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.