Written by: Emily McRae, Health Psychologist, PGDipHealthPsych, MSc
It is not uncommon for mothers to be known as ‘someone’s mum’. Walking through the school and kindy gates I hear this often. “Oh, that’s Archie’s mum”. And while this is entirely innocent and often very sweet, in some ways it points to a larger issue that I frequently hear amongst the mothering circle. The failing sense of knowing “who” you are, once your life role entirely becomes about your children.
When we become mums, there are many things that we (even temporarily) give up. Paid employment for starters, but also many of our hobbies, extracurricular activities, how we socialise, or the general way we live our life. However, often it is these things that give us a real sense of who we are, and even how we describe ourselves. It is not uncommon for one of the first questions when you meet someone to be “so, what do you do?” – and, depending on the nature of the job, we get a sense of “who” that person is. In turn, when we are no longer fulfilling these other life roles, or change the way we do so, we may lose a sense of ourselves in the process.
Added to this, when we become mums, a lot of our world becomes about these little people. We focus our attention on ensuring they feed well, sleep well, and even making sure their bowels are working well! When our focus drastically changes again it opens ourselves up to slowly losing a sense of who we are.
What tends to occur when we have a drastic change in life, such as having a baby, and we begin to change the way we live, we can experience a disconnect between who we feel we are now and how we felt we were then, prior to the life event. This disconnect can make us question who we are, what our purpose is, what direction we are moving in, and if we will ever go back to our older, perhaps more comfortable, sense of self.
While for some this is liberating, and the life change they have long been craving for, for many the uncertainty around who we feel we are, or how we want to live our life, can be very unsettling. Almost like you have lost a piece of who you are and the direction that you are heading in. When we experience this uncertainty, it can cause quite significant discomfort and, in some cases, cause us to experience low or sad mood or perhaps anxiety.
From a psychological perspective, these feelings are easily understood. When we become parents, our lives do change. Rather drastically in fact. And we know that major life events or changes do require a period of adjustment. However, entering into motherhood is a bit different in the sense that you are continually adapting to the ‘role’ as your child grows, and their needs change. In addition, unlike some life events, this is not one where you will go back to your old life, once a parent, well, always a parent.
However, that does not mean that all is not lost. There are still many things you can do to help you adjust to this life-role and even feel like yourself again. The upshot is that the better you are able to adjust, the more you will flourish in this role, and the better your psychological wellbeing.
As a start, I would encourage you to consider your life pre-children and what it is that you really loved. What did you love doing? What activities made you feel good? For example, did you love solitary walks? Or was there a hobby you enjoyed? A certain social outing that was fun? Really consider some of the activities or things that you did pre-children that you really miss. The next step is to be creative about how you might be able to, even occasionally, re-engage in one or two of those activities. For example, if one of your favourite things to do was brunch on a Sunday with friends, is there a way that you could still keep doing that? Is it that you ask to meet at a more child-friendly café? Or do you ask to make brunch just a bit earlier to fit in with your baby’s routine? Perhaps you could even time it so you could leave the baby with your partner for an hour or two.
The trick here is to be creative about how you can make it work. So often there is a solution, it is just about figuring out what it is. If you are able to engage in one of your older, loved, activities, this will definitely go a step toward making you feel like you again.
Further to this, I would encourage you to engage in one activity each day that makes you feel good. This is something I talk to my patients about a lot – and consider it an essential part of self-care. Each day I really invite you to consider something small that you can add into your day that you will enjoy, look forward to, and that invariably makes you feel good. For example, when I first had my twins my daily self-care was to get help first thing in the morning so I could shower, get dressed and make my bed. It sounds silly, but this simple activity really made a significant difference to my outlook for the day. It made me feel like my old self by re-establishing an older routine. However, you can be more exciting than this! It might be that you plan to buy a coffee each morning, take time for a bath at night, watch a loved TV show when your baby is asleep, go for a walk, meditate, online shop, plan a catch-up with a friend, and so on. Whatever the activity, make sure it is done daily (but can vary each day), can be done with ease (nothing worse than over-reaching here and creating more stress) and that it makes you feel like you.
