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What of the self persists over time?
Starting off casual and easy.
I saw an Instagram post from NPR explaining how a soon-to-be mother’s hormones rewrite and rewire her emotionally in the months leading up to when she gives birth. Well, to be honest, the language used was more focused on “parents” but the illustrations were consistently of a pregnant woman, so I assume that by “parent” or “mother” they meant “birthing person”. This distinction stands out to me because I may be a mother but not a birthing person — to me those are two categories that may but do not necessarily overlap. However, often “mother” is assumed to include the action of giving birth to the baby that becomes your child, so maybe whoever made this NPR graphic assumed the listener to consider mothers who did not give birth to be in the minority, and therefore not relevant enough to deem illustration here. Or maybe they just didn’t think about it. Or maybe they did think about it, and the contents of the post don’t actually apply to “mothers” but rather to “people who give birth”.
Anyway, the post was all about how in the months leading up to birth (I assume, even though they said parenthood), the mother (birth giver) often does not feel like herself. She says she feels different and like she no longer knows herself, and according to this graphic, that’s partially biologically based — her very being is in fact changing. The hormones that make her her, the hormones that make her feel like her normal self, with her typical levels of intuition, anger and understanding — whatever that means to her — are shifting as she prepares for her life to change. She prepares for the arrival of her child, a moment which will shift her forever from her current state to her future state — a parent. A mother.
My first question was, is this a result of the hormones in flux or the mental jiu jitsu of preparing for a change as monumental as this? Probably, it’s both. (It’s almost always both, right?)
I remember in some class in college learning about “performative utterances”, which are statements in which the speaker not only describes, but also changes, the social reality of the situation. For example, when a wedding officiant says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” that statement literally shifts the social reality of the two people being wed — before that statement, they were two people with whatever relationship they defined. After, they are husband and wife, per the performative utterance.
I imagine that anticipating giving birth brings up a lot of feelings, not only because your life is about to change, but also because — it already is changing. Your body is morphing in ways, definitionally, it hasn’t before. (I think this is true even if you have been pregnant before — the first time you are pregnant is always the first time, and the second time is different from the first because, well, it’s the first time you’ve been pregnant a second time, if that makes sense. It’s always new.)
So I wondered, what if I were about to become a mother, but not about to give birth? Is the sentence “I am going to be a mother” a performative utterance, even if you’re not going to give birth? Would my hormones shift in ways outside of my control, as I anticipate the colossal shift in my very identity? I want to think they would, it would, I would. I want to think that my brain and my body would be preparing for this next moment, even if my uterus remained unchanged. I want to think that tendencies or something would kick in. Maybe I just want that because I don’t want to be tethered to birthing a child, because I can’t bear to accept that biology trumps all, because I will never be able to have a biological child made from just me and the person I love.
(I’ve already written a whole play about this. It’s okay. I’ve pretty much accepted it. To the point that I can.)
The second question that came to my mind was, is this the only time this happens in your life? Is pregnancy the singular defining moment, when you shift from one self to another self, or perhaps more gently, to another version of that same self? The Instagram post compared the shifting hormone levels to puberty — so is that shift, from your “child” self to your “teenage” self somehow less monumental than the shift from “person” to “mother”? What about when you go through menopause, is that rewrite somehow less consequential, too? This post implied that the biggest shift is from, well, whatever the fuck you were before you birthed a child to, a mother.
Again, I am biased, because of the whole I’m-not-in-love-with-a-man-and-won’t-get-pregnant-via-traditional-means-whatever-traditional-means-means thing, but I don’t think I agree with this paradigm — the one that implies that the biggest identity shift a person can undergo is giving birth. I don’t see it that way, not at all.
The way I see it — we are always, only, ever changing. Perhaps the self you are before you give birth is already a changed, changing, amalgamation of selves — giving birth merely continues the cycle of change you’ve undergone and will continue to undergo. When I took my very first breath of fresh air, I changed from someone who lived inside a warm womb to someone who cried and lived in the world. When I got glasses in fifth grade, I changed from boring to cool (in my opinion). Or more seriously, I changed from someone who didn’t use a tool to see, to someone who relied on a tool to see every single day. Puberty, of course — I changed. And again in college, I changed. And after college, I changed.
Which one of these changes was “biggest”? How can we possibly measure the magnitude of a shift in identity? Is a change the biggest because it feels the biggest? If so, then it follows that whatever change feels the biggest is the biggest; saying “I have changed,” is a performative utterance, isn’t it, because when you say it, so it is.
So amidst these changes — internal, external, self-proclaimed — what persists? Something inside of that changing person is still me, but what? Not my body, not exactly — that changed. Not my worldview, not exactly — that has changed, several times at this point. Not even my personality — that has changed over time, too. I’ve been a leader, a worrywort, a pacifist, a nightmare, all in turn. Which one of those is “me”?
I think the part of the self that persists over time — the part that makes you you — is the ineffable, ever-changing mystery. It is unknown and vast, and somehow contained within the walls of your body and soul. That changing, evolving, morphing thing is the thing that persists.
You might give birth, you might not. You might be a parent, you might not. Either way, your body, brain and heart will rewrite themselves over and over — they already are. It’s happening right now.