I started therapy in early November, after having spent about a solid month either crying or doing nothing. My son has a therapist and my daughter has had one in the past, one she still sees occasionally when she feels the need for help working through something particular. I’ve recommended it for others plenty of times, but I was coming to the realization that I was avoiding it for myself because I, as the emotional caretaker of the household, wasn’t allowed to need professional caretaking. Or so I thought, somewhere down in my psyche’s bowels, where epiphanies move slowly.
I went to a therapist whose office was almost walkable from my house and who took my insurance, and spent an hour crying and laying out all the things that had just piled on top of me and wouldn’t budge: deaths, surgeries, pain, loss of work, loss of friends, menopause, my son’s transition. Trump, for fuck’s sake. It was hard to pack into an hour. I told her that I just felt blurry—like I couldn’t even see myself clearly anymore, and she said, “Well, of course not. After all that loss, it’s not surprising you’ve come out the other side a different person. The question is: who are you now? And who do you want to be?”
She ultimately recommended a different therapist for me, one who specialized more in grief and loss, and that’s who I’ve been seeing for two months, but her words keep coming back to me. I am a different person. Maybe that’s not so surprising, but I am surprised by how resistant to that notion I was until somebody pointed out that it was A) understandable, B) permissible, and C) governable. With so much of what had informed my identity wiped away, I have a certain amount of control over what that identity now becomes. I am still someone’s wife, still a couple someones’ mother, and those roles still shape me but as my kids grow and gain more and more independence, I am freer to explore who I am beyond them.
But I’ve also just found myself fascinated with the notion that there are times in life where we go into something one person, and come out someone else—and how we embrace some of those transformations but not all of them. Think about the ritual of a wedding, particularly a traditional wedding, for women. Even though you probably have not been a virgin for a very long time, you still put on the symbols of virginity: a white dress, a veil. Because these signify that you are transforming—ostensibly from a pure and untouched maiden to a married woman who’s gonna be gettin’ it on all legit from now on. And even if you aren’t a virgin and you can be pretty sure most people are aware of that, and even if you are a card-carrying feminist, you may very well even change your last name—because that’s an even better symbol of personal transformation. You are establishing a new partnership, a new household—a new identity. And everybody pretty much gets behind that.
And then, let’s say, you get pregnant, and you have your first child. Your body changes in myriad ways both obvious and subtle for nine months, and then, whether vaginal or caesarean, the birth is an hours-long struggle with blood and sweat and pain. And with no time to heal from the labor and birth process—boom!—you are now someone’s mother. I don’t know how it was for you, but for me, becoming a mother to a newborn was just a throw-her-into-the-deep-end-and-she’ll-have-to-learn-to-swim process. Meanwhile, my husband was horny, my job wanted me back full time, my old friends wanted me to be as available for counseling them through their dating lives as I had been before. The world wanted me to look, think, feel, and act just like I had before my baby, and no one wanted to acknowledge that I was now a different person. So, I couldn’t acknowledge it either, couldn’t even see it for what it was, and I struggled.
When my son transitioned last year, he got to choose a new name, and we celebrated that change with him, so that he would know deep in his soul that his family embraced him and the change he had to make for his well-being. But while he got used to his new moniker, and we spent time explaining the change to friends and family, I felt myself changing as well. I was now the mother of a son, a transgender son, and this was only the beginning of a lifetime of worry and fear that I was frankly unprepared for. I no longer felt capable of maintaining my quilting humor blog because, honestly, who the hell was that woman who could write funny stuff? I remember her, but was she actually ever me? Something inside me had shifted, hard, and no matter how much love and acceptance I had (and have) for my child (infinite), I was now carrying new weights so heavy and so alien they changed the very shape of my bones.
So, here I sit, a new person without a new name or a ceremony to celebrate my changes and usher me towards my new life. I am at the confluence of family changes, menopause, the end of my career, and the looming specter of my 50th birthday. I struggle to stay afloat, but float on I do, because there is no choice in the matter, really. It is what we do, as women, as caregivers—we float on, even as our boats and paddles drift away. But I want to fashion new ones. The therapist asked, “Who do you want to be?” And I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I do know that I want one.
When I started The Bitchy Stitcher blog back in 2008, it was an experiment of sorts. I wanted to write freely, without the pressure of being A Great Writer Saying Something Weighty and Important, and to do that at that time of my life I needed to be anonymous. Learning to quilt gave me a framework, and not telling a soul about it gave me liberty. But then I started to gather an audience, and many of you reading this now are a part of that audience. I began to publish, and I kissed that anonymity good-bye. In other words, I made a name for myself.
Though I never legally took it when we married, I used my husband’s name as my professional name and became Megan Dougherty. I didn’t realize at the time how important this was for me symbolically, how it represented my break from the expectations that had been placed on me, and how I was finally doing the thing I had always longed to do: write humor. Not because it was my husband’s name, but because it wasn’t my old one.
When I decided to start blogging and writing again, I thought seriously about doing so under a completely new name, once more using anonymity as my permission to myself to say whatever I want to say however I want to say it. But I realized that even though I feel so changed and even though I am searching for who I am now, Megan Dougherty is still a core part of me and I still want her with me as I go forward. I mean, when she’s not wracked with self-doubt and guilt, she’s damn funny. When I changed my Instagram handle from @thebitchystitcher, I couldn’t use @megandougherty (just as I couldn’t when I joined Twitter) because there is a photographer with that name who has taken it, so instead of adding a string of numbers or using something cutesy, I just added a Z and became Megan Z Dougherty. At the time, it was just a way to keep the Megan and the Dougherty, but when I started setting up this blog and playing around with names (Confabulations was the name I was going with at first), I kept coming back around to the name I made for myself ten years ago, now with its jaunty little initial in the middle. It’s still me, but with a Z. What does the Z stand for? Zesty? Zelda? Zoltar? Zigazig-ah? It’s an open question, and so there’s no period after it. It gets to float on with me, while I decide what it means—what I mean—now.
I hope to make this a space where I can do some of that exploration, where I can talk about writing and art and creation and life and find my joy in words again. I hope too that some of you who joined me before will do so again, for you have all been so dear to me. Perhaps we’ll find some new friends along the way. Maybe, if we’re lucky, I will occasionally remember how to be funny.
But beyond me pontificating on my identity issues, I’d also like this to be a conversation. So, we’ll give the new blog and comment system (WordPress is new to me!) a test drive by throwing out a question: If you could give yourself a new name—even if just a new middle initial—would you? And what would it be? Would it be something to reflect the changes you’ve been through, or just something better than Bertha McFartsnot? (Not that there’s anything wrong with Bertha McFartsnot.)
And hey, if you’re looking for something ahead of you, but not ready to leave yourself behind, you can always just add a Z.