For my thirty-ninth birthday, my mom and I went to a spa with a ladies locker room and walked around naked together for three hours. We floated in a light therapy pool, coughed our way out of the steam room, and put our bare butts on heated loungers. Afterward, while splitting a veggie burger at the spa’s cafe, I shared my big birthday wish for the new year: I want to tell a new story about myself.
As a writer, as a human, I am obviously very invested in telling stories, and telling good stories, but if I am being my bare-butt self with you, this weird thing has been happening for the last six months, or the last year, or the last I-don’t-know-how-long in which I hear myself tell my story—I never wanted to become a mom and then I did and I don’t love it but I love them because I grocery shop for them—and I cringe.
Not literally. But verbally. I say to Rush “I cringe,” after a newsletter post or a book interview or another conversation with a nice lady who does not need to talk about motherhood or not motherhood because she actually is making meaning beyond these tired categories of “women’s stuff.” She is rock climbing and taking her dog to a psychic. And I want to be her. I want a subject change. My story’s gone cold.
Last summer, I attended a writing workshop in which we made a list of these stories we tell about ourselves, these self-mythologies. You might try it yourself. Make a list, 5 things, 10 things, boink things. These are things I hear myself saying about myself. These are things I hear myself thinking about myself. These are things I have decided about myself, even when they contradict myself. Here is what I came up with:
I am not a motherly woman.
I am a very motherly woman.
I am an under-feeler; this is a problem.
I am an over-thinker; this is not a problem.
I am a minimalist.
I am a monogamist.
(Hypothesis: A monogamist is a kind of minimalist).
I have a happy marriage.
I would prefer to die alone.
Let me point out the obvious here: self-mythologies don’t have to be true to be real. They only have to feel true. And maybe only time and a non-anxious witness can reveal otherwise to us. But we can be our own non-anxious witnesses sometimes. We can ask, "Does it still serve me to believe this boink thing?” Does it still serve me to believe I am a minimalist? 90%. Does it still serve me to believe I am not motherly?!?
My book, Someone Other Than a Mother, has now officially survived two Mother’s Days and I am proud of her story and your stories that keep trickling into my inbox about how she’s given you permission to examine. Your choices. Your lack of choices. How you are getting your tubes tied because you do not want to be at the whim of this country’s reproductive rights—and also how the lady who schedules the surgery at your doctor’s office will not call you back. This story matters.
But it’s time to give myself permission to examine the story I want to tell next. And maybe it’s about angry feminist parenting or what I’m learning about the untapped liberation of white ladies or how I’m re-writing the Psalms in my free time or the anthropological experiment that is workplace dynamics or how my husband is ruining me, ruining everything, and I love him. Can I tell that story? Can you?
Look, there’s a limit to the power of self-mythologies. As a theological anthropologist, as a Christian and a mystic, I’m a firm believer that our self-mythologies are only as good as our cosmic ones. We’re only as good as the stories that tell us. My mom reminded me of this much over our post-naked lunch. “You want to tell a new story?” she said, “Well, good luck, honey bun. There’s only so much a new story can do when life is chronic.”
I want to tell that story, too.
P.S. Telling a new story is as much about plot as it is form. I am obsessed with the form of Jenny Slate’s storytelling in Little Weirds. Think memoir meet surrealism. Another genre bender? Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, Something Special. I adore her new attempt to be feel-good amidst life’s brutalities.
P.P.S. I really, truly have loved some of my recent book interviews. (Promise, the cringe is self-induced.) You can find me on Kelley Wolfe’s Let it Matter podcast here and Haley Cole’s Divinely Modern podcast here. It was a fun Mother’s Day publicity run with these ones.
P.P.P.S. North Carolina recently enacted a 12-week ban on abortions, with some exceptions. These are tender days for sure, and the only way I know how to respond is by talking to friends and listening to elders. Here’s one recent (book) conversation with friends and elders at the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South about how reproductive choices (or lack thereof) affect moms and non-moms alike.
***P.S.’s edited for clarity and generosity.
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Well if this isn't just the best, I don't know what is. I always find your writing so fresh and your stories so original, but so completely relate to being entirely sick of my own.
My self-mythology would probably be that I have to keep myself small and not make waves. I wonder if I can challenge that?