Yesterday I walked by a man who was jogging wearing a t-shirt that read “Fearlessly Independent.”
As he jogged past me, I thought about my current life, and how “fearless” and “independent” are definitely not words I would use to describe myself today. I certainly feel and work with my fears, usually around the convenient hour of 2 or 3am. And even more so, I am nothing if not totally embedded in my relationships.
I didn’t always see my life this way. I had a good solid run in my twenties and into my early 30’s of my own version of “fearless independence” myself. I moved across the country alone, twice. I had my own apartment and lived, traveled, backpacked, trained for a marathon, meditated, practiced yoga, and made huge life decisions, all on my own.
It was glorious. I felt liberated and empowered. All the things a young, aspirational, well educated, spiritual seeker, and feminist could want.
You can imagine how unprepared I was for motherhood.
If motherhood lacks anything, it lacks a feeling of “fearless independence.” Since even becoming pregnant, I have not been able to make any decision without considering my kids and husband. The loss of that kind of freedom is what so many new parents grieve and lament over. As a society, we love our independence. As parents, we glorify those days where we could wake after the sun rose, leisurely make coffee and read the paper, or stay out late and party, or travel by the seat of our pants. Whatever our pleasures were, they are mourned like the loss of youth or ignorance, never to return.
But what is real independence? And has becoming a parent ruined it? Is it possible to regain that feeling of freedom that is so painful to lose?
The answers for me are embedded in my experience of early motherhood, where the attachment to my children began. *Notice I’m talking about attachment before independence.
When my parents were raising me, the presiding idea of how to cultivate independence in a child was to start as early as possible. I remember my mom telling me she was told not to hold her kids when they cried, as that would reinforce crying. I guess crying was seen as a bad behavior that needed to be extinguished? Oh, yes, this was also during the time our medical model was in full effect (and that bubble was starting to burst) around maternal care, discouraging much of the intuitively attachment oriented and embodied intelligence of women around pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. I think the “don’t hold your baby” instruction was repression of intuitive maternal responses as much as it was endorsement of independence at all costs.
But I digress.
Ok, so fast forward to today, where we have begun to trust women (barely) to know our bodies and our babies, to trust that our instincts are wise, and that our nervous systems are wired well for mothering. We pick our kids up when they cry because we know in our bodies that crying is a signal that we need to respond to, its one of the ways an infant has to communicate with us. Their crying is straightforward, it’s not manipulative, and needs no “strategy” in response. Baby cries, baby gets held, changed, fed, snuggled, warmed up, cooled down, played with, “reset” in some caring way by someone who consistently is there for and is interested in what the baby needs. Whatever it is, we figure it out, right?
This is actually how true independence starts. We know this from over 5 decades of research into attachment and human development, and the last 20 years of research into interpersonal neurobiology, the latest understanding of how our nervous systems actually work, and how our internal wiring is laid down: independence starts with deep dependence. DEEP. I’m talking the deepest kind we will ever know. It’s intense, unrelenting, immersive, and energy consuming. It might feel smothering at times and alternately intoxicating in the most sublime ways at others.
It goes on, for awhile. Longer than we think it should, perhaps. But true independence, the kind that includes depending on others in pro-social, pro-relationship ways, is born out of being dependent without fear of what will happen if we depend on another. That includes not being forced toward independence too soon. And just as important, not being thwarted in our impulses for independence and self expression, either. Caring for our babies and children, and doing the dance of supporting dependency (first) AND independence (later), requires an enormous amount of attentiveness, presence, energy, and hones our attunement capacities like a mofo.
Our world is hardly set up to support this kind of attunement, bonding, and development between a mother and her baby. As mothers, we are barely given a breath before we are expected to be out in the world up to our former lives. We have no time to reorient, reconfigure, or reflect on our entirely new, foreign, overwhelmingly different situation. There is necessity to perform out in the world for some of us. And also pressure. Enormous. Pressure.
I remember how fear would try and grab me and snap me out of my descent into deep relationship with my kids. In my mind there was a struggle because I had been warned explicitly and silently about something in becoming a mother: loss of independence. Loss of my own independent identity, and the risks and dangers that come with that. For the so-called independently oriented woman I had been, this was like looking certain death in the face at times, at least on an ego level.
I think the psychological transition to motherhood has gotten harder for us. Being raised with feminist values—which are pro-women, but not necessarily pro-family, pro-children, or pro-mother, but starting to become more so I think—I fell into the gap between my strongly formed identity as a “fearlessly independent” woman and a deeply connected, attached, and in-love-with-my-kids mother.
It was big fucking gap. My ego has never known a death like my birth as a mother.
You see, attachment—the bond between the mother and her baby—is not just a developmental journey for the baby. Attachment it is also built to develop us as mothers. The process of being tethered to a human like their life depends on it (because it does) is there for a reason: to ensure survival, first and foremost. More than food, our ability to thrive depends on the love and care from an adult who hopefully is very invested in our well being and development. And for a mother to provide this, especially in our modern times with our fear of dependency, is seriously difficult.
What I came up against in motherhood was my intense desire to provide as much as I could from my own body and heart for my children, and the reality that I couldn’t do that AND do anything I had done before in the same way, or at all. I was amazed at how fear could seep in as I kept letting the world around me fall away, and allowed the rich relationships I was forging with my children to grow and fill out the foreground of my awareness. I felt anxious about how I was letting go of all the things I had been “warned” in different ways not to: my financial independence, my career trajectory, my “creativity,” my way of being as a friend, my way as a partner to my husband, my solo time, my yoga practice.
You name it, I wasn’t supposed to let it go. Meanwhile, all of my values and beliefs were being reshaped by the relationship I was experiencing with my kids, and I couldn’t hold on any more.
Now ten years into this long, slow, creative descent into integrating mothering into my sense of myself, I can look back and reassure myself that nothing was lost. Nothing went wrong by me prioritizing my relationships with my children. In fact, I would argue that my life and all that I care about—even my independence—has been dramatically enhanced by my experience as a mother.
So why the fear?
Partly because I had bought into a version of independence based on self care, self reliance, and self esteem, and less so on interdependence, utilizing relationships well, and developing relational intelligence. I bought into what I now see as a patriarchal version of empowerment: one that comes from not needing much from others versus owning my basic human needs; from accomplishments out in the world versus connections within myself and with others; from thinking of myself as an individual versus seeing myself as interconnected with everything around me.
It wasn’t until I was providing essential human needs to another, without question, that I saw how much I was limiting myself, and my definition of empowerment and independence, in all of the above ways.
I guess I could say that parenting has ruined my former ideas about independence and empowerment. But being a mother has gifted me the knowledge that I am part of something intrinsically interwoven and powerful, that goes beyond even my children and family. This realization has not taken my identity or independence from me. Instead, mothering has shown me what true independence must include in order to be a genuinely empowering resource for me from here on out: the truth of my dependence and interrelatedness with others.
With this understanding, it is possible, even necessary to my newer values, that my choices and actions support not only my life, but life for all. And independence without this understanding seems to be part of what creates some of the societal messes we are in right now with each other and our planet.
And mothers, we are helping shape this world in a more humanely informed direction for everyone. Independently, and together.
Now, we just need a t-shirt with a slogan.