Hello baby, goodbye me: when motherhood sparks an identity crisis

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy 

I was on the bus on my way home from work when I first noticed myself disappearing. I was midway through my first pregnancy and my thoughts were consumed with whether my diet was up to scratch, in a way I'd never bothered about on my own behalf. I was bombarded with information about how to care for the baby; there was almost no information about how to care for myself.

If you're standing on a bus as it crests the Auckland Harbour Bridge, there's a really great sweeping view over the water and it's hard not to fall into contemplative mode. I realised at that moment that I had basically ceased to matter, both to the world and to myself, and that it would probably always be this way from now on.

As much I liked the idea of holding onto a sense of myself after I became a mother, I was much more interested in this new person growing inside me. The only point of me from now on was to help him. To be on the sidelines, pouring all my life's energy into his. I didn't feel sad about this, just morbidly fascinated.

Later I would read about "matrescence", a word that describes the process of becoming a mother. Like adolescence, it hints at transformation, the blossoming of a new person.

There are other similarities, too. Disconcertingly unpredictable body changes that suffuse you with awkwardness. The changed geometry of breasts and hips that feel embarrassingly noticeable.

I went to a party one night and watched my friends dancing. As much as I wanted to be like Neneh Cherry dancing while eight months pregnant on Top of the Pops, with a vulnerable pregnant belly and an altered centre of gravity, I was completely unable to join in. Not drinking puts you at another remove.

Then there are the hormones, surges of oestrogen that can leave you consumed with rage and indignation, months of bottled-up dissatisfactions now pouring out, as it becomes clear that things you've let slide will have to change.

Sometimes I'd feel so wild, I'd get up in the middle of the night to clean obsessively. Reader, I am no midnight cleaner. Even at the time, I could recognise that I was not myself. I was in the grip of something that was changing me.

At the same time (and this is the part that's most embarrassing to admit), you leave behind any sense of your own hotness, whether real or imagined. The spark of something you once sensed from certain men has overnight turned into unmistakably disinterested friendliness. No one has a crush on a pregnant woman.

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It was mortifying to realise that, as Nora Ephron predicted, the things I had thought were wrong with my body, I was now nostalgic for. It was also mortifying to realise how much my sense of self-worth was indexed against how I looked.

The connection survived pregnancy. I noticed wincingly that, as a new mother, if I went out in jeans or lipstick, I felt relatively confident and together. If I left the house in trackies, I saw myself as pathetic, in a slump.

Lots of my relationships were subtly changing, too. I felt a new standing within my own family. I'd been the maiden aunt for a long time, but now I could join in on all the family's kid-centred activities. Some of my closest friendships with single or childless friends now felt horribly endangered, while friends who were mothers became closer in a way that felt natural.

And of course, becoming a mother means your career changes. Instead of getting paid to do something you're good at, you earn very little slaving away on tasks that are bewilderingly new to you. What I didn't realise was how much more I would care about this new line of work than any job I'd had before.

The stakes felt unbelievably high, just buckling a baby into a pram for the first time. Any sense of self esteem your professional work once gave you now evaporates. Suddenly you're the new hire, and I felt painfully self conscious that I was making ridiculous mistakes every time I went out in public.

At the same time, I seemed to have lost interest in lots of things, and hadn't found new interests to replace them with. When I finally had a break from the baby, I never knew what to do with myself, and would squirm as I tried to settle on something. What does this new me enjoy doing? I had no idea. I usually just looked at pictures of my baby on my phone.

Above all, I just didn't recognise myself anymore. The contours of my body, my interests, my emotions, my relationships, my career, my routines — they all suddenly seemed to be in flux, and the unease this inspired was so much like being a teenager again.

How would my body betray me next? What did my friends think about me now? Would I still be invited to parties? What should I wear to look cool, like a cool mum and not the dowdy one I felt myself to be? Even all this self-criticism, the way I disgust myself, disappoint myself, fascinate myself: teenagerish. It's all the more galling to have your confidence so shaken as an adult, well after you thought that part was over.

One night, I caught myself standing in my kitchen, trackies on, sponge in hand, complaining to myself about all the unappreciated housework I was doing. I'd turned into a Mum — and the worst kind! Is this who I am now? This is something I never wanted to be.

I'm aware that I will take on a new sense of identity. All around me, I see friends who are mothers who still seem exactly themselves: funny, glamorous, successful, happy. I don't miss my old life and am ready for this next phase. I know I'll grow a new confidence, reconnect with parts of myself that have gone on the backburner, and assimilate all the pieces into something new.

But how? How does identity form? How does that process happen when you're an adult, who'd come to think of herself as a solid thing? And how can it possibly happen when you spend so much of your energy caring for someone else?

Quick chat with an expert

Alexandra Sacks M.D. is a Reproductive Psychiatrist and coauthor of the  forthcoming book, What No One Tells You: A Guide to your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, to be released April 2019.

Is it common for women to feel as though they have 'disappeared' or become unrecognisable to themselves when they become mothers?

"You're going through matrescence — your psychological birth as a mother —and like adolescence, this is a time of hormonal fluctuation, body morphing, and identity shifting. It can be disorienting if you are not yet able to sleep, use the bathroom, have sex, exercise, or even walk with ease. It can also be very easy to feel critical of yourself and your body, so try to remind yourself that these physical changes were essential to growing a baby, and that is something to be proud of."

What happens next? How do you put yourself back together again?

"To feel well as a new mother and care for your baby, you need to take good care of yourself—physically, socially, intellectually, and emotionally. It's important to stay in touch with how you normally experience rest and pleasure.

I recommend that you make a list, during pregnancy, of all of the most essential and most joyful aspects of your week: anything from your morning cup of coffee, to texting with your friends, to talking about your day with your partner over dinner.

Put the list on your fridge as a reminder for those early weeks of motherhood when it's easy to forget about your own needs, and easy to feel like there's no time left for you. Mothering requires you to nurture others with your body and energy, which is why you need time to recover from childbirth, and to nourish yourself."

 - Sunday Magazine