Sunday, February 24, 2008

Identity

I think the thing that shocks me the most about life is when I come to realize that I have a preconceived idea about something, particularly about my own identity. When I am walking down the street running an errand, I am not conscious of the labels that make up my identity. I'm just Heather, doing some shit. But as I go through my errand and my day, as I encounter different people and various circumstances, I become more and more aware of my own identity.

We live in a very multi-cultural neighborhood. I love this aspect and don't necessarily think much about my place in that spectrum of color and culture, until I'm the only white person. And then my brain does this, "Huh. I'm a white person," recognition. I can't help it. I just got that identity when I was born. And sometimes I hate it. I don't come from some cool European family with deep cultural heritage. I'm a mutt with stereotypical WASPy traditions. But then I remember that I have no idea the privileges and ease that comes with being a white person, particularly a white woman. I have had moments when I realize this. One day I had parked in a garage that had metered spaces, and I had no change and no money to exchange. I walked up to a couple at the elevator and asked if I could bum a couple quarters. They totally understood and gave me plenty of change. As I walked back to my car I thought, "I wonder if they would have give me the money if I was a man or was black or Hispanic or had worker's clothes on." Even though I never give money to beggars, would I have given myself money? Probably. After all, I'm a cleanly-dressed white woman.

This confrontation with my own identity occurs all the time. And as I get older and go through major life changes I gain new identities with which to contend. And it takes a while for me to associate myself with these new names, these new labels. It takes some time for me to see myself as others see me. As far as I'm concerned, I'm still just Heather, with dirty knees and messy hair, climbing trees. But I'm not. I'm an adult. I'm a grown-up. And I'm not just me anymore. Now I have two other people in my posse. I have a family. I am part of a family outside my parents and siblings. It's my family. I'm a wife. I'm a mother?

It took me a while to take on that Wife label. I just hate the sound of the word. And, despite my longing for permanency and desire to be in a partnership, I felt suddenly trapped by the concept that I was legally bound to someone. There were expectations and responsibilities that came with that new title. I found myself thinking, "Don't go thinking I'm going to get all wifey." I even brought up the idea of having an open marriage. Not because I really wanted to have sex with other people. I just seriously wrestled with the idea that I had locked in my vote, put all my eggs in one basket, gave my final answer. It took a couple years for me to really feel completely comfortable and own my new identity. It took some time before my automatic title for Marco was Husband. Now it is part of the fiber of my being. I get nervous if men chat with me. I don't wear a ring and often feel obligated to say, "I'm married" to divert any male attention. Being a wife is great because that means I have a husband. And not just any husband - I'm married to Marco. Wife has much more of a positive association. It's not a trap anymore, it's a privilege.

And then I went and had a baby and adopted an entirely new set of notions about my identity. I'm finally beginning to see myself as a mother. I try to say it every day. I try to walk down the street and think it as people see me. I say in my head, "You don't know, but I am a mother." I, Little Heather McGee am someone's mommy. But at home, at night as I'm rocking her to sleep and looking at her proud little smile as she figures out new things, I feel it. I know it. It's affirmed every day in her little face. She reaches out for her Mama. She cries for her Mama. That's me. And I say to her, "Your Mama is coming." She knows my voice and my smell and is comforted with my little songs. No one else is quite like her Mama.

But you know, if I'm completely honest, there is a part of me who is still resistant to the permanency and restriction that come with being a Mother. I sometimes hear her cry and have this voice that thinks, "Is someone going to take care of that baby?" Oh wait - that's me. I'm the mother. The hard part about this for me, unlike any other identity I have adopted, is that I had a preconceived idea of how it would feel to be a mother. In particular, I had a very specific idea of who I would be as a mother. I thought it would come naturally. I thought that this magical mother power would descend on me, and I would be filled with the spirit of motherhood. But that didn't happen at all. It's much different than I ever expected. It's wonderful, and I love her with the core of my being. But the identity of mother didn't sink in as I expected it would. And I'm beginning to realize that this title, Mother, more than any other, is one that comes from experience. It's like a driver's license. You may have permission, but you're not really a Driver until you get out on the road and do some driving. So, after six months of mothering, I'm beginning to think of myself as a real Mother. My fingers are beginning to feel like they are part of the hand of a Mother. My arms feel empty without the weight of my child. When I leave the house alone, I feel like I've left my purse or my coat or something behind. I no longer feel like myself without my daughter.

I'm not sure why I am so resistant to these various labels and identities when I first gain them. I'm not sure why I have such a hard time thinking of myself in new ways. I think somehow I fear that I'm no longer just Heather, that I'm going to lose the freedom and privacy of being just one person. I guess I need to realize that I'm simultaneously all of those identities. I am just me, when all is said and done. I go to the bathroom alone. I am in my dreams alone. I will die alone. Ultimately, I am just one person, with no skin color and no labels.

But I am also a white person. I am thirty years old. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am an Assistant. I am a Honda driver. I am an overweight person. I am a blonde. I'm a knitter. I'm an Oprah watcher. I'm a jeans wearing, hair dying, food cooking, book reading, dancing talk-a-holic. It could go on and on.

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