“So you’re just a mom now, huh? That’s what happens when you become a mom, right? You lose your identity.”
A male doctor said this to me while I was lying on the exam table. I was eight weeks postpartum with my first baby. While his decision to say this to a new mom was shocking, his message, unfortunately, was not.
Society often reinforces, either directly or indirectly, that once you become a mother, you lose the person you were before and sacrifice everything for your children. Cue the disheveled, tired mom in a mini-van filled with soccer balls in movies and television.
Why do moms lose their identity?
Becoming a mother forces a woman to re-examine her identity. This period is a delicate, vulnerable moment in a woman’s life known as matrescence.
Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a researcher, and reproductive psychiatrist says, “It’s no coincidence that matrescence sounds like adolescence. Both are times when body morphing and hormone shifting lead to an upheaval in how a person feels emotionally, and how they fit into the world.”
While not every woman will experience perinatal depression/anxiety, every woman will go through matrescence. In this intensely vulnerable period, women are susceptible to external pressures on being a “good mother.”
The rise of mom-shaming and identity loss
The rise of mom-shaming, particularly on social media, creates a paralyzing fear among mothers that they are a “bad mom” if they prioritize themselves. Women are encouraged to be perfect their entire lives. This strive for perfection doesn’t end when we become mothers; it only intensifies.
What does losing your identity feel like for a mom?
Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear: being a stay-at-home-mom is NOT synonymous with losing your identity. Both working mamas and stay-at-home mamas can lose themselves in motherhood.
- Not tending to your basic needs such as showering, proper nutrition, going to your own healthcare appointments
- Putting anything you enjoy on the backburner like working out, hobbies, self-care
- No longer nurturing friendships or losing your friends entirely
- Neglecting your relationship with your spouse because “the kids come first”
As a mama wellness coach, I see this often: mamas lift their head from the cloud of postpartum or the first few years of a baby’s life and suddenly realize they have no idea who they are anymore.
Four tips for finding yourself again
Here are four tips for mamas so they can thrive in their new, blended identity of “mama” as well as whoever else they wish to be.
1. Replace “should” with “want” or “need”
When I first got married, I suddenly felt pressure to make dinner every night. I was surprised as I’m not too fond of gender stereotypes, and I despise cooking. But, I would still feel insecure if one of my husband’s friends bragged about how his wife made him lunch every day.
I would think, “Should I be doing that too? Am I a bad wife if I don’t?”
If you start an internal sentence with “I should…” pause and take a moment to reflect. “Should” is tainted with shame or guilt. It implies that you’re making a decision based on who you think you should be.
Here are some examples:
- “I should be able to handle all the housework while my husband is at work. I’m home with the baby!”
- “I should co-sleep.”
- “I should breastfeed for 18 months.”
Instead, ask yourself two questions:
- Do I WANT to do this?
- Do I NEED to do this?
Doing so will ensure that you’re making the best choice for yourself, which means it’s also the best choice for your baby.
2. Resist the temptation to do it all
Many moms – particularly ones who lean toward perfectionism or have postpartum anxiety – can find themselves in the trap of “maternal gatekeeping.” “Maternal gatekeeping” is a term used to describe a moms’ tendency to control how everything baby-related is executed.
An example: mom always feeds baby because she doesn’t like the way dad cuts the food or maybe he doesn’t do it “right.”
Maternal gatekeeping can be an easy trap for families to fall into because most – not all! – of the time, moms do the research.
They talk to other moms, read the books, and go to appointments if dad’s back at work full time. Maybe they don’t share the information with Dad. Or perhaps, Dad is annoyed if mom is always telling him “the right” way to do things (even if it is the “right” way!).
Maternal gatekeeping is a great way to make mom silently – or outwardly – resentful because she feels like everything falls on her. Consequently, the Dad/partner does not learn how to care for the baby.
3. Include Dad/partner from the start
Men can feel like they are the inferior ones in a baby’s first few months. You know, because they didn’t grow a human inside of them. Maybe your baby is the first one they’ve ever held. Perhaps they need help but are too proud or embarrassed to say it.
This reluctance by a dad to take the reins can encourage mom to “just do it.” But that’s not healthy for anyone. Dad misses out on the special bonding time with the baby, like skin-to-skin, and mom may feel hesitant to leave the baby, which she needs to do from time to time.
Teach Dad how to do things, then let him practice often. Try not to correct him or control how he does stuff unless it’s a risk to the baby’s health. For example, maybe Dad doesn’t know to squish blueberries before serving, so they’re not a choking hazard. It’s okay to let him know how to serve food correctly and safely.
I had a conversation with my husband early on because I could tell he felt like I was controlling. Spoiler alert: I was! We agreed that I should let him do things his way, as long as it wasn’t going to put the baby in danger. Open communication is a must with a new baby in the home, even if your partner is uncomfortable.
Will it take longer? Probably.
Will her outfits match? Definitely not.
But in the grand scheme of things, those small details are not important. Including your partner in the baby-tending duties – even if you’re a stay-at-home mom – will help you feel more comfortable if you want to leave to go somewhere (girls weekend, perhaps?) and bolster dad’s confidence/bond with the baby. Win-win.
4. Dedicate time for yourself
When I first had my baby, I realized I wasn’t getting any time to myself. It felt impossible! But, I knew I was probably not being very efficient with my time. So, I filled out a schedule to find gaps where I could squeeze some time just for me, even if it was 10 minutes. I would meditate/do yoga, journal, read inspiring books, or breathe in silence.
It became known as my SOULTime.
SOULtime isn’t just self-care (though that’s important, too!) SOULtime is time dedicated to connecting with yourself. It’s very easy to feel disconnected from ourselves as moms. We don’t have a choice; for a certain period, everything has to be about the baby. But as baby gets older (and their naps hopefully become more predictable), we can make time to connect with ourselves again.
SOULtime has been life-changing for my clients and me. Try to make it a priority (tell your partner when it is!) for at least 30 days, and notice the changes you feel or see.
Final thoughts on recovering your identity
Fast forward to today: my daughter is 15 months old, and I am now a mama wellness coach, helping mamas thrive in their new blended identity of “mama” and whoever else they wish to be.
Like in adolescence, moms are suddenly unsure who they are or who they want to be.
- Am I still who I was before I had a baby?
- Am I happy leaving parts of her behind?
- How do I retain the parts I want to keep?
- Do I want to work?
- Do I want to stay home?
Becoming a mother doesn’t mean you have to lose yourself. Your baby wants a happy, healthy mama. Remember, happy, healthy mamas raise happy, healthy kids.
Additional supportive resources
Alyson is a mama to Ellie Jane, an Air Force wife, former therapist, and now mama wellness coach at The Honest Peach. After experiencing the challenges that the postpartum period brings, she knew something had to be done to help the mamas. Using her education and experience in mental health, she created her eMBRACe model, a holistic framework to help mamas thrive in motherhood.