While many women thrive contentedly on their motherhood status, others feel a strong need to have a personal identity beyond their roles as moms. How can these women work through identity struggles of adapting to motherhood?
When Betty, a good friend of my father’s, asked me at a family wedding, “So what are you doing now?” I completely froze. I had no clue what to say. I was six months pregnant with my second child and had been out of the workforce for two years. I had chosen, for better or worse, to be a stay-at-home mom.
Fortunately for me, Betty sensed my discomfort and chose to rephrase her question, “What would you like to be doing?” Much to my surprise, bells went off in my head and I started rattling off a “to do” list.
After that encounter, it became clear to me that my identity had always been tied into my career. Without it, I didn’t know who I was. I was a mother, but who was I really?
Making the Transition to Motherhood
While many women thrive on their motherhood status and are content with it, others feel a strong need to have a personal identity beyond their roles as moms and struggle with the change to parenthood. It’s sometimes hard to remember that aside from our roles as mothers, we are individuals with interests, passions, and desires—and we must be able to fulfill those needs to be the best mothers—and people—possible.
“Becoming a mother is a huge life transition,” says Gail Kauranen Jones, author of To Hell and Back . . . Healing Your Way Through Transition. “A typical adult transition takes between one and three years before one fully assimilates a new identity. It’s perfectly normal to grieve the life before children and to miss parts of it. And it’s perfectly normal not to be totally fulfilled by one’s children. All of us have a purpose for being here. Motherhood may only be part of our purpose and that is okay.”
Discovering Our Own Worth
Shortly after the birth of my first child, my obstetrician offered this sage piece of advice: “Remember, if Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” She and I had been discussing my desire to return to work. According to my doctor, it didn’t matter if a mother wanted to work or she wanted to stay at home full time with her children—the most important thing was that it had to be the mother’s choice. “Whichever path you choose, make sure you take care of yourself in the process. Don’t get so consumed with the needs of others that you forget who you are. A happy mother makes the best mother,” she advised.
I followed my doctor’s advice by going back to work; it was something that I wanted to do for myself. Yet my return to work didn’t last long. My son became vulnerable to colds and ear infections, spending the first nine months of his life in and out of his pediatrician’s office and experiencing two overnight stays in the hospital emergency room. It was the outpatient surgery to put tubes in his ears and our pediatrician’s comment—”The best thing for this child is to be at home with his mother”—that made me rethink my choice of returning to work.
I did what many mothers would have done: I gave up my career to stay at home with my son. It worked out fine for the first few months. Then it hit me—as much as I adored my child and loved being his mother, I felt incomplete.
Gail McMeekin, who began her career as a family therapist, has counseled many mothers struggling with issues such as mine related to personal identity. As a career and creativity coach, she has worked with moms who have experienced the challenges of adjusting to “life after baby.” These challenges include loss of self-esteem, confidence, social support, and validation.
“In this society, we get strong messages that to focus on our own needs is selfish and unfeminine, and we get very confused and neglect our own self-care,” says McMeekin. “Women often don’t focus on their own needs until the end of the day when everyone else is taken care of. It is important for mothers to negotiate to have their needs taken seriously as well. But it means letting go of old models and stereotypes and it certainly helps to have a supportive partner.”
Jones reminds us, “There are no standards for what makes ‘a good mother’ and it is impossible to be ‘on’ all the time. A mother should not rely on her children as her sole source of fulfillment. Nor should she base her self-esteem solely on her childrearing abilities. It places way too much pressure on the child and the mother. Mothers have their own unique worth outside of parenting, and each woman should take the time to discover their own worth, independent of their children.” Jones says that by not honoring our true selves, we could face feelings of resentment.
“I have found when women come together in groups and share their true feelings about their transition into motherhood, there is a bonding,” says Jones, who is also a personal coach that leads workshops for new moms. “Women feel relieved to know others have found the transition to be much larger than they anticipated. It is also validating when people share their truths with one another.”
Dealing with Resentment
Right after my son’s second birthday, I found myself secretly resenting my husband’s career. It was hard for me to watch him being recognized and paid for a job well done. It was especially painful when there was no one there to validate the work I was doing as a mother.
“Our society fails to support mothers. We give no recognition for the very valuable work of mothering. This can be hard for new mothers, particularly those who have left the paid work force. The external perks of paychecks and paid vacations are gone. Women need to go within for validation,” explains Jones.
My feelings of resentment prompted me to find volunteer opportunities that allowed me to showcase my talents with the necessary flexibility I needed as a mother. This work provided me the balance that was lacking in my life. It even led me to further my education, lining up bigger and better things for a time when my children were older. Once again, I felt complete.
Getting Support from Other Moms
Based on my own experience, I’ve learned that women can still be good mothers and love our careers, want to further our educations, or pursue hobbies. It’s important for us to keep in mind that what makes one mother happy, might make another miserable—and it’s not fair for us to judge another’s decisions. As mothers, we all make sacrifices for our families. We need encouragement from others who understand our situations.
Jones advises mothers to develop a support system, including a list of ten people they could call on for help. “These ten people can include family members, business acquaintances, friends, neighbors. Mothers should look for support from like-minded others,” says Jones, adding that just because someone is a mother does not mean that she shares your values. “It is better to have one good ‘mother’ friend who you are in sync with than several acquaintances who just happen to have children the same age as yours.”
McMeekin agrees. “Set up a buddy system with another mother or start your own group, even an online group. Read and stay connected with websites for mothers and actively look for supportive resources in your community. Most of all, stay connected to your personal strengths and power, and be sure to take time for yourself away from the family.”