Who Am I Now? Motherhood and Identity
By Winema Wilson Lanoue, Blacksburg, Virginia
It seems to me that in American culture we often view our jobs rather than our human connections as our identities. When someone asks us about ourselves, we may be more likely to reply with a job title, “I’m a teacher” or “I’m an accountant” rather than “I’m the mother of …”
It’s interesting to me that we might view our identities in this way. I think it’s also noteworthy that we ask a job to totally fulfill us, to define us, to make us feel worthy, to make our lives have meaning to others and ourselves. That can certainly make those occupations feel too important to comfortably leave, even for a short time.
We also often see our identities as static. If we were once writers, we should always be writers or we are not living up to our potential. Anything we do that keeps us from being a writer (notice I didn’t say “from writing”) may cause some resentment. We may feel as if we are just waiting to be ourselves again. Our culture’s perspectives on identity and motherhood often seem to suggest that we give birth to our children, love and enjoy them, and return to our pre-baby selves, body and soul, as soon as possible. In other words, be static, even when our world has clearly changed in new and amazing ways!
Another perspective we seem to have is that identity is singular and this, from what I have read and gleaned from people I have known from other cultures, is not uniquely American. Today, a woman takes on yet another identity when she becomes a parent. A new identity, or a new facet of one’s identity, is gained but is not a replacement identity. We are aware that we also have the identity of daughter, sister, partner, or friend, but nothing seems to worry us as much as taking on that new mothering identity. There is a deep fear that we can have only one calling, when in fact we can be passionate about more than one role in life.
With this as our backdrop, it is no wonder that parenthood can sometimes feel like living in limbo, especially for parents who were involved in social groups or careers in which they really thrived and which now seem distant. Even mothers who absolutely love mothering can still wonder when they’ll return to their “old” selves.
Those paradoxical parenting feelings make me think of a quote by Lu Hanessian, author of Let the Baby Drive: Navigating the Road of New Motherhood. She writes, “Can’t a new mother feel momentarily plagued with despair and feel the inexorable worth of this experience, this child, this life—both at the same time?”
So, who are we, now? Is the time when we mother young children just a waiting period in terms of our own identity? What can we do—not necessarily to preserve who we were—but to be fully committed to who we are at this moment and ready for whom we will be as our children grow?
Support and Community
Often, the adjustment period with a new baby can really change our relationships with our partners and with family and friends, too. The network of people that we once felt was integral to our identity can now feel strained for many reasons, and support can seem conflicting and polarizing: one person making us feel like we shouldn’t need anything but the baby for self-fulfillment and another telling us that we should never take time away from our work and/or dreams or we’ll miss out on everything.
And we often feel conflicted even when our relationships are good, desperate for time alone to just be by ourselves. We feel like we’d do anything to get away from our babies for a little while and then, when we do, we find ourselves missing them terribly as we wander around in a store, wondering what we’re even doing there. Perhaps parenthood isn’t as joyous or easy as we assumed it would be, and suddenly we’re not just nervous about our identity as a person but also our identity as a parent. Maybe we feel like our baby’s needs are constantly changing just when we finally think we are getting the hang of things. That can certainly make us feel like we aren’t who we thought we were: strong, smart, capable women. If we don’t know anyone who has been through what we’re going through, new motherhood can feel overwhelming!
Support is a very important component of the transition to motherhood. Having just one other person who truly “gets” us can make everything in life seem better. Sometimes, however, the friends who “got” us before we had children don’t really understand this new part of our lives and we can end up lonely and grieving for what seems like a lost friendship (on top of learning how to be a new mother).
Finding our mothering community is key. We can treasure those pre-baby friendships, knowing that they will be easier again, later, and we can open up our hearts to new friendships with other like-minded parents. These parents can often be found in places we value: the park or hiking trails we love, the stores we frequent, a religious group, community library, and mother-to-mother support groups such as La Leche League. The important thing is that we connect with at least one or two other people who understand our parenting views and with whom we feel we can be ourselves. Friends like this help protect our sense of self as we grow as parents because they know how much we love parenting and how much we still want to be our unique selves. They can listen to our dreams and passions and yet understand and accept where we might actually be in relation to those dreams. They accept us for who we are where we are.
For some of us, making friends is hard. It can be a positive experience to attend La Leche League meetings. There we are able to know other parents without feeling pressure to immediately connect and for the children to know each other as they grow. Often, it is our children who find our tribes for us!
Many mothers have told me that it was helpful to remember that they could always call a La Leche League Leader to talk about how they were feeling in their new breastfeeding relationship. Community is also about knowing where to find help and support beyond friendships. Just knowing we have someone to call can help us feel more in control of our lives.
Look for Part 2 of Who Am I Now? Motherhood and Identity next week.