One of the main things that has always struck me is how little attention we give to how we will be perceived after having children. We think we know ourselves, many of us have successful careers and are used to answering questions about who we are and what we do. Our occupations, our careers have become a part of our identity.
I first realised how greater part of our identity it is when I was unemployed in my twenties. I had been a social worker, working in child protection. The environment had become too stressful for me, I just wasn’t able to let go when I left work and would often spend evenings and weekends worrying about specific children, what I could do and how I could keep them safe. At this point I had none of my own, but I probably spent more time trying to work out the best ways to help struggling parents and the impact inadequate or abusive parents were having on the developing minds. This continuous burden I carried caused a break down in my mental health and so I left Social Work and spent some time repairing myself. I didn’t realise, though, how lost I would be when I left.
Suddenly, when I met new people, one of the first questions I was asked was ‘what do you do?’ Most of the time I just didn’t want to share why I was unemployed and saying things like ‘I’m between jobs’ or ‘having a career break’ or even ‘I’m focusing on what to do next’ left me feeling like a non-person. It seemed to leave other people not sure how to respond. These kinds of exchanges are commonplace, and a certain flow of conversation is expected. When you are unable to respond with a straightforward answer about your career with the ability to answer questions as necessary, depending on the questioners interest, it causes an awkward rift in the natural pattern of conversation and can be accompanied by awkward silences or a feeling the other person is then trying to change the subject or get away!
Of course, becoming a parent and being on parental leave isn’t exactly like not having a job. It’s a wonderful thing to bring new life into the world. We anticipate for most of the pregnancy just what it is going to be like. We are excited about meeting our tiny babies. But it does fundamentally change who we are. From the moment your baby is born you become somebody’s parent. You are no longer the person you were. When you meet new people, for instance when you go to classes with your baby, you will find that many people will know your baby’s name. Your name becomes less important; you find that on many occasions you are referred to as x’s mum or dad.
Suddenly people are not interested in your name, but they will often ask what your baby is called. People you meet no longer ask you what you do, at least not if you have the baby with you. The former you, the you before you became a parent, starts to slip away from you a little. And it can be subtle, because of course we welcome interest in our new offspring. But it can be hard when friends and parents seem to give most of their attention to the baby. And it can also be hard when we don’t feel like we have anything to say to people except what the baby did today, or how tired you are.
Before you have experienced this, you may well think that this will not matter in the slightest. Surely you will be proud to be known as someone’s mum or dad; happy talking about how amazing your child is. But if you are the one staying at home, caring for this new baby, getting to grips with little to no sleep, not leaving the house because you don’t have energy to get dressed or make yourself look the way you used to, then the times you do get out and no-one sees YOU; when everyone you pass only notices the baby, it can start to make you feel somehow less.
When something creeps up on us and we start to feel like we don’t know who we are anymore or can’t relate to friends the way we did previously, it can feel very lonely. We can feel as though we have lost our voice and can’t express ourselves properly. If you are the person who has given birth, then everything can be added to because of our hormones. We can feel tearful, resentful, and like somehow everyone else is managing perfectly. Our minds can be our own worst enemies if we allow them to be
Preparation for how your identity is going to change can be the thing that makes the difference. It can be very useful to think about who you are before a baby is born. Spend some time getting to know yourself.
Ask yourself questions like:
What things do I do well?
What am I good at?
What makes me who I am?
What do I like about myself?
What things do I do to manage difficult situations?
What skills do I have that can help me embrace parenthood?
Who can I talk to if I’m struggling?
Who can I talk to when I’m doing well?
You may like to write these down so that you can refer back to them if you need or want to. It may be that as we embrace parenthood we can add to the lists, but sometimes when we’re not feeling resourceful it can be a useful reminder. These are all things that stay with you, they are your resources and that won’t change.