Expectations & disempowerment

Imprisoned in my own walls of shoulds, ought-to-bes and expectations.

Of all the times that I have ever felt dis-empowered (or less powerful than I might like to perceive myself as being), it has been because I have chosen to wall in my existence by the expectations I thought society/others had of me.

Caged in by the “shoulds” that I thought were universal truth because they seemed to be everywhere I looked for them.

“I should” be able to mother without support.
“I should” be enjoying it more and finding it less of a struggle
“I should” be able to give my daughter every drop of what she needs without questioning if I have it to give.
“I should” consider others first and value their needs above mine
“I should” be contributing financially whilst also being the full-time mum I want to be.

A lot of the “shoulds” that I felt disempowered by came from valuing the productive, money-generating ways the western world has taught me to value above all else, and also from the idea that those things less valued “should” therefore be easier. I valued the output of good mothering but not the input.

Whilst being fenced in by all the expectations I had of myself as a mother, I gave up more of myself than I had ever had to give, with less resources and support than I’d ever experienced. I thought I wasn’t enough. Doing enough. Being enough. The irony that at a time when I was giving more of myself than I even knew I had within me, was the time in my life that I’ve felt less than I’ve ever been.

Loosing my sense of me

I overestimated how many parts of myself and my identity I could give up with it affecting who I was. I thought my sense of who I was, was solid. At least it always had been. A strong, independent woman who could more than take care of herself. Or at least I was.

On an intellectual level, I knew that my job and the amount of “work” I did, didn’t define who I was, but I didn’t expect that without it, it would remove a sense of purpose, achievement and personal power. Somehow becoming a mother (unpaid for my time & effort) shifted the balance, it tilted the scales. Not in a way that all the extra time and effort put in, gave me an upper hand. Far from it. I was giving more of me and my time than any job had ever required, it was seemingly the lack of a paycheck for my efforts that had me at a loss. It was my own internal valuation of myself that suffered. I guess not just from the lack of financial compensation but from the lack of appraisal, feedback and knowing that you’re doing a good job. Zero thanks or gratitude from anyone involved, myself included.

Intellectually, I also knew that mothering was valuable and the time and energy I put into it was valuable, to her at least, but it didn’t prepare me for how little value I would feel as a mother and how little value I would place on myself, and on the time and energy spent doing it.

Intellectually, I also knew that I could (and here we go again) “should” feel empowered by MY choice to be a mother and yet for some reason I was further from empowered than I had ever been.

These choices I made, these decisions I took. They all lead me to being less “me” than I ever thought I could be. To a point, I no longer knew who I was or what I wanted.

All of who I had been lay there dismantled around me. I wasn’t even sure I wanted any parts of what lay there, strewn in the wake of who I’d become. But I knew who I’d become was an empty vessel that needed to be nurtured and regrown back to fullness.

I ebbed and flowed through rage and despair at all that I had been and no longer was.

I was, for some time, in a strange holding ground, suspended between identities. It is hard to rebuild when all sense of self has been lost. None of who I was seemed to fit any more and as much as I longed so much for that sense of me and that sureness of all I was, I didn’t long to go back. For, I knew what I had was more and yet at the same time who I had become felt so much less. Hollow and worn. Aged and empty.

The rage helped me find focus and the despair pushed me on. I no longer wanted to be sat in such stagnant waters. Through sheer grit and determination, I resolved day after day to get myself to a place of feeling me again. Not going back to the old me but redefining the new.

Working out which of my desires and hopes were built on inner knowing and which were those deceptive kinds of desires that had me fishing for a life that looked good on others, took time.

Tuning out and tuning in…

Sometimes the tuning in was hard, tuning in to white noise and nothingness, lost in a calm sea, drifting unanchored with no direction. That nothingness felt painful, a reminder of what I’d felt I’d become. Erased and washed out. But without tuning out the noise of all the possibilities of who I could be (goodbye Instagram) I was going to keep trying on endless masks of other peoples lives that didn’t quite fit.

Each day I questioned what it was that I wanted and needed and as I tended to the most basic of needs, such as sleep, the white noise became a more focused siren pointing me in a direction. No longer quite adrift as I thought, with a faint sense of some kind of knowing. And that was enough.

That faint sense of knowing that there was a way, a direction back to a familiar sense of me, was all I needed. All I could do was hold on to the hope that if I followed it, I would find my way back out of the lost-ness.

Tended needs turned into tended wants and wants turned into desires and dreams. It’s easy, to sum up in a sentence what felt like an eternity. It was a long slow road back to a healthy sense of self, and often times that journey felt bleak.

The long road home

I realised that in order to feel me again, I needed friendship and support and those things I searched out like a hungry predator needing to feast. I had been starved of support and close friends for some time and I longed to rebuild the types of friendships I had left behind when moving south to be with my husband. Not that I hadn’t had good mummy friends from the early days of motherhood, I had. But they had all returned to work and I now needed friends independent of my mummy status. Friends who were friends to the rest of me, and they helped me rebuild my identity of who I was outside of being a mother.

As my own energies replenished I had energies to spare to tend to those friendships so they could grow too. And for all of these things to grow, myself included, I needed to ask for the one thing I’d felt I couldn’t ask for all along. Support and time away from mothering. I could never have walked the path back to myself whilst giving all of what I had away, for those steps back home needed more grit and determination than I could ever have had strength for, had I tried to do it all alone.

Gratitude

Despite how hard it seemed, there were no two ways about it, I couldn’t stay as I was. Not only did I want to feel alive again, but I wanted my daughter to grow up with a mother that could show her what it is to live life fully. The way her mother always had. I didn’t want all the best stories of my life to have been some time long ago, in a time before she had the chance to know me. I was ashamed for her to know me as the shell of the person I had become. I had loved her so much and wanted to be everything she needed, I just never expected in doing so I would find myself so full of gratitude for all I had and yet so empty of all I was in equal measures.

Now, thankfully, I have gratitude for all I have AND all I have become. I have seen parts of myself I didn’t know could exist. I have loved more than I thought I could and lost more of myself that I realised was possible. I have come out the other side feeling more defined and whole, grateful and satisfied than I have ever been before. But that took discovering many dark and painful sides that give shape to the light, the shadow which gives my life fullness and meaning.

As a photographer I know that without light and shadow there is no shape or definition, an image becomes flat. The addition of shadow allows the subject to take shape. Darkness and contrast bring depth and vibrancy and where light and dark sit side by side the eye is drawn to the details which jump into focus. When we sharpen an image to make the focal points pop we deepen the shadows and brighten the highlights. Perhaps in that way, my life mirrors my art as the shadows have become richer and the highlights have become all the brighter. I can now enjoy the beauty of the details which have come into focus.

Contribute

I’d love to hear your comments on any of my work in the comments section below. As I create my images I want to collect as many experiences as possible from other mothers to help create a more informed and collective idea of the experience of motherhood. I want to highlight how different we all are as mothers and how different our experience of motherhood is. We’re fed a very narrow idealised view of what it means to be a mother and I’ll be exploring more of that as I work through this project. So please do contribute.

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