I read recently another blogger talking about the shift in identity that took place for her when she became a mother, how unprepared for that she felt. Reading her thoughts led me to reflect on ways I experienced this when I became a mother. There was definitely some new terrain to explore in terms of how I identified myself, what had shifted in terms of my interests, priorities, and values, and how I felt about all that. I don't want to downplay these things.
But, when I think about sudden, massive, disorienting identity shifts that I've experienced, there are two events that spring to my mind: moving to Minnesota, and being laid off. Moving to Minnesota for grad school really shook my foundations in a way I had no expectation of in my conscious mind. Clearly my unconscious was plenty aware because as I headed out of the beloved state of my birth, my dad driving me, my (formerly his) truck, and a paltry load of possessions, I bawled like a baby. A baby who somehow knew she was entering a colder world than she was used to.
It took about five years to settle into this new place. Now, sixteen years later (gulp), there are so many things I love about the Twin Cities, and I've made many friends (though most are transplants, too), and I get the weather now - here on the last day of August I am already wondering when the first snow will fall and pretty much looking forward to it. But, when it's time to write a biographical note for a competition or an artist's statement, or a program...the first thing I say is that I was born in California. When we fly back to visit, I cry when I see palm trees. On many visits I have not been able to face the ocean, because it just is too heartbreaking.
I was also surprised by the shifts that being laid off triggered. When you are laid off, if you want to collect unemployment, you have to attend a session at the unemployment office on dealing with being laid off. One of the things they tell you is that being laid off launches an emotional shitstorm surpassed only by the death of a child. I thought this wouldn't be true for me, given that I didn't even LIKE the job I was laid off from - the company was entirely dysfunctional as were many of the people I worked with. Frankly, I think the company made me dysfunctional as well - compartamentalized, bitter, angry, cynical...and those were the good days.
But, it was still where I spent the vast majority of my waking life. It provided me with the biggest salary I have ever made. I had very enviable benefits. I saw a good friend every week day. I had the kind of job title that people recognize and find respectable. I still took pride in my work and in the accomplishments of my department. I still tried to be the best manager I could be in the conditions provided. I had a lot of myself wrapped up in the work I did, and to have it made so clear that someone else found all of this completely disposable was very, very hard to take. I was amazed and appalled both at how hard it was to take, and for how long the shadow of this fell across my life. I would say that it took at least a year for that shadow to dissipate. I'm not sure it has completely vanished yet, and it happened six years ago.
So, when motherhood came along, a state I had avoided so well for so long, and then decided to pursue, and then found within my grasp so quickly and easily, I was braced for another big identity quake. And I found it just didn't happen that way. There were - and are, still - moments where I do feel a kind of disorientation, but it doesn't feel like the same kind of awful drowning, of being totally unmoored from myself. Maybe because I expected it? Maybe because I tried to meet it head on? Of the three events, motherhood was perhaps the one I entered into most wholeheartedly, but I know many women who would say the same, and who felt the identity quake more strongly.
Identity can be tricky ground - it can look and feel solid, until that faultline deep underground twinges. And then when the shaking stops, it looks solid again, and we can feel betrayed, tricked. When the faultlines are active, when the plates are shifting, there's havoc. Sometimes the shaking stops and everything looks different. Sometimes the aftershocks are more devastating than the initial quake. Every once in a while it turns out to be such a little thing that it was almost enjoyable, a gentle rolling just to keep us awake. Because, as much as we try to remember, in quake country, that our solid ground can shift, in the day to day we forget. We have to, in many respects, in order to keep going, even when we really know better.