Guest Blog by Emma aka The Psychology Mum
Who am I? What am I doing here? I remember asking myself this question as I sat in a baby group singing ‘wind the bobbin up’ for the umpteenth time. For someone who mimed in the school choir, enforced group singing with a very disinterested baby was an anachronism to who I am. Yet I continued the weekly trek to a draughty church hall with a screaming baby, who would have been happier at home (as would have mum), as I thought that’s what mums should do.
Whether we realise it or not, we all have an identity: a view of who were are, the bits that make us us. When life changes, this can create a new identity which we thrive in, be sleekly incorporated as a strand of our multifaceted identity or it may challenge our identity and make us question who we are. Major life changes which are abrupt and stressful can pose a particular challenge to our identity.
Becoming a parent can result in multiple changes which can impact on our identity. We often stop or pause working, which can be an integral part of who we are. We may no longer have time to take part in the activities which help define us. Our relationships, both with friends and partner, can take a back seat as the all-consuming job of helping your child survive and thrive takes over. Characteristics which we pride ourselves in, such as being organised and tidy, are no longer so easily achievable as life gets in the way with its continuous need for poo changes, screaming babies, and absolute exhaustion. And we can find ourselves doing things (such as that baby group) and acting in ways that are so far removed from who we thought we were that we question who we are anymore. For me, the green-fingered adventurous cook, reliable and fun friend became the plant killing, frozen food aficionado, tardy friend (if she turned up at all) and you were lucky is she could string a sensible sentence together, let alone make you laugh.
For all parents, as we put the needs of another human being first, it’s very easy to forget yourself and put yourself second, or perhaps even last, behind a string of other people whose needs you are catering for. Your child gets a nutritious balanced meal, while you eat the leftover toast crust. A colour co-ordinated wardrobe, while your threadbare maternity trousers will still do. A schedule of fun activities, while you can’t remember the last time you did something for yourself. The things that define you get forgotten or lost in the midst of the chaos of parenting.
And then for mothers, there’s the physical side: we may look down and be unable to recognise this body, that came out the other side of housing a child looking unidentifiable as our own. It may no longer function in the way you took for granted before, Getting that ‘pre-baby body back” as the glossy magazines told us we would, is now an unattainable and impossible idea that sits uncomfortably like a weight in our mind. Throw in some body positivity posts and we can have the double whammy of feeling bad about our body then feeling bad about feeling this way.
Physically for mums, there are also lots of hormones surging around your body, impacting on you physically and psychologically. Dr Alexander Sacks, an American psychiatrist, thinks we should be giving this transition to motherhood a name: matrescence. She argues that the birth of a mother involves similar hormonal and identity transitions to adolescence, and yet this natural process is often silenced by shame or misdiagnosed as postpartum depression. It is therefore important to recognise and acknowledge the complex range of feelings that can come with becoming a mother (and I would argue becoming a parent). By knowing what to expect, and understanding these feelings, then we may be able to deal with them more helpfully and not criticise ourselves for feeling what is essentially a normal reaction to these circumstances.
While there’s no doubt that becoming a new parent brings with it stressors for nearly everybody, the impact on your identity will differ for different people. The new circumstances of parenthood may challenge your identity, but it can also help create or build your identity. For some people, this happens quickly as they find parenthood suits them and their role of “mum, mummy, mama” is a defining moment. For others, it may require battling through the sleep deprivation, until you start to realise that actually, you can rock (or at least cope with) this parenthood malarky and mummy/ daddy becomes a strand of your identity along with all the other parts. Some people even describe that all those stressful times helped them grow as a person: they become more empathetic, they can survive through difficult times, they can grow, push out and raise a pretty decent human being! And that’s something to proudly incorporate into our identity.
But for others, it can feel like we have lost ourselves and we don’t know which rock to look under to find the quivering shadow figure of ourselves again. We may start to question who we even are anymore. There’s no magic recipe for who will feel this way and it may change from one day to the next, but I’d hazard a guess that sleep deprivation is one factor closely correlated to feeling this way, because of the impact it has on how you feel physically, mentally and on your functioning. You may also be more likely to feel this way if you are experiencing high levels of stress or low mood, If you feel this is a contributing to factor to how you are feeling then please speak to your GP or another healthcare professional about how you are feeling and if any treatment would be beneficial to you.
If you do find yourself feeling that you don’t know who you are anymore, here are some things that might help:
- Recognise that many of these feelings are a common part of the transition to parenthood. It’s a major transition phase in life and these bring with them strong and sometimes difficult emotions. That doesn’t make you abnormal, its a normal reaction to a major life change.
- Don’t forget to look after yourself because you are too busy looking after other people. Sometimes the basics such as regular meals, drinking enough and haircuts can be forgotten as we just don’t seem to have the time.
- Recognise the importance of doing things you enjoy. It is as much value to read a book when you have a moment as empty the dishwasher. We tend to relegate these enjoyable activities to the bottom of the importance pile. However, doing things we enjoy are an important part of our identity and can help you feel like you are you.
- While it is important to be realistic that things will change and you may not be able to do things as much as before or to the same level, trying to make some time to do the things you enjoy can be helpful. This may require more pre-planning and organisation than before, but scheduling in even a short run, or five minutes sewing, or painting or basically whatever makes you feel good and that you enjoy is worth it. It’s better to do this even once a month for a short time than not at all, as it keeps us connected with the things that make us who we are.
- If you are no longer able to meet previous standards, such as keeping your house at the level of tidiness you want or always preparing homemade meals, be wary of the interpretation you make about this. Starting to interpret these as internal characteristics of you can make you doubt yourself. Instead, try to see these as a response to your change in circumstances rather than meaning something inherently negative about you.
- Who makes you feel like you are you? The people we like and spend time with help build our identity. Often becoming a parent can make you lose touch with people you enjoy being with. Although it may seem effortful, finding some time, even for a phone call, with people you can really be yourself with can make you feel good about yourself.
- Sometimes this might be your partner. When you become parents it can be difficult to spend time together just the two of you. It’s worth trying to make time to do this, even if it’s just a house date cooking a dinner together or a glass of wine. This often gets lost in the midst of having children.
* It is important to be aware if you are feeling low or anxious and if it is stopping you being able to do things as this can impact on how you are feeling about yourself. If you are feeling low or anxious then speak to your GP, health visitor or midwife (or other health care professional) about how you are feeling and what help may be available.