I used to answer to loads of fun nick names that displayed my personality or the unique and personal relationship with the person hollering at me. Now I mainly just answer to ‘mum’.
Why is it so common for women to say they loose themselves to motherhood? Is it a way to express dissatisfaction? If ‘feeling ourselves’ is indicative of us feeling good, happy and in control, then surely ‘not feeling ourselves’, is indicative of us not feeling good and of feeling a bit sad and possibly a bit out of control.
I have personally felt utterly lost to parenthood at times. I’ve spent time reflecting and wanted to write about my journey to finding a better balance.
I reckon my loss of identity during early motherhood can be boiled down to four main issues. I love a list. So, here we go;
Let’s start at the top.
Numero uno. The merry rollercoaster of physical and emotional changes involved in trying to get pregnant, getting pregnant, labour, birth, post-natally and the many months that follow with a small baby in tow.
I felt a shift in my identity the moment I became pregnant. With each passing day my identity seemed to be shifting at the same rate as my belly button. Six months in and my basic physical capabilities were being impacted. Let’s not even talk about how wild my emotions were getting – I’ve never hoovered or cried so much in my entire life.
Once I held that baby it all just got…. worse!
Through those first two years the hormone ride was wild. I honestly didn’t know who I was anymore. Sometimes I was even surprised at the reflection looking back at me.
Pregnancy, birth, post-natal changes, breast feeding, the first period, PMT, sex drive, hair loss. Anyone would struggle with their identity with that little lot going on. Boobs growing, shrinking, back ache, shoulder pain, veins popping up and skin discolouration.
Plus a sundry of social issues feeding into the picture which is painted to say that you are no longer attractive now that you have had a child. In a society which values tightness, firmness, sexual provocativeness and youth, I became keenly aware that my social value has just plummeted. Through the floor.
Physically, mentally and culturally I felt one big quagmire of confusion, of which I must wade through, mostly alone and misunderstood whilst saying ‘I’m so glad I have a healthy baby’.
Next comes number two. The pressure of responsibility I felt once I became a MOTHER.
Holy shit. I remember standing outside her nursery one day when I was in the depth of feeling black and talking to myself and saying ‘YOU’RE her mother for God’s sake. If you can’t do this, no one else is going to be able to. She needs you. Pull yourself together. How can a mother not know what to do?’
That is one heck of a lot of responsibility right there. It felt like my daughter’s entire human life and happiness was right in my hands. When you pile the pressure on like I did, you do sacrifice a lot of your own basic wants and needs in order to stop a baby crying/ make sure they get every last drop of breast milk from your deflated and empty breasts/ make sure they’re still breathing whilst they’re sleeping at 1/2/3/4/5am and so on…There was no time to have an identity when I was so utterly consumed with concern for her welfare.
Obviously I have learnt that day to day the mistakes don’t matter, and things iron themselves out over months and years. That you don’t need to watch a content baby sleeping. I did sacrifice most of my needs at the alter of my child’s whims for the first couple of years. It took a while to realise I couldn’t prioritise her over my basic needs. Living like this was indicative of anxiety-based behaviours which were unhealthy for me and everyone around me. Much like the oxygen mask on a airplane, I needed to ensure I had reasonable supplies of air to survive, else I wasn’t going to be look after anyone, let alone myself.
This one couples quite nicely with point three – my passion for perfect parenting. A lot of the responsibility I felt towards my few-days-old child came from the fear that I wanted to parent ‘perfectly’. I genuinely thought there was a right and wrong way. To be fair to myself, the formula adverts on TV weren’t helping when I couldn’t breastfeed. They kept telling me ‘we all know breastfeeding is best for babies’. Then there were a host of social norms, parenting books and midwives notes to take on board. Babies need to be fed 6oz of milk every three hours. Babies need to sleep on their back else they might die in their sleep. Babies can’t have any solid food until they’re six months (I know, I know, they keep changing this one). Babies need to sleep in your room for six months else they might suddenly and alarming die, again, if you haven’t kill them by not following rules 1-1000. Sorry to joke about such a serious subject but I wonder if that fear does underpin a lot of the rules about raising babies and it did terrify me which is not an ideal way to start off the parenting journey. It does take away any desire to experiment or follow your natural instinct because the one thing we all absolutely don’t want to do, is accidentally kill our offspring.
All these rules.
All these absolutes.
I’m going to be horribly controversial here and say I’m not sure I agree with it all. I know it’s meant to prevent idiots from doing idiotic things, but for most mothers it just stresses us out. I was absolutely fixated with the feeding every three hours thing that it ruled my life for six months. What was it doing to my mental health? I hadn’t thought to follow my baby’s cues or give a little and reasonable leniency to this rule.
The problem for me is that there is an ideology behind all this that there is an absolute best way to parent; from how we feed our kids, to how they sleep, which order to introduce foods, what tog sleeping bag they need at night, how many naps a day they need and so on. I wonder if this did little to help my already bubbling perfectionism and undermines my natural instincts. Surely everyone will parent differently and what works for the majority, by mathematical proof will not work for a minority of outliers. What if I’m an outlier? I’m always an outlier!! What if you can’t sleep with a snorting, farting little creature next to your head at night? Do I have to feel like a failure, I’ve been a parent six weeks? Surely being a failure should take a bit more time than that.
