Remember Maslow's hierarchy of needs from Psych 101? Well, it appears they've revamped it, replacing "self actualization", the realization of our creative and intellectual potential, with "mate acquisition", "mate retention" and "parenthood" at the tip top of the pyramid. Does this unfairly exclude single and/or childless people from the most esteemed echelons of life? Does every creative and intellectual impulse ultimately serve the master of the evolutionary drive to procreate?
Does life's ultimate purpose really boil down to parenthood?
This has been sticking in my craw since I first read about the revamping of the pyramid in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. As I wrestle with my own questions about what I should do with my life, I keep coming back to motherhood, because it's where I am, it's what defines my days and, LORD HELP ME, too many of my nights. Like the good little suburban cliche that I am, I've "always wanted to be a mother". But looking back on my early desire for motherhood, it clearly had more to do with pure baby lust than an actual conscious choice to responsibly parent another human being for the rest of my life. It probably had a whole lot to do with an evolutionary drive that screamed out "OMG! Baby toes! Eat them!" and "Do they make baby head perfume? Because THEY SHOULD" among other, even less seemly, things.
Then, sometime in my late twenties, right around the time I broke up with a guy who was no good for me and took up with someone who actually liked me for me, as I was, warts (figurative!) and all, I also started thinking more intently about why I'm here, what my purpose in life was. And, since I didn't have an obvious calling, religious or career-wise, I just didn't have an answer. So I bided my time, dancing because I loved it, teaching Pilates and massaging backs because it paid the bills, not really sure what I was doing in a larger sense but content enough to wait for my purpose, the meaning of my life, to find me.
Because motherhood hit me like a ton of messy, confusing bricks and I still haven't made sense of its impact on my identity, four and half years in. How can I be a mother AND be all these other things I want to be at the same time? Is being a mother my only true purpose in life? How can I focus on being anything else (a physical therapist, the long-time pipe dream, or a writer of some kind, the newest what-have-you-been-smoking-in-that-pipe dream) when I often feel overwhelmed with this one job I already have?
I'm reading "What Should I Do With My Life?" by Po Bronson and though I can safely say it's not exactly answering its own title's question for me, I love reading about how different people search for meaning and purpose. We all want the same things, no matter how different our choices and journeys. I want what everyone else does: to make an impact on the world, to change my corner of it for the better. I want my life to mean something. I want to leave something good behind when I'm gone. Something bigger, better than me.
Are my girls those "good things"? Is it unfair, not to mention unhealthy, to think about your children this way?
Like it or not, on purpose or not, for ill or for good, motherhood instantly made my life about something other than me. It meant I would leave something behind. It means my life has already had a profound effect. Motherhood intrinsically means I matter. Now it's up to me to make sure that my impact on my children is a positive one. Because I will live on through them, and through all the people they touch.
But I also search for other ways to matter. I know that soon enough I will not be so utterly consumed by the strains of motherhood and, without belittling the importance of mothering well, I want to add more than just my procreative and mothering self to the world.
I'll just come right out and say it: new pyramid be damned, I want self-actualization.