Who am I now? Have I disappeared?
I hear this often from new mothers in my practice. Women express concerns that they are not the same person after having their baby. They ask: Where is that person who could come and go on a whim? Where is that independent woman who must now negotiate with others to have some me time?
I tell them, truthfully, they are the same person. The core of who you are, your identity, has already travelled a long and changing path. You have already enjoyed victories and met challenges – each time your identity becoming more defined. By now you know the most important things about yourself, and your friends and family likely know them too. Becoming a parent is simply another step on your path. You grow, and strengthen, your identity all the time.
What is identity?
Your identity is the parts about you that you feel are important. This is more than your name or age. When I ask women to describe their identity they often say their job, hobbies, family roles (e.g. partner, daughter, mum), their culture and likes and dislikes. I then ask about their values, which are vital to everyone’s sense of identity.
Pause and reflect
Pause now and consider: How do I describe myself? Which parts of my identity are the same since having my baby? Which have changed?`
Is being an outgoing person part of your identity? If so, you can still be outgoing. The activities you do may be different now with your baby, but believe me, many mums are keen to meet other kindred-spirits. Of course, are unlikely to bond with every mother at a playgroup. But you may meet one or two like-minded women. And they could end up becoming powerful, lasting friendships.
Is your career an important part of your identity? Your identity as a career person is not altered. Instead consider this finite period at home with a new baby as an opportunity to consider, from a distance, what your future goals are and how best to achieve them. The time you spend bonding now will help your baby form good relationships with others, if you choose to return to work.
Acceptance with perspective
Put this special time of your life into perspective. Of course, even the most enthusiastic new mothers will have to accept that some of the ways we identify ourselves will have to take a back seat for the time-being. But remember: infancy does not last forever. You will be able to return to many of the hobbies, skills and other choices that make up much of your identity. You may also be surprised to discover you have outgrown some of your past choices.
The need for frequent parties and nights out may be replaced with a preference for a movie at home or dinner with friends. It won’t be too long before you can book a babysitter and stay out late (if, indeed, you still want to). For now, though, acceptance is key. Struggling against the reality of your situation is what causes angst. Remember, you can miss your freedom and still love your baby. There is no need to get caught up in feeling guilty about your emotions.
Core values vs goals
Core values are fundamental to our identity. A value is something you hold in high regard. For example, you can value intelligence, appearance, kindness, charity, cleanliness, creativity and bravery. Your core values are those which are most important to you. Some values change over time but many remain static.
Values are not goals. Goals are things you hope to achieve. Generally, our goals reflect our values, because they often align with things we hold in high regard. For example, if you value kindness, your goal might be fundraising for charity. If you value competition your goal might be to join a sports team.
Values are also not desires. Desire is wanting something. You may value culture or creativity and your goal may be to learn to paint, but your desire may be to own a Renoir.
So, where do values come from? Many come from our parents and family, unless we consciously choose a different path and reject or add to the values we were raised with. Values also come from society’s expectations, especially through media, unless again we consciously reflect on what is important to us.
By the time you become a parent, your values are usually clearly defined. In saying this, having a baby may cause you to reprioritise or add values to your identity.
Think now about your values and what is important to you? What do you like in yourself and in others? Which of these values are the same as your parents and which are different?
You might have come up with values such as compassion, excellence, appearance, kindness, and intelligence.
How do your values guide your interactions with your baby and your aspirations for the future of you and your baby?
Notice that although much around the fringes of your life will be altered for a short time, the same core values that guided you through school, work and with your friends are still there to guide you through this next phase of your life.
Values in action
Now that you have identified some of your core values, you can live by them despite being time-poor. The happiest mothers I work with are the ones that do this, consciously, in two ways.
The first way is through choice-points. This is when there are two or more ways you can behave in a situation. For example, you may see another mum struggling at playgroup. You may be tired and feel like walking away. This is a choice-point. If one of your core values is compassion you may decide to help her. But you do not have to choose to fulfil all your values all of the time. If you value your health, as I hope you do, and you feel particularly tired or stressed, you may choose to walk past. That is fine. What is important is to know your values and make conscious decisions at choice-points. You might be tempted to shout at your partner. This is a choice point. Remember that if a core value is kindness you may choose to be assertive instead.
We have so many choice-points in life and we feel better when we act in a way that aligns with our values.
The second way to live by values is through planning compatible activities. I see so many people who are unhappy because their lives do not align with their values. After all, if you don’t value wealth it is hard to work as a banker. If you don’t value patience it is hard to be a teacher.
Mothers often ask how they can plan to live by values such as health, nature, and creativity when they have a baby. My answer is through acceptance of what you can do realistically and making sure to notice and disregard ‘all or nothing’ thinking. This kind of thinking sabotages living by your values and can throw you into a downward spiral.
If you value creativity you may not have time to go to the art gallery, but you can look through some art books or listen to a podcast on art or Stravinsky while you feed. You might not be able to train for a marathon to satisfy your value of health but you can make choices to eat healthfully and exercise. If you value intelligence, guess what? You are still that intelligent person. Your brain has not abandoned you. In fact, you need your thinking power now more than ever. Use it to ask someone who cares about you to look after your baby while you spend a few minutes reading about current affairs or to listening to a stimulating Podcast.
I hope as you read this you notice how much of your identity, and core values, have stayed the same.
I also hope that you value your emotional health and make choices that make you feel good and keep you strong.
Choose a value that is important to you and a goal connected to this value, no matter how small. If you value nature then go to a park. If you value luxury then have a bubble bath. If you value creativity then add something new to a recipe.
Above all, use your values to guide you at choice-points and to stay connected to others.