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“I feel like the best years of my life are over.”
I am catching up with a friend.
Recently 50, she has not taken that number lightly. Thin, fit, a mother of three, married, educated, and accomplished professionally, she struggles with the dramatic new twist in her seemingly perfect life: she is now a woman “past her prime.”
As usual, I question my friend’s definition of what constitutes the best years in a woman’s life and try to introduce the idea that life is not over until it’s over. She is not convinced. So attached she is to the identity of a woman as a child-maker, that the single fact of no longer being able to produce children biologically has her feeling as though her whole purpose as a woman has been extinguished.
It never fails to impress me: the degree to which we as women still limit ourselves with regard to our purpose here. How confused we’ve become about our sacred ability to create and nurture life. Buying into the notion that producing and raising children is our singular, most important role has caused many of us to abandon our own happiness and fulfillment. We’ve been sacrificing our gifts and indeed our whole lives under the guise of selfless care for those we love, all the while masking the deep-seated sense of unworthiness.
I get it. I am a mother, too. I understand the nuances. So much of what I write about comes from exploring my own shadow. That is why I dare to bring complexity to our conversation about what it means to be a mother and a woman today.
I was a mother who would wake my children up with a song every single morning of their lives. Well, maybe I stopped singing a few years ago when I got depressed. I filled the whole space. I was the buffer between my children and reality. I was the train that powered the whole family until there was nothing left of me.
Today, I coach many women like me, who find themselves swinging from one extreme to another—from overdoing to depression—never feeling enough. We come out of mothering and marriage depleted and stunned, then spend years trying to understand what happened to our younger selves, so full of passion and vigor. And yet, when the children grow and start leaving, many women find themselves in mourning, unmoored, without purpose.
The institution of parenting has become an extremely effective way to neutralize our whole gender.
A perfect tool of patriarchy, it has women police other women to get with the program, to self-sacrifice, and to devote all resources to condition their offspring to become perfect addicts, consumerists, and conformists to societal systems and family expectations.
Our families have become incubators for perpetuation—not only of species but of ideologies, traditions, traumas, and dysfunction, as we unconsciously repeat the way things have always been done before. And the way things have been done before was in polarity, scarcity, and fear of the other.
Many centuries of toxic programming and structures have reduced the complexity of human experience to simplistic judgments of good/bad, black/white, right/wrong. No matter the culture or geographical region where we’ve been raised, we’ve been lead to believe that there’s “us” and “them.” Nurtured on stories from previous centuries, we are conditioned to think that we cannot love a person from the “them” camp, as it would make us disloyal to “us.” This same tribal loyalty teaches us to love our own children in such a way that—to protect them—we must be prepared to kill children of people from the “them” camp. The society which we’ve inherited is built on wars: internationally, nationally, in our neighborhoods, in our own homes.
The love we’ve received and the love we’ve learned to give is conditional. When we do not know what it means to love, nurture, and be in compassion to ourselves, we will not know how to accept differences in our own children, and we certainly won’t tolerate the diversity in our families, our neighbors, people from far-flung countries.
Our hyper-focus on mothering stifles not only self-sufficiency and independent thought in our children, but our own capacity to think independently, to step into agency, and to exercise sovereignty as fully-expressed and actualized beings. Through consumerism and competition with other women, many of us mothers have been lulled into complacency. Too distracted chasing perfection and never arriving at enough, we feel too guilty to take time for rest, self-care, or the pursuit of other passions. We do not have the space to question the hamster wheel of our lives, and will usually not have much energy but to perpetuate the system.
Well, the system has been brought to a screeching halt by the global pandemic. All of us have been confined to our homes and our families 24/7 for months, with rare possibility of escape or distraction. We are now facing what we have created within our closest relationships, but also in our society at large, a reflection of what we’ve been doing with “the best years of our lives.”
What stories about the world and other people in it have we been raised on? What stories have we been passing on to our children? Many of the “truths” we received with our mothers’ milk, then from history books are being revealed today as grave untruths.
Perhaps now we can finally free up some time to look within and understand that we can make different choices.
Glennon Doyle, in an Instagram post, addresses an issue I’ve been exploring: “It strikes me that an out of proportion number of women who are mothering the world in humungous ways (Liz Gilbert and Oprah come to mind right away) are women who chose not to raise children of their own. Because they had wider mothering to do: they knew they were born to use their mothering energy less like a laser and more like a floodlight.” She finishes her post referring to Su Monk Kidd’s suggestion that “maybe the question is not whether or not you are a mother, but what will I mother into this world?”
The old paradigm of the way we’ve been doing life is being revealed in all of its toxicity to us daily. As our society shifts, our value system begs to be revisited.
We are being called to go inward, to find our voice, and to be active participants for the change we all wish to see in this world. Let what follows be the best years of our lives, regardless of our age.
What will we mother now?