Birth is profound and it can change everything, especially for a first time mother. It rattles many of the foundations on which we’ve lived our lives, and ways we’ve come to identify ourselves. It’s easy to feel like you’re losing your identity after giving birth and becoming a parent.
For first time mothers, it may be the first time our bodies have not been our own – they’ve been vessels carrying another life. Our place in the working world may have changed, as we take maternity leave. Our methods of caring for ourselves may change, as we recover from childbirth and aren’t engaging in some of the activities we usually do. Our sleep changes, our social groups may change, our daily rhythms change, you are essentially losing your identity.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be, I guess – because we’re no longer the same as we once were. We’re like the caterpillar shedding her skin to become a butterfly.
And we need to shift some parts of our identity when we become parents. But the problem is, it can be so troubling. Especially because we’re facing not just the identity shift, but also the shift in our biology. It’s not just physical, but psychological too.
When we’re free falling, we look for anything to cling onto. In the absence of certainty and predictability, we can feel lost. It can give rise to anxious feelings, as our mind scrambles for stability.
Our mind needs a foothold as we develop our new identity. We will seek the foothold in any way we can. Some people choose less-than-healthy ways of coping, perhaps by numbing the discomfort with food or alcohol.
For others, the foothold is by clinging to our ideals or unrealistic expectations of ourselves or our children – expecting to look the same as our pre-pregnancy self, or expecting our newborns to sleep through the night without interruption. We can feel tremendous pressure to uphold these expectations, feeling guilty or resentful if we don’t. Sometimes we intensely judge ourselves for not meeting our own unrealistic standards, leading to shame.
To create our new identity, we must first deconstruct our old one. How did we once identify ourselves – as a salesperson, cyclist, truck driver, chef, yogi, pianist, animal rescuer, dancer, or painter? Which of these identities will share centre stage alongside our new identity as a mother, and which ones will take a temporary backseat?
The goalposts change, as our children grow and our priorities shift. Being a salesperson might become less important, and being a painter might become more important as a crucial outlet for our feelings. We may take on new identities, as we become more engaged with sporting clubs or community cooperative activities.
Identity is fluid, and the changes become radically apparent following a major life change, like having children. We find struggle and stress when we fight to maintain the idealised image of ourselves that we had before becoming a parent, whereas we find peace when we surrender to the inevitability of change.