Published:  12:30 AM, 04 September 2018

A mother's fragmented identity

A mother's fragmented identity

Sarah Menkedick

Every once in a while, I take a trip and leave my 3-year-old daughter behind. I drop her off at my parents' farm in southeastern Ohio, where I load the fridge with blueberries, kiss her, and say goodbye. On the return drive to Pittsburgh, I feel bittersweet and fragile. My life has a missing piece.

The first night is a little queasy. The next day, though, I decamp with exhilaration. I have come to see that these trips follow a mythical arc. First comes the literal voyage: airplanes over the Midwest, or a long rainy drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. 

Physical distance and travel sharpen my senses, and the filter of mothering lifts: I see the world the way I did before I had a child. There valleys filled with crepuscular winter light; there decrepit resorts amid the pines; there the sublime Manhattan skyline at dusk; there the lone, low drift of a gull.

Next, arrival. In Wisconsin, a hotel on the lake, a quiet room all to myself. I give a reading and then I go to my friend's reading and I am all distilled intellect, all conversation, as if everyday me is the agave and the earth and the sun and the mud and then here, on these trips, I am just straight-up tequila. 

The friend and I sit at the bar together until 2 a.m. and talk about ex-boyfriends and California, and the next morning I am still drunk and I sit for hours in my hotel robe looking at the freezing, rainy lake, the same loon bobbing in the same place. I float in this delirious self-ness, just me, in this room with a view, alone. I take a long shower. I marvel at the smallness of my body, which I have not noticed in a long time.

At 5 p.m., I take a walk around the capital for coffee. It is gray and quiet and wind storms off the lake. I look at the twentysomethings at work in the cafe and I sense that I am hiding something: my motherhood, that secret self. I am not really one of you! I think as I order my coffee and wait, posing as everyone poses in cafes. 

I am a mother. I am unsure if my maternity makes me old, putting me in the same category as my own parents - beyond hipness - or if my maternity simply makes me other, no longer capable in the same way of partaking in youth or intellectual or avant-garde or party or travel culture. 

My culture is parenthood, like an accent I can never shake, but sometimes hide. I feel a little absurd posing here; all that is missing begins to glow at the edges of my vision, and this is when I know I am ready to go home.

The return is a slow dissolution of this distilled essence. I plunge back into the daily. I run a brush through my daughter's torrential black hair. I hike pants up her chubby legs, hoist her small body to my hips. The me who thinks and performs retreats to the page as the mother takes over. 

Little by little, the person in that hotel room comes to seem almost like an actress: real, but performative; herself, but only in one way that is concentrated and intense, briefly truer than all the other ways and yet partial.

On another trip, my husband, Jorge, and I drive to my friend's apartment in Queens, where we drink beers and talk music and translation, and where we sit on the couch to eat perfectly sautéed brussels sprouts with warm, dried chilies. 

I do not, I am ashamed to say even as I know I should not be ashamed, think of my daughter. I become not so much someone else as a more singular part of myself. 

Perhaps these different selves are always there, but in the everyday, as I make dinner and pick foam letters off the floor and read my book on the couch with a beer, they are meshed together and inextricable. On these brief journeys, though, I can hold one up and there is nothing and no one to hold me accountable to all the others.

I do not get to be any one self permanently any longer, if I was ever able to do so. I do not get to be only or even mainly a traveler or a writer or a runner, or even a mother. 

Some selves may take up much more time or energy, some may loom large on social media or secretly haunt me, but they are all only versions, partial. I no longer try to discern which of these performed selves might be more authentic, more enduring; which I aspire to, or like better.

So it becomes glorious to get to be just one for a little while. I take the R train to Manhattan and walk around in the sunshine, wearing a blazer - a blazer, for goodness sakes! ­- looking at my reflection in the shop windows. I meet my new editor for lunch at a tiny Korean place and we have tea in small ribbed cups the size of a baby's foot. 

I talk about travel, about Pittsburgh, but all those selves, those lives, feel very distinct from the one I am living right now. My selves have become like islands I travel between, and my life is the ocean around them, unknowable.

In Wisconsin, I gave a reading about how pregnancy shattered my concept of self, and what emerged wasn't necessarily a new self but rather a space of no self at all. 

It was ironic to read this after my daughter had started preschool and I had returned to full-time writing, during a year when it seemed as though my self had been abruptly returned to me, a package lost years ago in the mail popping up beaten at the corners and with labels from all sorts of obscure places. 

A middle-aged woman raised her hand and said, "You'll get your self back, but it will be a deeper self, a different self. It changes. It's so much richer, and it's new."

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that I loved her, in the way I love the older women now who speak truth to me when I most need it and least expect it. I signed her book and then I went out and drank beer and woke up and ran along the lake and read for hours and ate takeout Thai. 

I saw my self that day as perhaps she would have seen it: fondly, as a construction but a thoroughly enjoyable one, a naïve but necessary and beautiful indulgence.Meanwhile, my life accrues a substance and meaning increasingly unknown to me, independent of the selves I construct and perform. 

I see how we live out our lives in the habits of our days. I write, I run, I mother. I am less and less sure of who I am even as the self I built up in adolescence and early adulthood has been given back, a complicated reward for surviving my daughter's babyhood.

My husband and I drive back from New York on a stunning, unseasonably warm February day. We emerge from Manhattan into the estuaries of New Jersey, amethyst grasses waving under a blue sky, wooden walkways crisscrossing salty, sodden ground. In all the chaos of the city, I have forgotten that this place is a coastline. 

I watch birds cruise toward the Atlantic. Gradually, the landscape changes to snow-covered mountains, then tunnels, then chilly rain. I return to our current house in Pittsburgh, give my daughter a bath, long for that New York self, mourn her, forget her, wake up as nothing and no one, return to the page.


The writer  is the author of the essay collection "Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood
on a Midwestern Farm."

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