I met Laurie at a writer’s retreat. First she stunned me with honest writing that lit out of her and into the room like a firecracker going off under your feet. Then she soothed me with that molasses voice while I chomped M&M’s and wondered how I was going to speak some story for which I felt sure I’d be despised. Laurie talked me through telling some complicated truths in my memoir, and her gentle prodding and smart questions have made a better book. Now I get a chance to ask her what she’s learned about the kind of identity change where things slip away, and leave you with something fresh.
What is the most significant identity change that you experienced in your life?
Hands down, becoming a mother scrambled my identity in the best and worst possible ways.
Living intimately with other people will do that to you – especially if you’re a woman because there’s a way, like it or not, that you’re built to give, to bend, to become, to serve.
You love them, they need you, and part of your super strength as a woman is your capacity to know what is needed and to deliver exactly that. And if you don’t know what’s needed, you’ll figure it out real quick, digging into a part of yourself you didn’t even know existed.
It isn’t always Betty Crocker fun either; it’s exhausting and thankless and you’ll find yourself putting your kids and spouse first; giving them the better piece of chicken, saving the last of the milk or the yogurt so they’ll have something to eat before school, dusting the mold off the sandwich bread and taking a nibble so if it’s going to kill them it’ll kill you first. You’d like to take the last of the coffee for yourself, god knows you need it, and even if you do resent the hell out of your mate for sleeping through the cries or ending up on the couch night after night, you make sure he gets a cup of coffee too because in the end, well, if mothering has changed anything in you, it’s made you less selfish and more compassionate – two traits you probably lacked as you strode the catwalk of your 20’s, focused entirely on who might love YOU and how much and how big THAT love would be. Little did you know that the thing that would touch and change you the most was the way you would learn about love through your capacity to give to others.
Did you cause it, or did it happen to you?
Chose it, looked it straight in the eye, signed on the dotted line, took an oath, smeared it in blood, drank the Kool Aid, screamed, Bring It!
What happened in its wake?
All of the above, and the fun doesn’t stop. While I sometimes fantasize about the life I might have had - - maybe I’d have become more of an artist, maybe I’d have traveled and written more books, maybe I’d…the fact is, once you have them – those kids – you can’t imagine your life without them. I think about that Elizabeth Stone quote, “Making the decision to have a child - - it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside of your body.”
So that’s who you’ve become, that’s who they turned you into - - a vibrating organism that would drop anything if they needed you – and in doing that, you learned something about priorities and the things that mattered – and that saved your life.
Do you imagine changes in your identification as a mother when you don’t have children in your home? What are you feeling into as you sense the upcoming empty nest?
Now, 18 years later, with one daughter gone, husband and I recently separated after 26 years, and the youngest daughter months from leaving home, I’m fairly flabbergast that I’m about to be alone. I honestly didn’t see it coming, felt too young to enter the gates of middle age - and single at that. I keep catching glimpses of my own mother in her mid-50’s; matronly, slightly subdued, more reasonable, less feisty - - and none of it computes for me. It feels - not so much like I’m going to need to re-invent myself for the coming years, but to continue to stay close to what brings me alive - and that’s probably what’s always been the case. The children brought out a kind of aliveness - in my heart mostly. My challenge now is to stay sensitive to what else speaks to me, what wakes me up as a creative person. I will always be mother - but even before that I was artist, writer…and thankfully, that never went away even when I was wiping butts and holding a vomiting teenager over the toilet because they’d had too much to drink. I have always found sustenance in creating things - - little people were part of that creation - - now that they need me less, I turn back to my art table, my lap top, take a deep breath and keep moving forward.
Laurie Wagner is a published writer, artist, and creativity coach who has been making things with her imagination, her hands and her heart for many years. Raising children, writing books and stories, and working with thousands of writers over the years has nurtured her sense of herself as an artist and a teacher, and has helped her to understand what she cares about on the page and off. Besides coaching artists and writers on their projects, Laurie teaches all sorts of creative nonfiction classes online at writers.com, as well as Wild Writing classes at her home in Alameda, California. Laurie also hosts the amazing 27 Powers Traveling Writers Series, which brings the brightest, grooviest, most unusual writers to Alameda to teach.
You can find out more about Laurie and her work at: www.27powers.org.
Telling True Stories - her 5-week online writing course starts on March 3
Santa Cruz poet, Ellen Bass, will be at 27 Powers for an all-day class March 21
(Photo by Andrea Scher)