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People often say to me 'I don't feel like myself.' And it's true, one of the ways that motherhood can surprise us is that it can challenge our ideas about who we are.
We often get into ways of relating to the world that work pretty well for us and make us feel good, so if motherhood forces us to re-evaluate some of those, it can really shake us to our core. In psychological terms, transitions like becoming a mother can trigger a kind of breakdown as our usual ways of seeing ourselves don’t work, and we have to rebuild our sense of who we are.
It can be really distressing feeling like this, as it can leave you feeling very vulnerable or as if you’re ‘getting it wrong’. However it is so common I thought I would list a few of the ways in which motherhood can shake your sense of yourself, so if it happens to you you might feel less distressed by it.
1. You can cope by yourself
Maybe before having kids, this was true. However, one of the things that many people will say that surprises them about motherhood is how much you need other people.
There are so many reasons why this might be true. It might be that culturally we are fed the idea that independent is best, that you should be able to stand on your own two feet. It might be that we de-value the impact that informal groups of support have had on mothers in the past, so we don’t recognise how important that was. It might be that we have had to learn from previous life experiences that you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. There can be many, many reasons for this.
However the research is clear – new mothers need practical and emotional support or they are more at risk of struggling. So if you find it hard to see yourself as someone who benefits from support, this might feel a tough one to face.
2. If you just work at something you can solve the problem
You might have found that this is how you are used to solving problems at work, or in relationships, and maybe it has worked well. However if you have a baby who won’t sleep, or you have a baby who cries all the time (for no known medical reason), then this idea will not help you. Because they can’t be ‘fixed’, and your usual method of working harder might just see you run yourself into the ground.
Accepting that you might need to accept the situation, rather than seeing it as a problem, and then find ways of getting your needs met in that situation (getting someone to look after the baby to give you some respite from the crying, or allowing you to sleep).
3. That you and your partner will never end up in gender defined roles
There are few things that only one gender can do, and giving birth is one of them (as is breastfeeding). So from the start, it can be hard to resist the onslaught of attention being given to the mother, not the father. This is only increased if you are breastfeeding, or if you have decided that you are the one who takes a longer period of leave from paid work (for whatever reason).
It is a big shift for all of you, and in all of these changes it can often feel harder NOT to fall into gender roles (especially if that is what your role models did) than to make the effort to keep checking that you are not doing so.
If you find yourself upset or resentful that you find yourself feeling a divide between you and your partner, because he or she can’t understand what life is like for you (which they probably can’t), then that is normal. It is helpful to discuss this with your partner (if you can), and also make sure that you give both of you a bit of slack. It’s a new transition for both of you! Many couples talk about how they feel as though their roles are VERY gender defined at the beginning, and that as they become more confident in their roles as parents, however that is for them, then they feel more able to renegotiate within the family, however that works.
4. Perhaps related to the idea of being able to solve problems, is the notion of yourself as someone who can bring comfort
If you are someone who finds that you experience a great deal of your sense of worth from making people happy then if you have a baby who cries a lot, this might really impact on your sense of how good a mother you are. It might feel intolerable to be with someone who you can’t comfort.
If this is the case for you, it can be very hard not to take it personally, and I would recommend speaking to an organisation such as Crisis who have volunteers who know what it is like and can provide you with emotional support to know that you are not alone.
5. If you are someone who is ‘happy go lucky’
Anxiety is part and parcel of being a parent. Mothers’ brains change from the moment of conception in order to help them notice threats in the environment to their babies.
If you are someone who has never really experienced anxiety very much before, this can really be quite shocking, and it might feel ‘wrong’ that you are feeling more anxious. Awfully, that can become a vicious cycle as you become anxious about the anxiety itself.
It can be helpful to know that you WILL become more anxious, as then you can realise that this is part of your new relationship and it’s there to keep your baby safe. It might not feel comfortable, but maybe if you can accept the anxiety as normal, it might help you feel less as though you’re not yourself.
These are only a few scenarios, but there are many more. If you are able to help yourself understand why the challenges you face are because they don’t fit with how you see yourself, it can help you be kinder to how you experience yourself right now. And when you’re kinder to yourself, quite often you can start to access the support you need and start to feel better.
If you've found this helpful, you might find it useful to read this post on returning to work, another time when our identity can be challenged, or you might be interested in my free resources on how to manage your anxiety.
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OK, so it’s not something we like to talk about, but since at least one in ten (probably more) mothers experience some kind of mental distress before or after having a baby, it’s definitely worth talking about what you can put in place to improve your chances of enjoying motherhood from the outset. Because in many cases it is preventable or could be reduced - it's not a biological given.
So if you’re pregnant (or even if your baby is already in your arms), here’s a quick quiz to look at what factors might affect how you feel as a mother.
- Do you lack people around you who will be giving you practical support (e.g. cooking, cleaning, taking the baby so you can sleep, looking after any other children?) On a near daily basis? (Partners don’t count)
- Do you lack friends who are having babies at roughly the same time as you?
- Have you had a history of infertility or miscarriages/stillbirth?
- Are you having more than one baby?
- Have you previously had anxiety, depression, eating disorders or other mental distress (whether diagnosed or not)?
- Has your mother or someone else who was important to you died in the last few years?
- Is there stress around you? (e.g. are you dealing with a lot of stress at work (or in your partner’s work)? Is one, or more, of your close relationships stressful? Are you moving house? Are you finding it hard to be able to exercise/ de-stress in your usual ways?)
- Are you finding it easy to ‘bond’ with the baby inside you?
- Have you felt anxious or low during your pregnancy?
- Was your pregnancy unplanned?
- Are you an ‘older’ mum?
- Did you find your own childhood difficult?
If you have ticked yes to ANY of these, good on you for being honest. Because being honest with yourself means that you have more chance of doing what you need to prevent mental distress. In many cases, mental distress is an emotional sign that something is wrong. A bit like getting a headache when you haven’t drunk enough water is a physical sign that something needs to change. And so often you can get support to sort out whatever is causing the distress.
When I was pregnant, I didn’t want to think about anything like this because I was too scared to look at it. Despite having episodes of what might have been undiagnosed depression and anxiety in the past, I thought that since I was doing so well in pregnancy, I would be fine. I didn’t think about the fact that a great deal of how I was feeling was due to the fact that I used exercise and nutrition and regular contact with colleagues and work that I enjoyed and lots of sleep to keep me feeling good. All those things contributed to me enjoying life, so once they weren’t there I really struggled.
And my point is – that does NOT need to happen. Research shows that along with these risk factors, there are also things you can do to support yourself, from before pregnancy. Counselling , for example, has been shown to be one of the things that is proven to reduce your chance of experiencing postnatal depression. Exercise during pregnancy and beyond has also been shown to help maintain mental wellbeing.
Being honest about yourself and your situation means that you can put a few things in place now. Even if you’re someone who hates planning, quite often that can be because we don’t like looking at what might go ‘wrong’. Because it’s scary! And quite often we like to pretend that what’s scaring us can’t get us and so we hide under the duvet, rather than putting the light on to see what that shadow really is.
So I’m inviting you to put the light on. If you are up for it, you’re very welcome to get in contact and discuss whatever has come to your attention.
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