I don’t mind a suggestion about what to do, especially if it’s grounded in evidence-based research, I think it’s great we’ve got lots of studies and research. Knowledge is power. But I think it’s fair to say that children have survived in all sorts of households in all sorts of parenting situations and if something feels better suited, then mothers should be encouraged to do what works for them (as long as it doesn’t harm the baby – ridiculous I have to write that – but I will, just to ensure we all know I’m not a professional on this subject and this is all very personal and subjective as per the point of a blog).
Perfectionism is often touted as a modern affliction. It crops up everywhere. I have always strived for perfection in my jobs. Why should parenting be any different? Recently I have been listening to a lot of Alain de Botton and he talks a lot about the pointlessness of perfect parenting and how it sets you up for failure and disappointment. I couldn’t agree more these days.
Point number four. The shift from ME to WE.
For the first thirty years of my life all I got asked was ‘what do YOU want, Antonia?’ I was told to think about this a lot. To prioritise myself and stay true to myself. For thirty years all I heard was ….
What do YOU want to be? Follow YOUR passions. Fulfil YOUR potential. Lead YOUR best life. What excites YOU? What sings to YOU? What are YOUR strengths? Remember to look after YOURSELF. Eat well so YOUR body grows strong. Get enough sleep otherwise YOU won’t function well. Stress is bad for YOUR body.
Yet, the moment I became pregnant all that seems to be thrown in a big fat rubbish bin along with the pregnancy test.
Eat well FOR THE BABY. Get lots of rest FOR THE BABY. What are you going to do WHEN THE BABY gets here? What are you going to feed THE BABY. Remember to respond to BABIES NEEDS.
Oh right. I mean, I get it. Don’t kill the baby (again), but it does seem like a total U-turn on how I had been living my life mere hours before I found out I was pregnant. Excuse my whiplash whilst I try and reprioritise MY ENTIRE LIFE.
I am joking but also I think it’s a valid point. We value independence and self-satisfaction in our modern society, and those are the things we are teaching children by giving them all these exams and career options and financial rewards for working hard and long hours. Our society rewards selfish behaviour in our modern western world, that’s how big businesses get bigger. It’s no wonder it’s a hard shift to make when you realise you have to look after another human being in a way that has never been asked or valued of you before.
Those are my four big points that it’s taken me about six hours to write without sounding totally mad, moany or suggest people harm their babies. DON’T HARM YOUR BABY!
Apparently we have never had it so good. Apparently we have come far in women’s liberation and we have the choice to return to work or continue with our careers. But I haven’t found it that easy. The sense of guilt, shame and fear about carving out a sense of my own identity has been far the hardest thing about motherhood.
It seems almost impossible not to loose your identity when children by their very design are so needy, we have so little help at home and we are being judged for doing things differently.
We no longer raise our children in communities. A lot of the parenting falls down to just one or two individuals and that’s not going to leave much room for nurturing your own needs as a mother (or father).
Is it the value system that is wrong or is it that we don’t raise children in societies that needs correcting? I don’t know. But what I do know for myself is that realising when society, school, family and friends have TAUGHT me from an early age that I can be independent and creative and driven and have my own careers and passions, it is incredibly hard to rewire that brain thirty years later. I don’t actually know if it’s healthy to be so driven and independent, but I don’t think I can undo the conditioning that took thirty years to create the person I am today.
For me the solution has been to embrace the person I am, the person I grew to be through society, education, friendships and family upbringing.
That I am someone who’s self esteem is affected by how they look, who’s happiness is based on how much independence they have, who gets a lot of personal satisfaction from having a career.
I also have learnt that loving my kids does not need to be demonstrated by my constant physical presence. My children are not so fragile that their self esteem won’t be damaged if someone else looks after them for part of the week. They might well prefer it over their over-anxious and pissy mother.
I have learnt that the passion for perfection parenting is one of the single most damaging things I can get involved with.
I can shout, I can pay for childcare, I can cry and pretend I haven’t seen them steal a chocolate biscuit behind my back. It’s ok. In fact it often helps. I can parent whilst giving my toddler an iPad and responding to my friends on WhatsApp. I can take a whole heap of pressure off myself and be better off for it. I can reclaim some of my identity by making my life easier.
It’s far easier to parent when I allow baked beans and iPads into the equation and I feel much better about myself when I don’t have guilt and shame attached to my daily actions.
I once work alongside a child psychologist who told me it was the mother who sets the emotional temperature of the family. I thought the terminology was beautiful. ‘Emotional temperature’. A mother sets the energy for the household. I agreed with her philosophy and I’ve held this thought close for the last few months. If the mother really is the person responsible for setting the tone for the household then surely she must be at the top of her own pyramid of needs. She HAS to look after her own wellbeing before she can prioritise anyone else. It has helped me re-shift my priorities. It has helped me see the incredible importance attached to me feeling comfortable and confident in my skin/ body/ life. There has to me a ME in my family. I’ve always been a bit dyslexic.