My blog has shifted a little in the nine months since it began. I’m writing more and more about parenting, less lately about body image. My Mom-identity—as multifaceted as that is—is really dominant lately. I’m restarting my therapy practice, so I’ll be home less—which, ironically, is why motherhood is so much on my writing-mind right now. I’m aware of the upcoming changes, preparing to miss being home as much as I am now, yet exhilarated by the idea of all the adventures my kids will have to share with me when we’re together. In any case, my mom-self has been driving this blog lately. So today I thought I’d go back to basics—and do a post about identity itself.
The subject of identity is so broad; so much has been written on it. There’s gender identity, racial and religious identity, national identity. Your identity comes, not just from the place you live in, but also from your place in the family. Were you the parentified first-born? Were you the “troubled middle child?” Were you the baby?
Think about your roles too. How different you are with your colleagues, with your friends, your spouse, your children. Do you surprise yourself by regressing every time you visit your parents’ home? Or maybe you manage an office full of employees, yet have to stand on your head while singing Old MacDonald just to get your toddler to try a single mouthful of peas.
Children have different identities too. Think of the little girl who’s quiet and shy at school, but a wild, silly cut-up at home? She’s cautious in the school environment where “good” behavior is stressed, then lets loose where she knows she’s safest. (Both sides to her are normal and healthy. You only worry when she seems anxious and withdrawn in the place where she’s usually at ease.) It’s good to be flexible, adapting the different sides of you to the situation at hand.
In addition to being a mother, I am a daughter, a wife, a writer. I am a therapist, a friend, a former dancer. I’m the old friend who makes you laugh. I’m a city kid, an only child, a Biracial Jew, and a member of two different PTAs. My identity is made of all these pieces and more.
Heidi W. Durrow, the author of Bellwether Prize winning The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a favorite biracial author (right up there with Zadie Smith) describes her identity in an NPR interview as “a story.” She is talking about her parents’ backgrounds, how they met, how she grew up–how all that added up to who she is today. I love this description. I believe we are all stories.
When I was doing my post-grad work at the Ackerman Institute, we studied Gregory Bateson and the Milan Group and learned about “Circular Questioning,” also the work of David Epston and Michael White on Narrative Therapy or Re-storying. We’d encourage families to tell the stories of their problems, asking for different perspectives from the different members present. Sometimes a client would have difficulty breaking out of a destructive behavioral pattern and we’d find this linked to an inner personal narrative.
“I’m the lazy one in the family,” or “I’ve always been the trouble maker.”
We’d ask, “Who in the family might have a different description of you?” “Who might tell another story?”
A pause, some thought. “Well Grandpa always said I was a late bloomer, a diamond in the rough.”
The idea was that thinking about yourself in a new way stretches your identity and opens up new doors.
Sometimes you get to tell the story of your identity; sometimes it comes from others you know. Sometimes it’s something pinned on you that you take issue with. For example, when one sister is called “the beauty” and the other is called “the brains.” No matter how unfair or limiting those designations might be, they are still part of each sister’s identity–if only as something she’ll want to break free from one day.
Sometimes the part of your identity that feels most difficult to bear, or most threatened or most outnumbered, is the one you’re most aware of. For example, if you’re the only woman in a room full of men, if you’re the only grown-up in a mini-van full of rowdy tweens, the thing that sets you apart is the identity you’re most connected to.
Which parts of you come into play the most? Which piece of your identity is dominant right now?