“Babies don’t change your life. They give you a whole new one.” Unknown.
We normally expect to feel complete, fulfilled and happy after the birth of our baby. So why do so many mothers actually feel like they are losing themselves? Like they are being robbed of their self-identity? And why is it common for new mothers to grieve for their previous life?
To understand why, we first need to understand what self-identity is. How do you identify yourself, as yourself? What makes you, YOU.
The Importance of Continuity
According to William James (1890) the shortest definition of self-identity is the way it feels to be you. Indeed, self-identity is what makes you a unique individual with a separate existence, experiencing and contributing to this world in a unique way. It includes your physical self (body and extended self – people, places, things you feel emotionally invested in), it includes your social relationships (how you identify within different groups, including your career), and of course how you perceive your abilities, attitudes, emotions, interests, motives, opinions, traits and wishes. However, to have a solid self-identity, according to William James, one special ingredient is necessary: continuity. You need to feel as the same person through the continuous of time - past, present, and future.
It is the break in this continuity that may cause you to feel like you are losing yourself. The physical self – your physical body – changes tremendously. Plus, there is a long process of physical healing that follows birth, not to mention the exhaustion from the lack of sleep. The extended physical self – people and places (such as your work environment and favorite colleagues) – are no longer part of your daily life as you stay home. The way you socially identify yourself also changes dramatically; your vocation is no longer at the center of your day. You also have the new role of mother to learn, which comes with a lot of expectations and biases. Finally, your interests shift as well – suddenly the color of the baby’s poop becomes a daily concern! There is a learning curve for new abilities, you need to work on emotions and develop habits you never perhaps had to practice before (i.e., patience, letting go of control, asking for help, accepting imperfection, to name a few).
Jonathon Brown (1998) gives an excellent example to illustrate the point of continuity. “One reason we do not identity with our infancy is because of the gap. We simply cannot remember being the child our parents describe… [In addition] we do not relate to our infancy because we cannot recapture the way we felt then”. So, it is the continuity both in terms of memory and of recapturing our feelings in previous experiences. The continuity of being and feeling like ourselves.
As you are becoming a mother you remember how your life before the baby was, but all the changes you are experiencing are so pervasive and profound that you no longer feel as the same person. There is just a huge discrepancy, a gap, between how it felt to be you before the baby and how it feels after. And the gap is not gradual for slow adaptation to occur. It is instantaneous, the minute the baby is born.
Finally, you also cannot grasp what the future will look like. Will it always be and feel like this from now on? Will you be able to do again things that you have given up after birth? How will the return to work be like? Will things go “back to normal” and what will that “normal” look like? So, the continuity of yourself into the future, as you knew it, feels uncertain too.
The Importance of the “IT” domain
In Integral Coaching we use the 3 Human Domains in our practice – the “I”, the “WE, and the “IT”. Briefly, the “I” refers to our relationship with ourselves (our body, thoughts, feelings, behavior and sense of purpose) and the “WE” refers to our relationship with others. What we usually neglect is the “IT” domain, which is the external environment, our relationship with time, technology, facts, and events. We usually tend to see the “IT” as something “out there”, not really affecting the “I” or the “WE”. But all the domains are interconnected and influence one another. A great example of how powerful the “IT” domain is the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
A tiny virus, an external incident, has not only changed our “IT” in the sense of technology (testing, vaccines), processes (to board a flight), way of working (zoom), etc. It has also changed our social interactions and has impacted so many people to their core, with feelings of isolation and depression.
Similarly, becoming a mother brings a lot of changes to your “IT” domain. The most basic one is your relationship with time. Nights turn into days, days feel too long, and every day feels the same. It is challenging to plan with a newborn, and finishing a task as simple as eating, gets so fragmented by constant interruptions. It feels as if you can no longer get things done or manage time effectively.
This change in the “IT” domain is naturally impacting your other two domains, how frequently you plan to socialize, how capable and in control you feel, how self-confident you feel, and consequently you may no longer feel like yourself anymore.
Loss of Individuality as a Separate Existence
Besides these huge changes, there is another layer that adds to the complexity of it all and reinforces this feeling of losing oneself.
When you are expecting all the attention is on you. The minute the baby arrives all attention shifts to the baby. Everyone wants to see the baby, hold the baby, visit the baby. But you are still a person who wants to be seen as a unique and separate individual with your own needs!
I remember the first time I gave birth; it was with an emergency C-section and I was in a lot of pain. All the nurses were focusing on the baby, making sure to teach me how to take care of him (which of course I appreciate), but I felt they were ignoring me as a patient who just had a major surgery and was in pain. All they were seeing was “the new mom” who needs to learn. I was longing for my own share of attention, care, and compassion.
When you feel that you have lost something so profound as your own self, it is natural to grieve for it. Indeed, this is a common reality in early motherhood which always comes as a surprise. No mother ever expects to feel sad or any kind of grief after having a baby. And so, a battle of conflicting emotions begins. In my practice, the most common emotion is guilt, because mothers cannot grasp why they are not as happy, as fulfilled or as grateful as they ought to be. So, the immediate reaction is that they are doing something wrong.
Any profound change is challenging. We are creatures of habit and anything that brings disruption, will also bring discomfort, including joyful events. We need to break the Myth of Maternal Bliss. Why do we expect to only experience bliss, when becoming a mother is one of the biggest milestones and most difficult transitions of our life? Even under the best conditions, the changes you are experiencing are countless so allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you are feeling.