This post was originally written as a guest post for Mum Plus Business, a website dedicated to helping mums set up their own business or move into flexible working.
You expect a great deal to change when you have a child. You expect to have less money, less free time, less boozy nights out. Maybe you expect to give up your job, at least in part or for a short while. You expect to get less sleep. You expect to have less time alone with your husband or wife.
What you don’t expect, or at least I didn’t, is a total and complete shift in your identity. You don’t expect to not recognise yourself and your place in the world. You don’t expect to be transformed into a new person, with an entirely new perspective on life. You don’t expect to lose some of yourself.
My son was born on 27th April 2013 by emergency caesarean section after 12 hours of labour and an epidural. It was, to say the least, a traumatic experience where my husband and I seriously considered the idea that our son might die. It was scary, and I wasn’t expecting that either.
Afterwards, I couldn’t feel anything below my neck for eight hours and was unable to do anything for my son, I couldn’t even feel him feeding. From that very first day, something wasn’t right. I wasn’t overwhelmed with love and happiness. The bliss I had been expecting for nine months was decidedly absent. I was exhausted, nauseous and desperately anxious.
Putting it down to exhaustion and hormones I battled on for eight weeks. We went home, we found our feet and we eventually managed to get our son to sleep for several hours a night. But I didn’t recognise myself. I was living someone else’s life. I was floating above myself, watching a home I was familiar with and a husband I loved deeply and yet feeling totally disconnected. Every single thing I knew about who I was and how I fitted into the world seemed to have disappeared and I was lost.
I’ve never been so frightened in my entire life. Eventually that fear and anxiety lead to something more serious. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I experienced panic attacks – and worst of all – I didn’t feel especially bonded to my son. He was the source of all this change, uncertainty and terror. Eight weeks after his birth I was diagnosed with Postnatal Depression and Anxiety.
My battle to recover has been a long and tumultuous journey. I was lucky and have had fantastic support and treatment. After a few months, I managed to get a handle on the anxiety and panic, and began to experience windows of true happiness. The resentment faded and I fell deeply in love with my son.
However, the part I’ve struggled with most, and for the longest time, is finding my sense of self. I’ve never experienced motherhood without PND so I have no way of knowing how much of this identity struggle is rooted in my illness and how much is simply something all mothers face, but I suspect from countless conversations and research that the huge adjustment to your new identity is something many women struggle with.
I’ve always worked, since I was 15 years old. I never really considered how important it is to who I am. Working was just a means to an end; just a way of obtaining enough money to begin the ultimate role in life – being a parent. But during those first few weeks and months, when all I could see ahead of me was years and years of childcare, I felt utterly panicked. I’d been made redundant while pregnant and the idea that there was no end date in sight for these long days as nothing but wife and mother truly frightened me. It’s only a job, right? How can it be so important? But it wasn’t just a job. Working was part of who I was, it gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel I was contributing to something bigger. Working made me feel efficient, bright and useful, none of which I got from motherhood where I continually (and falsely) believed I was failing.
I’d always thought that being a parent would be enough for me. I’m traditional in that way. Yes, I assumed I’d go to work part-time at some point but it would just be for money and, naturally, I’d despise leaving my children. But in the cold light of endless days with nothing but daytime TV, bottle washing and dirty nappies I longed to be something more. I couldn’t help the words from entering my mind: is this really all there is? Despite the feminist movement a lot of us still don’t like to admit that we need more from life than just being mothers.
But I will; I’ll admit it. I love my son but play dates and washing and the school run is not enough to satisfy me. It’s not enough to feed my sense of self. It’s not enough to keep me emotionally healthy. I needed something more and I believe the vast majority of modern mums can relate to this.
My identity struggles haven’t just been about motherhood. Experiencing mental illness has triggered much soul-searching and I’ve changed a great deal. I’m a stronger, more positive and more empathetic person as a result. This violent renovation of my identity has been difficult to process but I’m getting more comfortable with it as time goes on.
