A familiar refrain I’m hearing in my practice as well as my personal life is the existential question, “Who am I?”. I’m hearing this a lot from moms in particular who are struggling to reconcile the woman they believed themselves to be prior to having children with the new role and shifting priorities of motherhood.
This is a question muddled by longstanding mythology that women were born to be mothers and that is and should be their primary role in life. Completely untrue. All individuals are complex and multifaceted beings with wants, goals, and ideas independent of child rearing. Yet, there is so much guilt for women around wanting to maintain themselves as independent people that the discussion often feels like it takes place in whispers. It’s terrible that women give and get the message that one must give up one’s own pursuits and identity in order to be a mother, despite the difficulty of balancing motherhood with other roles.
There is no easy answer to this question. Of course it differs for every woman, but how does one even begin to explore the concept? The only place I can imagine starting is by looking back to how you defined yourself before motherhood and what you considered to be important. This is not about judging oneself or one’s priorities in the past, but rather reflecting on them and why they were important to you at the time. A lot of times new mothers are struggling so much with simply functioning on a daily basis that garnering the energy to think back to what seems like a decade ago feels impossible. Take a look at the thousands of photographs you have on your phone or computer (bad haircuts and body judgments aside), and take stock of what you were doing, who you were doing it with, and how it made you feel. You are still that woman.
I think it can be scary sometimes to intertwine and acknowledge a grieving process alongside the other myriad of emotions new parents are feeling. But there really is one. It’s true that your life will never be exactly the same after having a child, but that also doesn’t mean that your life must completely and totally be defined by it (even though it does feel that way sometimes). It’s okay to grieve the loss of your readily available free time, the loss of certain friendships, lost career momentum, the changes to your relationship with your spouse or partner, and to simply wish your life could be simpler again. All of this is normal, and allowing yourself to acknowledge this grieving process helps you progress through it.
Many women I know also suffer from the idea that somehow if we aren’t accomplishing everything we want to (being a mom, having hobbies, being a good partner), we just aren’t trying hard enough. No matter how you slice it, there are 24 hours in a day and there’s only so much we can pack in, especially if we want those interactions to be meaningful. It’s okay if you can’t fit everything in. And it’s okay to grieve the pieces of you that you have to leave out or postpone until another time. You'll be able to get them back one day.
So, while I wish I had a simple, straightforward answer about how to help women “find” themselves again, there just is no such thing. It is a process, sometimes a confusing and painful one. Just as you are learning to get to know your baby, you’re changing and growing as a woman, and you need time to get to know her too. It may feel impossible to imagine the “old” you melding with these changes and altered priorities, but eventually you can find the balance because you are still fundamentally you.
** This was a very difficult post to write, and it took me a long time to get my thoughts organized enough to express them. A special thank-you to the beautiful women who offered their insights, honesty, feedback and inspiration for this blog post. Amber, Karen, and Jen L., I appreciate you!