This is the challenge that I and millions of other women have and will face: Who are we once we stop being moms?
Hello, my name is Lynn and I am a compulsive motherer.
Under other circumstances this might be a virtue. But in my case, it is a problem. I do not have children anymore, at least not the kind who need mothering. Mine are 22 and 24, and are sick and tired of my pernicious mothering.
I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t believe my kids when they complained about my compulsive mothering. For years now, they have said that I treat them like they are kids. But I didn’t see it.
I remained in denial until we rented out a floor of our home to a nice couple who are only about five years younger than me. Repeatedly, they have had to remind me that they have mothers, and have no need of my mothering.
For decades now, they have been responsible for feeding themselves, for remembering their umbrellas on rainy days, and for getting themselves to and from their places of work without accidents. But the minute they entered my sphere, I felt compelled to remind them to take their umbrellas, to feed them, and to remind them to drive safely.
My impulse toward mothering extends to every part of my life. When my health allows, I operate sort of as a village mom. I assume that is my job to take in stray kids, to give comfort to battered women, to arrange assistance for people in need, to stop bullies from taking over a neighborhood, and to make sure that the lady across the street doesn’t accidentally kill her kids. And I am genuinely mystified when people think that these things are none of my business.
What makes this problem vexing is that I had a plan that was supposed to stop this from happening. When my youngest child entered middle school, I realized that my days of active mothering were numbered. I didn’t want to be one of those mothers who holds on long after they should have let go. So I made a plan for how I would create a career that would keep me stay busy and fulfilled, I would not have time to miss mothering.
I went back to college. And in my first class, I made an art project of a nest filled with baby birds. And under the babies was a countdown clock to the date my son would turn 18. I told myself, “This is how many days you have in which to make a life for yourself before your nest is empty.”
I spent the next decade getting an education and building a career that I love. If I let it, it will take every minute of every day. I am extremely glad that I had a plan for when my kids left home. But it does not stop me from mothering.
Like every compulsion, my need to mother people gets worse when I am stressed. God help you if you wander into my house when I have writer’s block. You will leave with soup, something to keep you warm, and advice on everything from romance to how to get blood out of the carpet.
I have discussed my mothering compulsion with a few of my friends. The best advice that I received was to get a dog. We successfully rehabilitated a Pug-Tzu from a puppy mill and we adopted a hound mix. Both are now hopelessly spoiled, and still my urge to mother humans has not decreased.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what caused my mothering compulsion. I am sure that part of it was gender conditioning. And I know that a lot of women have a hard time turning off the mothering when their children are grown. But, I couldn’t help think that my mothering compulsion goes beyond the normal empty nest syndrome.
I was reading an article about brain development in young adults when an idea hit me. I became a mother for the first time at 22, and my second child was born when I was 24. The growing consensus in the fields of neuroscience and psychology is that a person’s brain is still developing until they reach the age of 25.
I had my children while my prefrontal cortex was still developing. That is the part of the brain responsible for “moderating social behavior” and it determines how we express our personalities, make decisions, and plan. And while that development is occurring, our brains are especially susceptible to being molded by our relationships with other people, according to psychologist Jesse Payne.
I haven’t seen any research about how becoming a parent impacts this last critical step in brain maturation. But it seems highly likely that it does. Research has shown that anyone who takes on the job of parenting experiences brain changes. These changes become more pronounced in biological mothers because of the hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. And in mothers who have an enthusiastic bond with their babies, their mid brains grow especially in “key regions linked to maternal motivation.”
As I researched and read about the latter stages of brain maturation and how mothering changes a brain, I came to understand the nature of my problem. I do not know how to be an adult without mothering. My personality expression, decision making, social behavior, and impulse control were all created in the context of mothering.
It would seem that becoming a mother at a young age doesn’t just change our lives; it changes our brains. Everything from how we express our personalities to how we make decisions has been shaped by the responsibilities of motherhood.
It is no wonder that I mother others when I become stressed. Mothering behaviors are exactly what young children need in any sort of a stressful situation. And my brain is stuck in mothering mode. So when I am stressed, I fuss and feed and nurture and scold.
I can’t help but wonder who I would be if I had allowed my brain to finish maturing before I became a mother.
It feels like mothering is my true north, my most authentic self.
It feels like I don’t know how to “do me’ if I am not mothering.
This is the challenge that I and millions of other women have and will face: Who are we once we stop being moms? The problem isn’t just that we have formed our identities around motherhood. Our brains are literally wired as mothers.
I have decided to make peace with having a brain wired around mothering. I am working on not mothering people without permission. And I have a sneaky feeling that I will find something wonderful and subversive to do with all this mom-energy.
This is the wonderful thing about having an identity crisis when you are over 40 with an empty nest. You no longer give a donkey’s fart what other people think, so you are free to find a you that is as subversive and bawdy or as devout and proper as you please. And while you have had plenty of time to discover your limits, you have yet to discover your true potential.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.