My mom is convinced that at around age 30 I became a completely different person. I changed. I was no longer the Amberly she knew as a child, and she needed an explanation for the disappearance of the daughter she knew.
She’s not entirely wrong. I was massively sheltered as a child. Homeschooled, indoctrinated, and socially isolated, my launch into adulthood--my mental and emotional maturation--was delayed by roughly ten years. My late-teen experimentations with individuation were traumatic and devastating, so my survival instincts kicked in and life went on auto-pilot. College, graduation, marriage to a Returned Missionary, and motherhood were the steps laid out for me, so that’s what I did.
I followed the rules with desperate hope that obedience would bring the joy I had been promised. I achieved all of the major milestones for a Mormon Woman… which may have lulled my mother into a false sense of complacency. I hid the accompanying anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation very well, but it was unsustainable. And I felt like I was slowly dying.
Shortly after the birth of my third child, I began fantasizing about overdosing on the leftover narcotics in my medicine cabinet. It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced such vivid suicidal ideation, but this time I told my partner and sought professional help. I had previously sought only spiritual solutions to my emotional weaknesses: prayer, scripture study, and strengthening my relationship with God. Admitting that my efforts with God weren't enough felt like failure, but dying and leaving my children motherless felt like an even greater failure. So, I spent the next few years looking for the right combination of therapy and antidepressants.
It was during that time that I began sharing questions and opinions that didn’t line up with established family beliefs. I began to express myself in a way that was authentic to myself and, because thinking for myself had gone so poorly in my late teens, it was utterly terrifying. To my mom, and to most of my family and acquaintances, I appeared to be antagonistic, confrontational, and angry. My fear exhibited itself as aggression. To anyone unable or unwilling to commune with me, the change was unexplainable. Mom was one of the few people who knew I was on medication and she became convinced that I was under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Medication and therapy had destroyed her daughter and left something angry, ugly, and unlikable in her place.
Who was I before age 30? If I were asked who I was at that time, my answer would have been something along the lines of, “I am a daughter of God.” I was a righteous mother in Zion. I had the three requisite children and worthy priesthood-holding husband to fit the role, and virtually all incongruent identity-markers I may have possessed were smothered or altered to serve the needs of my family and community. If it couldn’t be easily accommodated or didn’t fit smoothly into my role as a stay-at-home mother, it wasn’t worth even thinking about. To this day, I resent the fact that my partner can go for a run without having to consider how to take the kids or the pets with him. He can be selfish about his needs, while I spent the first ten years of our marriage suppressing nearly all of mine. There are no breaks from being a mother in Zion.
I was unhappy. I had the life I had cultivated--the one I’d been taught from the cradle to pursue relentlessly--and it was making me miserable. I was living a life that had been prescribed to me, and it was the same life every Mormon woman was taught to pursue. We had our differences: some cooked; some gardened; some played music or wrote poetry; some had a few children and others had many; some had part-time jobs or side-gigs that let them work from home. We looked for ways to individuate while adhering to the strictly mandated roles we had been given. I played piano. It was a useful identifier because I could serve in multiple music-based callings at church. But ultimately, even that melted into an oppressive cultural homogeneity.
Despite my success at achieving virtuous motherhood--or maybe because of my success--I began to imagine ways I could end the oppressive monotony of my life. I was almost 30 years old, and I had peaked. There are no breaks from being a Mother in Zion. All there was left for me was to raise my children and “endure to the end.” I felt so very heavy. I was completely depleted.
Who I was internally didn’t matter. I was a good mom, a good wife, and an obedient daughter of God. That was all that mattered, and it should have made me happy.
When I admitted that I needed help beyond my relationship with God, I discovered a compassion for myself that I had long suppressed. I deserved to be happy. And if I wasn’t, it was because I had needs that weren’t being fulfilled.
At age 30, I finally acknowledged my worth. And I will spend the rest of my life paying the price for that.