When I was growing up, my favorite Halloween costume was Super Girl. It was the first and only time that my very practical mother ever let me have a store-bought costume. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends that I would not be going as a gypsy (draped in scarves and grandmother’s vintage jewelry), a business woman (Working Girl, anyone?) or a princess in a flower girl dress from one of my many aunts’ weddings. I was thrilled that this year I wouldn’t have to wear my raincoat over my costume (rainy Oregon) because the entire full-body suit was made of plastic. But even more exciting for me was the mask. It was wonderful; with blonde, perfectly-styled, molded plastic hair, a porcelain face and a make-up job complete with ruby red lips. For the first time in my life I felt beautiful. But more than that, when I wore the mask, I could be someone different. It made everything perfect on the outside while hiding the real, flawed person underneath.
As I grew up, I realized that I could wear masks in real life, too. I became a pleaser, ready to do anything for anyone to win approval. I was perpetually sunny; the girl who was friendly and fun, but not close to any one person. A girl that held a lot of secrets and a lot of scars deep within. I learned to never reveal too much about myself, because that would give someone power over me and even worse, I worried that once someone knew what I was really like, they would be disappointed. And the fear of rejection was unbearable.
So I developed and wore many masks over the years. Masks I thought people wanted to see. I had a well-behaved daughter mask, an upstanding Christian girl mask, and as I grew into adulthood, I put on a corporate business manager mask and eventually, loving wife and doting mother masks.
It was exhausting keeping up every facade, especially when the person hiding behind all the masks was so broken from the years of pretending and keeping secrets. For most of my life, I had hid from my family the fact that I was sexual assaulted on two separate occasions; once when I was six and another at sixteen. Because of those, I feared true intimacy of any kind and went into a marriage where I never expressed what I was thinking or feeling. Yelling or even raised voices were traumatic for me and I developed a strong aversion to nagging or bickering. In my effort to please everyone around me, I lost myself and my own desires for the future, taking on everybody’s hopes and dreams as my own. I felt guilty when plans didn’t work out the way my friends or husband wanted them to; that it was my fault for not being able to please everyone.
When I was young, I had never considered having children. My own childhood was filled with pain, guilt and a load of responsibilities caring for my younger siblings and endless chores around the house while my parents worked full-time. I wanted to study music and perform, but when that dream died, I was lost. What was next for me? I thought God provided an answer when I met a man; so six months later we were married and I convinced myself that the new dream was to be a good, Christian wife, making and raising good Christian babies and baking cookies.
Unfortunately, the motherhood mask was the hardest one for me to wear. After five years of wandering in the infertility desert and all that comes with it, getting pregnant was the Promised Land. Or so I thought. Pregnancy actually ended up being one of the hardest experiences of my life at that time. Inwardly, I loathed every moment of it, but on the outside, I forced myself to be sentimental and “glow” like many of my friends had during their pregnancies.
When my son was born, I was secretly thrilled that my doctor told me he would be my only natural child. But three years later, I was devastated to learn that my month-long ‘flu’ would not be cured with antibiotics. At the time, I could barely keep up with my strong-willed, ridiculously active and verbal toddler, how on earth could I handle another one just like him? After a second high-risk pregnancy, ending with ten weeks of prescribed bed rest (impossible with a three-year old boy); I was relieved to deliver a nearly full-term baby girl. The doctor and I both agreed that I should never do that again.
For the next several years, I juggled raising two children, working a stressful sixty-hour a week job all while dealing with a husband who was becoming more and more detached from reality. Keeping my super-Christian mask in place was becoming too much and I knew that something had to give. I never anticipated it would come from another brutal sexual assault which would result in a complete mental breakdown and subsequent hospital stay.
My marriage, already badly suffering, could not survive the posttraumatic stress and eventually fell apart. The relationship with my parents became strained, and I could no longer be the cold-hearted executive at work anymore, so I ended up moving several hundred miles away, back to a place that I felt safe with just my children and me on our own.
After that, keeping up with all of the masks became impossible and I finally began to let some go. My motherhood mask was replaced by a new and much heavier one, single motherhood. Surviving each day as a child of God, saved by grace, became much simpler and more real than I ever thought I would allow. I don’t miss the married mask, but I sometimes long for something to hide behind when I walk in the church door without a husband and it’s obvious that life has gone awry for me. Showing even that much vulnerability is still something I struggle with.
I hate how much pain my personal agony has caused my children. They don’t know and couldn’t possibly understand what I struggle with daily, but it’s all I can do to try to keep things going and keep the mommy mask in place. I love my children with all of my heart, but I don’t love motherhood. I despise the never-ending monotony of chores and most nights I just want to go to sleep without my hands smelling like poop or bleach.
Both of my children have emotional delays and if I were really being honest, I think they would thrive and soar if someone else was their mother. A better mother would make sure that they get the structure and help they need. I’ve met so many amazing women that are unable to have children of their own or others whose kids cannot walk or breathe without help. And many who have lost their children entirely. I am awed by their strength and courage. But what I struggle with is why God didn’t give my angels to one of them?
I know that God has a plan for us and I hope that His grace and love continues to be sufficient so I don’t have to feel like I need to wear masks for the rest of my life. Perhaps one day He will allow me to forgive myself and help release the crippling guilt I feel every day about the choices that I’ve made. Sometimes seemingly small things have had big impacts and I find myself getting stuck playing the “if only” game. However, I know that is not healthy and I’m working on it. Finally, I hope and pray that my children will grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults and only remember the fun times I’ve tried to create on the days when mommy was not too exhausted to wear her cool-party-mom mask.
The author to this story prefers to remain anonymous, but I think she presents a wonderful opportunity to talk about the not-so-joyful parts of motherhood and, frankly, just personhood. It’s okay to own not loving motherhood. It’s okay to say you don’t always like your children. And it’s okay if you, as a woman, don’t even feel called to be a mother. We all have scars and ugliness that we would rather put a mask over than open ourselves up to the possibility of more hurt.
There is no judgment or condemnation here; just support, love and prayers. And hopefully, there is also healing. Healing in sharing our stories, our confessions. Healing in feeling camaraderie with others who’ve been there before or are there right now, too. And the strength to move forward toward a healthier future. And maybe, just maybe, some day we can all be released from the fear and bondage of wearing our masks.
Can you relate to this mother? Are there sometimes when you don’t enjoy motherhood? Do you put on masks to protect yourself as well?