our inner world should not be affected by who we “are”; there is no permanent self. On a surface level, we don’t have control over the “self”.
For both attachment and non-attachment, what we do have control over is our reactions. To a stormy day, or to the turbulent thoughts and emotions inside of us.
Think of your meditation practice. You let your thoughts and feelings float by without thinking about how they ought to be, how you ought to feel. You’re observing without judgment, without either running towards or repelling from your thoughts. You don’t have “no thoughts”–you accept that the thoughts are there, that the thoughts may always be there, and you watch them. Meditation does not ask you to be something other than human.
Annata does not, either. We don’t need to get rid of the ego. It’s extremely useful to us, to be drawn towards and away from some things, to have the connections we have, to have the ideas we have. We can’t just “get rid” of our ego, as we are human.
What we can do and I believe should do is reject the idea of an unchanging self. Understanding that we have predispositions is a good thing, and certainly we are locked into our limitations as humans, but there is a wide range of possibility inside of these parameters.
An idea of who you are or who you should be is just that: an idea. It has nothing to do with the reality of who you are, which is–just as your thoughts are–always changing. Even if you just check in with your loved ones about who you are at your core, you may find that your idea of your true self is wholly conceptual and unique to you.
Attaching your sense of self to an identity marker is a way to keep you where you are and orient yourself in the world. We should look at our motivations for why it is we are trying to stay any particular way. It is possible that it is a very helpful idea of ourself that allows us to get done what we need to—Me: The Productive Person—but once we have observed it as just a useful idea, not something that is necessary or intrinsic to the “self” then we realize we can use it when we want to, leave it when we don’t, and drop it altogether at any time.
If you feel that you’ve lost yourself in your parenthood, I’d ask you to think about what that means. What is it that you are trying to hold onto that was part of your self-conception before, and why is it that it is important to you? Is there anything actually stopping you from playing that role now?
I’d also like you to ask yourself: If I didn’t have children, would I be the same person I was then today? The answer is most likely no.
And if the answer is yes, then that means your children saved you from an incredibly stagnant life.
We were always going to change as time went by, but the introduction of a family brought us down a particular path.
- What parts of myself am I unwilling to let go of? Why?
- Who would I be today if I wasn’t a parent?
- What are the different roles that I play, inside of the house and out?
- Write down three of your top character traits. Pick a loved one who you can trust to write down your three most prominent traits. Compare.
- Pick a trait of yours that you think of as “you”. Pay attention throughout the day and see how many times your behavior directly contradicts this conception.For instance, I sometimes think of myself as “an anxious person.” But I cook with complete confidence, and smile and make small talk with cashiers.