I’ve been living inside the illusion that what I am more than anything else is a mother. My identity is so inextricably tied to this role that it is as if I am wearing a latex suit of Donna Reed – the mother of all mothers on TV in the 60’s. I don’t know who I am without my identity as a mom.
Due to circumstance and choices I made in my 20’s, I became an absentee parent. My children were very young at the time and came to have a long life with me participating infrequently. Though they called me mom, they really didn’t know me in the role as "Mom." 40 years later, I still experience myself as their ever-present mom, even though in their eye, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Inside, I never stopped being a Mom. I never stopped orienting my thoughts and my life around the time I would spend in loving engagement with my children. I never stopped anticipating the day when the mother and child bond would feel reciprocal. I never stopped hoping that this blessed event would occur. A few weeks ago, because of a very deep and heart-full conversation with my daughter, I came to see what I couldn’t see before. My attachment to my identity and the relationships I always imagined, was all made up in my head.
Eva, a client of mine, who is Israeli by birth, lives with her husband and three children in the Bay Area of California. Though she so appreciates and has fully taken advantage of all the luxuries and freedoms that are part of the life of living in America, Eva is inextricably attached to her identity as an Israeli. She longs to return to her family and her country of origin. Her attachment to her identity to her family and culture are so strong that she is preparing to move her husband and children back to Israel as soon as possible.
Eva’s husband gets a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach when Eva tells him she is ready to move back. He too is Israeli. He knows the hardship of returning to Israel. He knows, as Eva knows, that their children will have to go into the Israeli army. Life isn’t safe in Israel. And, he doesn’t want to move back.
Without her identity as an Israeli, Eva doesn’t know who she is. Her roles as mother, wife, friend, and therapist pale in comparison to who she knows herself to be as an Israeli. In this moment she cannot bear the idea of living separated from her beloved Israel.
Kara is a 72 year old African-American woman. Born to ancestors of slavery, Kara’s role as caretaker of others is so inextricably part of the fiber of her being that she struggles to give herself any kind of self-care and enjoyment. Kara desires the courage to be a member of her family not as the cook, chauffeur and maid, but as a person who has desires beyond the roles she plays. Because of her age, she is afraid she is running out of time. Though she desperately wants the freedom to create a life that is fun and creative, she is enmeshed with her identity as a caretaker and doesn’t know how to extricate herself.
What comes to mind when I imagine most of us human beings, is the image of actors on stage, who have played the same role over and over again, perhaps for decades. We/they become indistinguishable from their characters. They have a challenging time when the show is over, and they have to be just their human selves again. They go through periods of depression, grief, disorientation. They don’t know how to be without being in character.
Each of us live and play within these roles and costumes that tell us who we are and what gives life importance. Eva doesn’t know how to experience herself as someone other than Israeli. Kara can’t fathom the experience of making choices that will nurture her and are infinitely pleasing. I can’t imagine who I am without my identity as a mom. But the truth is that each of us, within our identities, is something other than our identities.
As we age, we are given many opportunities to give up identities that are attached to power, beauty, health, money, belonging, work, and more. Mandatory retirement, unforeseen health issues and accidents, a downturn in the economy, natural disasters that take homes and belongings away – these are but a few of the possibilities that can rip away one’s identity. And, we are left with few options.
Kara says "I don’t know who I am outside the roles I play as wife, mother, sister and daughter. It’s all I’ve ever known. I don’t know how to create a new identity. I’m scared to discover who I am without the role I’ve been playing all my life." It’s a conundrum for her and for all of us.
Aging like a guru requires that we awaken into these moments when we realize we are not the roles we’ve been playing; we are not those aspects of life that gave us a sense of importance, security and stability. As circumstance change, as we change, and that which we believed defined us falls away, we often experience a shattering and an annihilation of all that we saw ourselves to be. We can feel forsaken with no one to turn to. It is one of the great tragedies of life.
Aging like a guru requires mindful attention to who we are inside this identity as an aging human being. Losing our sight, our hearing, our mobility, our partners, friends and family, our homes and financial freedom allows us to experience the one inside the experience – the one that never loses anything, the one who is witnessing the experience, available only through this human experience.
When we look around, we can either see ourselves as separate and alone, as in the only one who is having to deconstruct the realities of our past. Or, we can see ourselves as just doing what humans do in order to discover who we are deconstructed, with no identity whatsoever. Not to give away the ending, but who we are is ME – Miraculous Existence!
If you’d like to join Dr. Rosie in the AGING – Who Me in-person discussions at the Orcas Island Senior Center, they meet every 2nd and 4th Tuesday, from 10 – 11:30 a.m.
If you are interested in knowing more about the 7-day retreat in Bali, Weaving Heaven and Earth, click here! https://www.northbaliconnections.com/