Shadow Selfies: Exploring the Isolation of Mothering

Before I had a baby, I had dreams for the kind of family I wanted. I had a hazy idea of the pressures of motherhood, but like trying to avoid sexism by dressing my baby girl in colors other than pink, I also believed I could break through societal norms and avoid the isolation of mothering. 

We would get out of the house for scheduled playgroup activities most days, but I returned home to a feeling of emptiness. While I balanced children and housework, a long-held, deep-seated loneliness started to resurface in my life.

“Hi,” I call expectantly from the kitchen when I hear the front door open.

“Hey, babe,” he says as he heads magnetically toward our baby. She looks at him wearily for a moment and then relaxes into his arms while he coos to her.

“How was your day?” I ask.

“Pretty busy,” he replies as he slumps down onto the couch, holding her above him and making silly faces.

“Did she smile yet?” he inquires.

“Almost.” I respond, as I launch into an in-depth explanation of all the moments from our day.

Throughout dinner and for the rest of the evening, it feels like I have to pull conversation out of him. I ask about his days off and wonder what adventures we could plan. He replies with little

A cycle is becoming apparent; when he gets home, he wants a break from talking to people all day and desired rest.

I begin to grasp what it means for him to be out there and for me to be home here.

Years later, as an overwhelmed, sleep-deprived mom holding my newborn son, I yell at my 4-year-old daughter. I feel desperate and wild with emotions. It takes all I have to refrain from swatting her. I have become that angry mom I never wanted to be. All those dreams of our family seem to have shattered.

I try to keep it together for a few more years and then I crumble. I can’t manage anything. I feed and bathe the kids, but I stop doing housework, talking to my husband, calling friends — instead, I crawl into bed with the kids and my misery every night.

This was the winter when it all fell apart.

I enter the bathroom hoping to have two or three glorious minutes to myself before one of my children needs me. I savor the smell of the orange-spice soap that offers a breather from the funk of our bathroom shared by four people. Cupping water into my hands, I wash the dog hair and dried drool off my face. I rub a dollop of ginger apple moisturizer into my cheeks and forehead. It smells so good I could eat it.

Looking in the mirror, I see my lineage. Right there in front, I see my nose, which is the same as my father and his mother. Under that is the bow of my mother and daughter’s mouth. Glancing down, I see my slender figure that craves exercise, similar to the body type of both of my grandfathers. I glance into my own eyes uncomfortably and consider the unspoken and untreated depression on my mother’s side.

Is this legacy just as easily inherited like my facial features and body size? Did the women before me feel a similar crippling despair?

Through the window, I notice the thick, heavy cloud layer like a down comforter covering the sky.

The resulting flat gray November light is different than the bright, direct sun that shone through the lofty clouds of October. This dull light signals the start of the darker days from which I will suffer even more. I grab my hairbrush and start working out the knots in my hair.

“Mama, owie!” I hear my son holler as he whips open the bathroom door. He has an entire roll of Scotch tape wrapped tightly around his wrist. His little pudgy toddler hand is turning pinker by the moment. I put down the brush, grab a knit hat and throw it onto my head. Brushing my hair can wait.

“Did you give them some juice yet?” I grumpily ask as I walk toward the breakfast table. My daughter starts in with a shrill whine about something ridiculous and I figure she is hungry, but wonder what the hell to do now. I haven’t even hugged her good morning, and I am consumed with anger and overwhelmed by the desire to escape like the outgoing mail. I wish we didn’t have to go through this awful getting-ready-for-school drama. The urge to turn on my smartphone beckons me strongly. I’d much rather interact with it than them. I want to be somewhere else. I want to lash out at my husband and I do.

“Don’t you realize they’re both thirsty? Why can’t you at least just cover the bases while I’m getting ready? Why do I have to come out here and find them hungry or cold?”

I look away and see my son — my adorable, sweet-faced cherub — peering up at me shirtless. I wonder if he can see all the anger and bullshit I feel inside. My husband calls from the kitchen, “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again! Don’t talk to me like I am a child or dare use that tone of voice with me!” He storms out of the room and I look at him, deflated. I don’t say anything at all.

As my kids start to bicker, their hateful words are like a soundtrack to the family saga I never wanted us to live. I wish I weren’t so angry all the time. I know I should do something different, so that day wouldn’t go on like all the others in a haze of avoiding eye contact.

Here I was again in the biggest predicament of parenting: Face-to face with what I don’t get.

“Ready or not, here I come!” my son crows as I crouch within a patch of purple lupine surrounded by a hillside of tall grass. Each conical-shaped spire pokes upright with a spiral of mini orchids. I take off my shoes and settle into the soft ground, resting my head on my knees to listen. Everything smells like a huge fresh salad. The morning sky is filled with high clouds, but the air is warm. Hummingbirds flit about with their territorial ticking sound. Two robins are singing their long trill of melodic whistles. But before they can finish their multi-syllabic repeat of cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up, the crows start bossing them around. The cacophony from the large black birds dominates even the constant chitter-chatter of the starlings. The single tree above me sounds like an entire forest of birdsong. I can barely hear my son sprinting down the path, about to passionately announce, “I found you!”

Instead, he quietly ambles up to me whispering, "Mama, look."

He presents to me a delicate mayfly and its gauzy wings alight on his finger. The magic of this early summer field is infectious. I gasp, "Oh, you caught one! You must have special powers!"

Suddenly, the insect flies off and he runs after it in delight. I listen to early spring for another moment until I realize something: I don’t feel the emptiness inside. My struggle and what it takes to keep me thriving as a mom feels distant, like the lingering shadows of another reality. Today I am living my dream of family.

Only gratitude bubbles up from what usually feels like a well of shortcomings.


Tips for taking shadow selfies

This month, use abundant sunshine to take selfies with shadows. Say something about your relationships with posture.

  1. Using the textures and patterns of your life as a background, strike a pose that expresses you in bold or delicate ways.
  2. In 2007, thousands of hidden images were discovered by an unknown female street photographer/nanny. Check out the amazing film Finding Vivian Meier to appreciate endless beautiful images and an engaging story about her life.
  3. Try the free frames and effects at befunky or my favorite, the old Polaroid frame at picmonkey.
  4. Remember to attempt to copy what you love and give credit to those who’ve inspired you.
  5. Hashtag your Instagram photos #parentmapselfies, @parentmap so we see your creative images of parenting! 

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