Nurturing your identity after baby's arrival

Becoming a mother is one of the most life-changing experiences a woman will ever face. Before your baby was born, you probably described yourself in terms of your occupation: student, journalist, lawyer, postie, businesswoman, or whatever it is you did for your "day job" was likely the first thing to spring to mind when strangers at dinner parties asked the inevitable question, "So, what do you do?"

Once you become a mother, though, the line blurs and many women find themselves confused and unsure of who they are and what is really important to them. Family obligations tend to take over, with the everyday slog of housework and child-oriented tasks becoming overwhelming and leaving little opportunity for any sort of "me time", let alone thoughtful consideration of how to cope with your new role and where it fits within your overall identity as a woman.

We asked members of our message boards how you, as a mother, hang on to your sense of self and maintain your identity. We particularly wanted to know how you do to remember yourself when the role of "mother" seems to take over your life. Unsurprisingly, there is no one definitive formula for all mothers to apply to their lives - the answers were incredibly varied and thought-provoking.  And you told us that you're "not just a mum" - there are many other aspects of your spirit, personality, and life that make up your identity.

A working mother with a one-year-old says, "I like the new me, the 'working mum', much better than the 'it's all about me' person I was before. I like that fact that I make sure any time I get with my daughter is quality time and as a result of that, I get to watch her grow and achieve things of her own, things we have learned together."

"The reason I work is to maintain my sense of identity," says OHbaby! writer and mum of three Emma. "And yes, my work and my role as a mum are undeniably intertwined, but without the creative outlet that my writing affords, I would be lost."

For Emma, being able to work gives her a different perspective on life and helps her to remember what she is good at besides motherhood. "It is an area of my life that is all about me and what I am good at, and it has helped me maintain a healthy self-esteem despite the battering that having twins might have given it."

For working women, maintaining a sense of self is often thought to be easier because they get to "escape" from the kids for several hours each day, removing themselves from the environment that defines their role as a mother and slipping on the shoes of their occupation. "Teacher by day, mother by night," was how Lucia, mum to two-year-old Emily, described her situation.

But many working mothers face intense guilt for "leaving" their children in childcare and wanting - or needing - to go back to paid employment. They can feel torn between two worlds and it's increasingly difficult to achieve a work-life balance. In fact, many working mothers admit that the whole concept of a work-life balance is a myth - yet for many of us, fulfilling both roles (worker and mother) is essential to maintaining a positive self-image and escaping that "just a mum" feeling.

Rochelle, mum to Gabriella, agrees. "I too work - and that is what makes me complete and enables me to give of my whole self and to be a better mummy and wife. I know some people don't agree with that, but if I didn't have my work in which I invest my mind, support others, help people and showcase my talents, then I would not be the most rounded mother for my daughter."

Being well-rounded is an important characteristic of having a healthy sense of self. Being well-rounded is all about including and making time for other-oriented activities in your life, rather than only focusing on mother-oriented activities. OHbaby! members had heaps of suggestions for ways to step outside of the square of motherhood and expand your horizons, either by getting back to the things you used to enjoy  pre-baby or trying new things.

"I keep my identity by holding on to those things that are important to me," wrote a mum-of-two on our message boards. "I still make time for a wine with a childless friend. I talk to my 'mummy friends' at child events. I cuddle my husband on the couch. And, of course, I spend my time with my girls. I am also channeling my time and goals into my body - I'm competing in my very first triathlon. Sometimes I feel like other parts of me are suffering for it, but on the whole I am enjoying it, and the end result will be a breath of victory to me - because I am one thing, does not mean I am only one thing."

Another mother with a five-month-old son has a simpler approach. "I feel that I am able to retain a sense of self now that I have my evenings baby-free," she explains. "It gives me time to work on my hobby business, to spend time with my husband, or to just blob out in front of the TV. I find that staying in touch with friends and co-workers is also a good way, and I purposely try not to bore them with too much cooing over my baby and to to talk about all the things I had to talk about before having a baby."

When you're a stay-at-home mother, it can be difficult to define yourself in terms other than "just a mum". At-home mums have a particular challenge - motivating themselves to taking the time to nurture their identity and boost their self-esteem when the frustrations of their role as a mother get to be too much. One mum of two boys says, "I felt guilty about wanting some time out, until I realised that everyone else feels the same."

Another mum of three says poignantly, "The only time that I feel 'normal' is when I am away from them; whether it be that I take an extra long shower, or I walk down to the shops on my own, or it's when they are all in bed asleep. I don't feel like I have an identity some days - my role in this family is to be mother, wife and slave. I'd give anything for them to be able to think for themselves."

She continues, "By the same token, I am content to know that the 'me' who is now isn't set in stone. At any point I could change things. I know in the future I won't be a mum doing the kindy run, or mixing the baby food. But for now, keeping my identity is about remembering the person I was, and am, and who I want to be one day."

Taking the time to do things for yourself is one of the recurring themes our members shared. One mum of two explains, "For me, as shallow as it may sound, maintaining an 'identity' is dressing nicely every day, wearing perfume, and listening to my own music in the car. See, I still 'look' like myself. And I try to have non-baby conversations with my non-baby friends, although I don't have many of them anymore -either they fell off the wagon and got their own kids, or fell off the face of the earth when I got mine!"

Jen, a mother of two boys, also takes pride in her appearance, saying that when she feels like she looks good, she feels good too. She also makes time each fortnight to get her nails done at the mall - a small time-out that is just for her, even if she sometimes has a toddler in a pushchair in tow.

OHbaby! writer Katherine, mum of one, makes a point to get her eyebrows waxed every three weeks - "It's such a small and silly thing to look forward to, but when I walk out of that salon, I feel a million times better," she says. "And some weeks, it's the only 'me-time' I can manage - so it's well worth it."

But for many mothers, the question of nurturing your identity is always going to be a work in progress.

A mother with two boys explains, "I dance and sing loudly and often, in the car and in the shower. I try to have 'me time', painting my toenails, having a face mask. A few weeks ago some girlfriends and I go together and had a fanstastic time doing crafts, beauty treatments and drinking copious amounts of wine. I used to read and I miss that, but nowadays I fall asleep while reading. My study does help and I loved going to school, but funnily enough, I loved talking about my kids while there too."

OHbaby! writer Katherine says, "I have a postcard somewhere with this quote on it: 'Be willing to relinquish the life you've planned, so as to have the life that's waiting for you.' That sums it up for me - Identity is a fluid, ever-changing thing for me, and the best thing I can do for myself is to learn to let go of what was, in order to see what is, and to be open to what will be."

Rochelle sums things up brilliantly. "I know that I have added the title and roles of 'mother' and 'wife' in recent times, but to me I am so much more. I am a woman; I am independent when I want to be; I am supported when I want to be... I am a traveler; I am a writer; I am a shopaholic; I am a collector; I am a friend; I am sometimes a foe; I am a daughter; I was a granddaughter. I have so many sectors of my identity that are always growing and changing. I maintain my identity by allowing myself to grow and change as my needs, wants and those around me change."

Great books to read:

  • The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It, by Susan Maushart (Penguin, 2000)
  • Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids, by Julie Bort, Anna Pflock and Devra Renner (Amacom, 2005)
  • Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence, by Rozsika Parker (Virago, 2005)
  • The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, by Susan J Douglas and Meredith W Michaels (Free Press, 2004)



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