Nearly two-thirds of British mothers feel they’ve lost part of their identity since becoming a parent, according to a new study.
A further 31% of the 2,000 mothers surveyed by app Peanut said that making time for themselves was the hardest part about becoming a parent, harder than the cost of raising children (19%), and finding childcare (17%).
The study comes after a video went viral on Peanut that slammed a new book which aims to teach women the “right way” to parent, with some users saying that books like this contribute to feelings of identity loss.
“This kind of thing is teaching mothers that it's not normal to struggle [with identity loss] and mothers start to worry there's something ‘wrong’ with themselves when there isn't,” user Meghan said.
Our sense of identity is shaped by our upbringing, family, friends, experiences, jobs, education, adventures, successes and our failures, explains Counselling Directory member Georgina Sturmer.
“Once we enter motherhood, it’s as if much of this is wiped out in one fell swoop,” she adds. “Everyone shouts ‘congratulations’ but we rarely take a moment to acknowledge what we have lost. There’s an expectation that we should feel overwhelmed by joy and gratitude. It might seem silly or selfish to feel sadness or grief, or to have a sense of longing for our past self, but that’s what it can feel like when we lose part of our identity.”
She adds that identity loss can have a negative impact on mothers as it can feel akin to grief or “like something just isn’t right, but we don’t know what it is”.
Laura Abba, parenting expert and founder of Mind the Parent, adds that identity loss can feel “like a numbness” and like “mothers don’t know or recognise who they are” or how they can “make sense of their world and fit in their new role”.
“The commitment, responsibility and everything that means becoming a mother; like somebody else's life could be depending on them; means that other aspirations might need to take a back seat,” Abba explains. “This means that they might not be able to do what previously defined part of their identity.”
She adds that there is also a social pressure for mothers to be everything all at once: a mother, a professional, a cook, a health nut, to run the household, and to be sociable, among other things.
“Being bombarded by social media on what a mother ‘should look like’ or ‘should do’ or ‘should feel’ doesn't allow women to take the time to reconnect with their new selves,” Abba continues.
The first signs to spot
While many mothers experience identity loss after having a child, some begin to experience it when they first get pregnant.
“During pregnancy, our bodies become public property. We become the ‘plus one’ to the foetus that is growing inside us. We are poked, prodded and measured by healthcare professionals,” Sturmer explains. “The experience of birth can be full of joy and awe, but it can also leave us feeling vulnerable, exposed and frightened.”
Abba says there is no set time for how long you can expect feelings of identity loss to last.
“It will differ with each person and circumstances,” she says. “It is important to note, that as we grow, and evolve, mothers won't be who they were before becoming a mother again; that person is different. However the sense of identity will come back, and in many cases identifying as a mother will be a main part of the identity.”
Change of status
According to the Peanut study, 55% of mothers say that having children has impacted their careers, but Abba says the transition into motherhood and the time that maternity leave allows you to do so can help to form your new identity.
“As with any transition, or big changes, there are times when there might be grief. If before motherhood, the woman had a strong sense of identity attached to their work role, then being on maternity leave, depending on the attachment to the new role as mother, can leave a gap in their sense of identity,” she adds.
The impact of pregnancy
“Pregnancy and childbirth can leave physical scars as well as emotional ones,” Sturmer explains. “The image of the glowing pregnant woman falls away, and we are left with a body that might not seem as if it belongs to us anymore.”
While some women may feel empowered, or even grateful for their bodies after childbirth, those who experience a difficult childbirth or birth trauma might have stronger feelings of identity loss.
“Their body could be a reminder that can have a larger impact on their loss of identity or mark on the construction of their identity,” Abba adds.
Life through a new lens
While becoming a mother may alter the way in which you think of your identity, you can be a mother and a human with their own wants and needs.
“Know that as individuals, we keep growing and developing; meaning that our identity will keep changing,” Abba says. “We talk about the identity loss in motherhood because the change is physical, psychological and emotional. If a mother were to think of how and who she was five years ago, it would be different from who she was 10 years ago, so it's expected that this new phase of her life will make her feel different too.”
How to cope if you're suffering from identity loss
Abba says a good exercise to use is to talk about what you envisioned motherhood would be and compare it to your current reality.
“Compare your values before becoming a mother, what you expected your values to be after becoming a mother and lastly, the reality of the values you now have as a mother,” she adds.
“Also think, if you had a friend going through the same situation as you; what would be the one thing you would tell her?”
The first thing to remember with feelings of identity loss is that it can be a normal reaction to motherhood. But, if you are worried, here are some coping tools that may help.
The stages of coping that Sturmer recommends are:
Acknowledge your feelings – all of them.
Accept the reality of motherhood.
Remember to think about your own needs.
Don’t struggle in silence.
“If you’re feeling isolated, try to find the courage to reach out and build local networks for support and friendship,” Sturmer says. “This might mean being vulnerable and sharing your true feelings with others.
“If you’re feeling lost, reach out to your friends and family. And if you feel you need further support, or an independent listening ear, then contact a healthcare professional or trained counsellor.”
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