Becoming a parent is one of the biggest life changes a person experiences. When we go from being an autonomous childfree adult, to “Mum”, so much about our world changes – how we spend our days, who we spend our days with, what we wear, and how we feel. These changes, while welcome, may also feel challenging. Scholars have compared the journey through motherhood to the journey we take in adolescence and have coined the phrase ‘matrescence’: the transition to motherhood.
An important part of matrescence is the development of our new identity as a Mum. I like to think of this process as a rebuild – integrating the pre-matrescence and post-matrescence selves, and reconciling the ideals of motherhood with the realities.
The Ideals of Motherhood
Before we fall pregnant many of us have an idea in mind of what motherhood will be like, and what type of mother we want to be. This may be based on important role models in our lives like our own mothers, aunties, or grandmothers and the aspects of their mothering that we wish to imitate (or ignore!). It is also likely based on society’s view of an “ideal mother”.
Common expectations of ourselves as a new mother are:
1) The selfless Mother Teresa style Supermum! Giving all that we have and taking little for ourselves; and
2) The Mum who loves being Mum all the time! Many women expect to have only positive feelings about motherhood.
Sadly, these ideals are impossible to achieve in practice.
The Realities of Motherhood
The ideals of motherhood often clash with the realities. This can result in a cocktail of negative emotions. Mothers often feel guilty that they’re not enjoying it as much as they thought they would or should, and blame themselves when things don’t go as expected. This can lead to feelings of shame, and not being good enough in some way.
The reality for the majority of Mums is that matrescence is a difficult process. The expectations that we place on ourselves (as a result of our fantasy / ideals) make it more difficult. It is normal to feel like the transition to motherhood is challenging – because it is very challenging. It is also normal to feel like you’ve lost your old self. And it is completely normal to miss your old life.
In the first few months of motherhood when your newborn is so dependent on you, you have very little time in the day to care for your own needs or to do the things that you used to enjoy, and that made you feel like “you”. You may miss the relationship you used to have with your partner, or you may miss you pre-baby body (something we took a closer look at in our previous blog post). Grief is a normal part of matrescence. Mothers mourn the loss of the aspects of their old life that are difficult to integrate into their new life as a Mum.
An important part of matrescence is knowing and accepting that this struggle is normal and that it does not mean that you are doing anything wrong or that there is anything wrong with you. The thing to focus on is how to integrate old ‘pre-Mum you’ into the ‘new you’.
Rebuilding the new you
Erik Erikson is a big wig in the psychology world and discussed the idea of adolescence being a period of “psychological moratorium” where we are actively exploring our sense of self and redefining our identity. The same applies to matrescence – in order to move past the feeling of having lost our old identity, we need to redefine our new identity. Our new identity is one that takes the most important elements of the old ‘us’, adapts it to our new world as a Mum, and combines it with some new elements that relate to being a Mum. It is also worth considering that your identity as a Mum will continue to evolve as your child grows and will likely change further if you become a mum for a 2nd, or subsequent time. So, each new baby requires change and adjustment, and as each baby grows, your identity will continue to shift.
To help rebuild our new identity we need to work out the core things that make you feel like ‘you’? What are the things that give you joy, satisfaction, meaning, and purpose? Once you figure out what those things are find a way to fit the most important ones in. Whether it’s going to see live music, exercising frequently, getting a beauty treatment, achieving professionally, or just having time to sit and read a book – whatever it is, make it a priority to invest some time in doing those things.
The activity might need to be adapted slightly now you’re a mum – but making the time for these things will help you rebuild your own identity and to feel a bit like your old self. Having this time and doing things that make you feel good in yourself will help you generate the capacity to love and give your best self as a Mum and in your other key relationships.
If you have a little baby and you’re wondering when you’ll have a chance to feel like “you” again – I encourage you to try and take some time out for you, and to work out what those core elements are that will help you feel happy. But also, know that it won’t be like this forever. In time, your capacity and zest for the life you had before kids will reappear – you’ll enjoy life again, but it’ll be a slightly different ‘you’. And perhaps that’s a good thing.
Written by Pip Johnson, Clinical Psychology Registrar