Identity Under Construction: Finding your Mother-self

“Why do I feel so bad when everything is going so well?” This question plagued M.J., who was sitting in my office with her beautiful infant daughter happily dozing in her arms. It is one thing to feel bad when there are glaring problems facing you. It’s another when the root of your distress is a mystery. Like M.J., you might feel sad, anxious, or angry. And each feeling comes with its own dose of intense guilt. “I have no right to feel bad. So many women have it so much worse!”  

Though specific reasons for this distress are different for each woman, unmet expectations and changes in identity are common contributors. People often think about becoming a parent as similar to turning the home office into a nursery. You change the furniture and add some paint, but the structure of the house stays the same. It comes as a shock when, instead, motherhood feels like a full-on demolition of walls and ceiling. For a while, it’s unclear where each room will be or what will go in it. It is disorienting. And like most construction projects, rebuilding is messier and takes longer planned or even imagined.

Becoming a mother is a full-scale renovation. The things you thought were solid – being able to predict how you will feel or react, your priorities regarding work and home, how other people view you and how you see yourself  – all come into question. Flooring is ripped up, walls are torn down. Things get muddled and uncertain in ways you could not have predicted before motherhood.

These changes, this reconstruction, isn’t visible from the outside. It isn’t recognized or acknowledged by a society that expects you to host visitors hours after returning home from the hospital, or to return to work weeks after giving birth. So many of us criticize ourselves for not being able to do what we thought we could do, for not feeling the way we thought we would feel, for not being able to figure out which room we are in or what activities should happen there. We feel lost and anxious. Sad and angry. We believe our distress reflects how fundamentally inadequate we are at this mothering thing. The guilt becomes crushing. It steals our words, our understanding of what is happening. We are unable to explain it to anyone or even to ourselves.

For me, this began near the end of my pregnancy. The sixty-pound weight gain on my five-foot frame left me unrecognizable to myself in the mirror. Historically an athletic person, I couldn’t walk up the stairs without losing my breath. After a scary birth, sleep eluded me, despite my exhaustion, as I listened for every little peep from my baby. My professional self had always been my foundation, and I was blindsided at the shift in my priorities as I fantasized about quitting my job to stay home with my daughter. I felt torn all the time, entirely uncertain how to balance being the mom I wanted to be with engaging the other parts of who I had always been.  Each day was full of choices and none ever felt fully right. It took almost a year before I found a balance that felt ok, and I accepted that ambiguity was part of my new normal.

Becoming a parent requires you to look with new eyes at what is important, where your priorities lie, how you want to spend your time and money and with whom you wish to connect. Everything shifts.

Tearfully, M.J. expressed what so many of us feel:

I knew it would take some adjustment, but I didn’t expect it to be like this. I feel entirely out of control. I just want to feel like myself again!

Together, we made space for her to find words for what she was experiencing. We talked about what she had expected mothering to be like and all the ways it didn’t match her expectations. We explored what she felt certain about in herself and the many things that she still had to figure out. We named all the losses that come with becoming a parent and spent time acknowledging all that is hard and frustrating and unpleasant and confusing. Week by week we created space for her to give voice to the disappointments and the joys, the guilt and the fears, the heaviness of being responsible for another life while her own felt blown apart. Over time she began to give herself grace and to ask for what she needed. As she determined where the doors, walls, and open rooms needed to be, she built her mother-self. She found a solid foundation and stood beautiful and strong upon it.

To withstand the chaos of construction you must be patient with yourself. Find the few things that feel solid or familiar, sit tight, and know that this process will take time. Ask for help and find people you can talk to about how you are feeling. If you are dealing with depression or anxiety that is interfering with your ability to do even the basic things or that keeps you from enjoying anything, seek support from a professional, and know that you, too, will heal. It may leave a heck of a mess for a while but eventually, through a process of both grief and discovery, the parts of you that no longer fit your life will be cleared away. You will find a new sense of yourself as a mother. You will make sense to yourself again.

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