The real turning point in my recovery came when firstly, I accepted that motherhood alone was unlikely to be enough to satisfy me for the next decade or more and began to let go of the guilt surrounding this and secondly, that having a baby doesn’t mean the end of who you are as an individual. To the contrary, I believe the healthiest mothers are the ones who still have a really close connection to their old self; who still take part in the work, hobbies or activities that they enjoyed before having a baby and perhaps take on new ventures too. Being a mum is hard work, highly consuming and extremely important; the most important work you’re ever likely to do. But without that distance, without that mental break from being “Mum” and the chance to be you again you risk becoming too consumed. Let’s be honest, our babies are only with us for a relatively short time before they grow up and leave, and when they do we need to be connected to ourselves and have a strong place in the world or else we risk feeling cast adrift.
When my son was nine months old I began working two days a week and it was the best thing I ever did, for him and me both. I got back in touch with the old me, my confidence grew and I probably love working more now than I ever did. Eight months ago I launched my blog – The Butterfly Mother – and have reignited my passion for writing. I’ve met some amazing people and made great connections, and feel really motivated about the future of the blog too. These two things have cemented my new identity and bring me a lot of happiness, alongside the joy I get from my son. If there is something you love, find the time for it. Make room for you.
32 comments on “Who Am I Now? Identity After Motherhood”
Thought provoking post and so well written! I planned to go back to work after 4 months of leave but here I am, 13 months later and still no plans to find work. I’ve surprised myself in the opposite way to you, by discovering that I can feel quite fulfilled without work. I do have projects (such as blogging), which make me feel productive and creative so I suppose it’s not motherhood alone that sustains me!
Thanks for commenting 🙂 I think that’s the key thing, isn’t it? Expectations. So often we anticipate that we’ll feel a certain way but when the children arrive we feel differently, which can be unnerving. And also, yes I absolutely believe it doesn’t need to be paid work that helps you keep in touch with you – blogging, hobbies or anything that keeps you in touch with YOU 😀 Thanks for reading, a Merry Christmas x
Oh darling, I relate to this so much, please read my post Being Honest, a Traumatic Birth: http://honestmum.com/being-honest-a-traumatic-birth/. After seeing a councillor, moving back closer to family and starting my blog, piece by piece I regained my confidence and started to feel more like my self. There needs to be more support for those suffering from a traumatic birth. So glad you are feeling better, thanks for sharing this, it will help so many others to not feel so alone x
Thanks so much for reading and sharing your own experience. I will definitely read your piece. Absolutely more support is needed, a big reason why I began blogging. Thanks again, Merry Christmas x
I completely identify with this. Luckily I went back to work full time after nine months. It hasn’t always been easy leaving the little one, especially when he’s ill or tired and just wants his mummy, but I know being a stay at home parent wouldn’t suit me.
Thanks for reading. Work has been a saviour for me in a lot of ways. I couldn’t be a full time SAHM either, I take my hat off to those women! Merry Christmas x
What a wonderfully honest post and something that lots of non-PND mums can relate to as well. Sometimes I wonder if the PND label is always helpful – obviously when it comes to getting treatment and support it is useful, but actually many (most?) mums experience a degree of shock which although not clinically diagnosed is somewhere on the same wide spectrum. Perhaps we need to start connecting up that spectrum and helping all new and expectant mums to understand that those big reactions (positive, negative and totally alienated) are acceptable and expectable and that the transition to motherhood is a huge process.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I often wonder the very same thing and I’m actually planning a future blog post about it. Thank you x
Such a heartfelt and honest post, birth of a child is such a dramatic change to our lives, if this is compounded with a stressful birth and or PND it must really rock your world. I went back to work with my first 2 but resented it by the third and we sold up and bought Coombe Mill, I still work of course but it works for us as I work here with my children rather than going out which gives me piece of mind. I really think what works for you is what is best for your family too. #MarvMondays
That is absolutely the most important thing, finding whatever works for YOU. Thanks for your comment x