What often underpins this sense of losing your sense of self, is the idea that you are no-longer engaging the more “academic” side of your brain. Although it is very easy to argue that mothering is a role that requires all aspects of your brain capacity and function, the lived experience of many is this sense that “I am not as smart as I used to be”. It is a statement I have heard many, many, times over. The ‘remedy’ here is to look for ways that make you feel that you are engaging that side of your brain, and that gives you a sense of mastery. For it is the feeling of “learning as you go” or being out of your depth as a (particularly new) parent, that contributes, or at least exacerbates, this sense of not ‘feeling smart’. So, when you are looking for an activity that challenges you, make it one where you can feel you have accomplished it at the end, and have a sense of mastery. It will be highly individual as to what activity you choose. For some, it might be simply reading a more challenging or thought-provoking novel (even if it takes you a year!). For others it might be to spend time writing or blogging. Conversely, it might be doing something like SUDOKU. Whatever it is, make sure it makes you feel like you are activating the side of your brain that currently feels neglected and, as always, one that makes you feel good.
When you are feeling far from your ‘old’ self, and struggling to feel like ‘you’ again, it is vital to reconnect with your values. When we re-engage with what it is that we value, we are able to see that despite a change in life circumstance, who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to live our life, does not change. If you are someone who values kindness, for example, having a baby does not change that value. If you are someone who values hard work, again, having a baby does not change that value. It can certainly challenge, or enhance, our values (it is hard to feel kind during a toddler tantrum!) but being a mum does not change them. The trick here is that if we are able to re-engage in our values, or what is important to us in life, we can create opportunities to ensure we are living by these values, and this gives us a strong sense of who we are, and the direction we are moving in. However, it is important to note that you need to be kind to yourself as you figure out how you can re-engage with your values. For example, if you are someone who is passionate about helping others and suddenly you find that you are so time-poor you barely have time for yourself let alone someone else, be kind as you navigate how to fulfil these values. Perhaps it is acknowledging that a simple text to someone is going to suffice for a while. It is understanding that smiling at others on the street, being kind to your supermarket workers, or calling someone for a quick 2-minute conversation, is still fulfilling these values – just in a way that is also being kind and compassionate to yourself.
And on the topic of self-kindness and compassion, do ensure you are continually working on being kind to yourself. It is so easy to beat ourselves up, for not “achieving enough” or struggling in this new life role. However, self-judgment and criticism does nothing to make you feel like your old self; conversely, it probably makes you feel like you are failing. If we take time to show ourselves kindness and acknowledge the massive life change that we are experiencing, that is when we put ourselves in a psychologically better position to look for creative ways to feel like our old self. Self-kindness also encourages us to examine our expectations, and to move away from this unachievable idea of being perfect.
Finally, I also encourage you to really examine your role as a mother. I think too often we truly under-value what it means to be a mum. We do not value the hard work that we do day in and out, and instead judge ourselves on some obscure metric that in reality does not make sense. We think our brains are slowing because we are not engaged in paid work, or we have a feeling that we are not contributing meaningfully because we have not had “output” for the day. When we think in this way, we are not paying any attention, or giving credit, to the vast skill set that is called on to be a mum. Daily, mothers are required to be problem-solvers to work out reasons for their baby or child’s issues and then to come up with creative and meaningful solutions to such issues. As I have mentioned before being a mum inherently means being a “nurse” to care for our sick children, a “teacher” to help them learn and grow, a “police-officer” to teach them to be good people and so on. When we do not recognise this skill set, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to see how very important we are and the meaningful work that we do, albeit just a bit different to our life pre-children.
Put together, when we are able to show ourselves kindness, compassion and care; and when we are able to recognise the hard work that we do, plus re-engage with some of our older, more loved activities, that is when we will flourish as parents. And when we flourish, we might just find our old sense of self.
About the Author
Emily is a Health Psychologist (NZ Registered) with a decade of experience in psychology. Emily runs a health and wellness website - thewellhub.co - where she provides online support to enhance psychological wellness. Emily also assesses and supports patients prior to surgery at a private hospital in New Zealand. Emily is a mother to three young children - Archie (5) and twins - Eli & Sienna (3) and lives in Auckland, New Zealand.