My class is reading and discussing American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. It has been fascinating and exciting, but sometimes a struggle. The books has layers and conflicts and makes readers uncomfortable on many levels by pushing them into a space where we think we are supposed to laugh at some overtly racist images of Chinese Americans. Kids laugh, but then wonder why they feel conflicted about their laughter.
We spent a lot of time today talking about what it means to transform oneself without losing the essence of one’s selfhood. In the book this is discussed when the main character wants to become a transformer so he can come to terms with internalized racism and “become American” – or disown his identity and “fit in.” Our class came to the conclusion that if you change yourself because you want change and growth, you keep your soul intact, but when you transform because of societal pressure or negative influences, you risk becoming soulless—you risk losing what is essentially you. But when you transform because you grow, you keep your essence.
Kids recognize that everyone has such experiences; this process, though examined by a book that deals with American racism toward Asians, is pertinent to all people who struggle with myriad societal messages about how we should define ourselves.
I am thinking of these questions as they pertain to motherhood: Should moms be “hot mamas” ? Are we okay parents if we feed our kids non-organic food? Do we need to make our own baby food? Should we enroll our kids in soccer, ballet, and music lessons? If we struggle with behavior, with sleep, with tantrums (theirs, not ours) are we failures? I am not a “hot mama” or a doting stay-at-home mom, or a mom who can provide inspiring and engaging activities 24-7 for my kids. Those expectations are ones that none of us can live up to. Yet, we are made to feel like failures when we don’t. We even judge each other. I’ve overheard it at the playground.
The selves that I am struggling to maintain now are challenged by my dual role of mom and teacher. Both roles exhaust, challenge and yet provide tremendous satisfaction. Perhaps my feelings of discomfort around being a mom are normal. My husband says all parents who are good parents wonder if they are good enough. The worry lets you know that you are doing okay. If you thought you had it all under control, you’d just be fooling yourself.
That is part of it, but not all. I came to motherhood late–after a 15-year teaching career that continues. I don’t see myself as particularly maternal. I am not a mom who loves endlessly playing “tea party” and dress up. I don’t do arts and crafts. These things are not in my being or my repertoire. I feel like I am barely making it as a mom.
And then, when my daughter, who will be four in days, shoots me a look of pure animosity and anger, when she and I butt heads over her refusal to help clean up her toys or to help with family matters, like getting ready for bath and bed, I wonder if I am losing not only myself, but her. I know; she is four. I am over thinking it. But, those moments give me pause to worry about how frustrated I feel, and how clearly angry and hurt she feels. And how we seem, already, polarized.
I have more growing and transforming to do on this journey of motherhood – and I hope I will be able to embrace the changes while I keep my soul intact. Even at this moment of struggle, I remember a hug, a look of love, a smile from my daughter. They can sustain. They will have to sustain.