Photography by Bailey Cheng
What are we when we become mothers? We may not ever be fully ourselves again, but that’s because our selves have blurred into looser but more schematic ways of being—ways of being that are communitarian, multiple, and endlessly dissolvable. Part of the challenge of mothering is distinguishing your baby from other babies, but not too much. As soon as you start to think “My baby is learning to walk so early!” or “My baby is such an adventurous eater!” or “Why won’t my baby clap his hands?” you slip back into self’s uncomfortable costume, concerned not with gathering your baby up, but in identifying your baby’s skills, deciding upon your baby’s personality, thinking about the limits and conditions of personhood even before your baby is a person, when your baby is still a circle or two, holding on to wholeness as a sense of being. It’s not just that the project of personal distinction makes for an anxious, overprotective parent, it also ignores the way childbearing and rearing is a social act, one that ideally collects us together with others rather than separating us out, insisting on our difference. Becoming a mother is the most momentous thing that has ever happened to me; but it’s also something that is utterly mundane; it is also the most social and collaborative thing I have ever done.
What is the difference between leaving one’s nest on purpose—in trying to fly but failing—and flinging oneself out of one’s home because you sense danger? As I walked across campus, the caterpillars dangling from the oak trees sometimes fell from their silk. One dropped onto my shoulder. And sometimes they made their way to the ground and crawled around, their soft bodies covered with startling spines, spines that looked sharp but, of course, were so fine they were like single hairs, barely there at all. The caterpillars all looked aimless, blindly wandering along a curb, or stupidly trying to mount a woman’s boot at a bus stop. But, as I had discovered, their aims were clear, and laudable. They were trying to get home, to return to their work, to get back to the busy job of eating themselves into moth-hood. The bird’s skeleton was different: he had leapt from his nest imagining (perhaps) that the world was about to expand, (perhaps) mindlessly doing what his body told him to do. And it had not worked, his delicate, still-perfect skull and beak a curious testament to this rude failure. Is the bird the Winnicottian circle, or is the caterpillar? What is a whole thing? What is a life stage? It seems like either way, the circle is fooling itself: the desire for wholeness, for that balloon-like self, is a false hope. We are never whole things. We’re always just parts, loosely connected by something we might call a self, wobbling along, at risk of coming apart at our joints.