Six months into her second maternity leave, Frances Ashton (@FKAEnglish) reflects on the complexities of personal and professional identity after you have children.
And it’s only when the stars are out and everything’s dark
And its night and she’s finally fallen asleep
That my name label creeps out from under the table
and I’m able to remember the person I am-
‘What’s my name again?’- Hollie McNish
Above immersive narratives and engaging drama, I’ve always loved the way a poem can shift and develop in its meaning depending on what ‘you’, the reader bring to it. The death of the author. Barthes.
Following his recent death, I returned to Derek Walcott’s Love after Love, a poem I have taught innumerable times and have always linked to the end of a romantic relationship. But now, in the midst of motherhood, his words find new meaning.
Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart.
This alienation from self, this shift in identity seems now to be a perfect description of motherhood. From the early days of pregnancy, you cease to be the person you were before. Your body, your choices, your conversations are overtaken by your role as procreator. It only took two people to create the little human you now house, but society at large has opinions on it.
Similarly Duffy’s ‘Before You Were Mine.’ I used to read about that possessive type of love from a daughter’s persective and now in motherhood, I understand how overwhelming it feels when you are its recipient. How you can feel incomparably blessed and hopelessly trapped by someone who needs you. Continually. Exhaustingly.
As I type, my baby daughter is sleeping on my chest. A stubbornly breech baby, this is still her favourite position. Mine too. Her warm cheek resting on my skin, nestled under my chin. Her tiny fingers curled around the top of my dress. Ensnared. We’ve been to the battlefield you and I. We bear the scars.
What happens to ‘you’ when you are someone else’s everything?
This question is even relevant in the professional sphere.
You were: a committed professional. Ambitious, keen to get involved, move forward.
Now: a mother. Probably wanting to take a year off? Go part time? Less reliable. Unable to ‘go the extra mile.’
This bizarre shift in how your professional identity can change once you become mother is explored (alongside the full gamut of parenting experiences) in Hollie McNish’s powerful Ted Hughes Poetry Prize winning collection ‘Nobody Told Me.’ Her work exploded into my view on Twitter and I came to two realisations.
- We went to the same secondary school.
- It felt like she was telling my story. (Not in every narrative detail, obviously. I’ve never been to Glastonbury. I’m strictly a ‘no tent’ kind of girl.) But emotionally. The journey to and through motherhood and in particular, navigating the shifts in identity that occur.
My professional identity is very important. It is a facet of me that isn’t ‘Mum’ and that is powerful. When Hollie talks about ‘losing her name at toddler group’ she addresses this sense of a loss of self. Her criticism of those who see motherhood as cerebral erosion, those who think that ‘pushing a pushchair now fries intellectual’ touches on the common belief that raising children replaces any ambitions you had before. It also undermines the work ‘stay at home’ parents do.
At work I can be ‘Frances.’ And time to be ‘Frances’ makes me better at being ‘Mummy.’
Continued focus on promoting flexible working and shared parental leave is incredibly important. As are the increasing number of #Heforshe work colleagues who speak up about their role and commitments as fathers.
Some might say I’m asking for too much. I want to be able to leave at four when I need to and use my evenings to work flexibly so that I can give my daughters some time and not have to deal with overtired and unreasonable humans if I leave them at nursery too late.
I don’t want others to second guess my professional choices, or project their own views of parenthood onto me.
In the midst of a retention crisis, in our schools so full of young talented professionals, we need to build a culture that accommodates and celebrates teachers as they accumulate experience, wrinkles and progeny.
We need role models in senior leadership teams who demonstrate that procreation does not erase ambition.
I existed before I had children. Nothing has changed and everything has changed. But we have come a long way from traditional family roles.
We are parents and we are professionals and we are our own selves too.
Note: you can buy Hollie’s book ‘Nobody Told Me’ here.