A very interesting post about the dramatic changes to ourselves that becoming a mother can bring. Interesting comment from fellow commenter, Anita – she puts it well too, about acceptance of a spectrum of emotions and anxieties. I think expectations are important for a new mother…ie not necessarily expecting to feel full of joy and connected after birth (For lots of reasons potentially) and that it is not unusual and that help is out there if required. Sorry a bit waffly – have a two year old tugging on my leg but i wanted to comment after reading such a lovely and honest post #marvmondays
Not waffly at all! You’re absolutely right. Having unrealistic expectations was a big part of my problem. Thanks so much for reading and commenting x
Motherhood has caused a huge change in my identity and I honestly don’t know how I would have coped if I hadn’t gone back to work. I didn’t even have PND – I was just bored spending too much time without using my professional skills and needing to know that the person I was before was still in there somewhere. Like you, I needed something more in my life than 24/7 childcare and am a much better parent when I am working. I’ve made my peace with that and glad to hear you have too! It doesn’t mean we love our kids any less or are any less dedicated to their welfare. #marvmondays
Hi again Lucy! Thanks for your comment, I couldn’t agree more. My work is so important to me and I think actually makes me a better mum than I would be otherwise. Thanks for reading! x
Such a beautiful post. I can identify with some of these things even though I havent experrienced PND (although many close to me have). I loved being off on maternity leave with my little one, but after 10 months at home with a baby each and every day I needed something else. Something for myself. I needed to go back to work. Your identity definitely changes once you have a baby and it takes a while to figure out who you are again and feel comfortable with it. Im so glad to hear that you had the support that you needed, its so important and not everyone does. Thanks for sharing such an honest and eye opening post on #MarvMondays. Emily x
Thanks for your comments. Absolutely, I think many (all?) women struggle a little with this, regardless of PND. It’s such a huge shift. Thanks for reading x
What a beautiful and honest post. I’ve also worked since my teens and can’t imagine what you must have gone through being made redundant while pregnant. I’m so glad you found support and are starting to find yourself again.
Thanks for linking up to #fartglitter xxx
Yeah it definitely contributed slightly to PND I think. Thanks so much for reading and commenting x
I had to read the bit about being made redundant during pregnancy twice….I’m going through the same thing. Baby is 4mths old and I’m totally lost. Had v traumatic birth, bonding issues etc. Seeing a psychiatrist for the first time tomorrow.
I’m sorry you’re going through such a tough time, I’m pleased to hear you have an appointment with a psychiatrist. Feel free to drop me a line if ever you want to talk x
I’m struggling with my identity post-motherhood too. I haven’t gone back to work yet (my daughter is 7 months) so right now I feel like I’m just a mum. My blog helps, but I think I’ll need to go back to work a few days a week in a few months. I don’t love my job, but I think I need to have an identity outside the home. #bestandworst
Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts. Obviously everyone is different but for me personally I need to work to stay happy and sane lol! I’m grateful I don’t work full time but two or three days a week creates the perfect balance for me. Hope you find the right path for you when the time comes 🙂 X
Such a true piece and I can so relate to it. I needed to go back to work and havet done, plus I do all things I did before becoming a Mum, including going away. You have to! It keeps you sane and keeps you you! So glad it is working out for you and you have your identity! Thanks for sharing with #bestandworst
I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for commenting x
Such a wonderfully written post. I struggled at work and felt I wasn’t doing either job right. It has taken me a while but I love what I do, I love the freedom of work [I blog full time] and that I can do it round my children.
That’s wonderful! It’s awesome when you find what works for you 🙂 Thanks for reading x
Great post and having kids really does change you in ways you’ve never expected. I think suddenly not working definitely affected to your sense of identity and I have struggled with it at times too. For the moment I am happy to stay at home but I know I will go back to work when they are a little older as I couldn’t stay at home indefinitely! Xx #bestandworst
Absolutely. Thanks for reading 🙂 X
Great post. I’m planning my return to work now – even though it’s still six months away. Though at times my job drives me up the wall, I like working and I feel it keeps me relevant, creative and clever.
Sorry your first few months with your son were difficult. After all three of my c-section births, the first few weeks after were difficult and bit of a blur. I also often felt like crying just because I had little ones making so many demands of me. It’s a difficult transition and your post will help those that have felt similar…
Thanks for your lovely kind words. When the time comes for you to return to work I wish you a smooth transition x