The subject of identity keeps poking its little head out of mouse holes at me a lot recently. The idea of who we are once we’ve had children: are we a mother first, usurping all our previous endeavours? And does motherhood define and top everything we do subsequently?
I was tagged to complete a 20 things about me on Instagram recently, and after I’d posted it realised with an odd sense of guilt that none of my 20 facts included anything about my children, or even mentioned being a mum at all. I felt, fleetingly, that I might be judged for this, that I had missed the point maybe, that somehow my children weren’t important enough in my life to include them as a fact about me. But they are facts about them. I have my own complete facts about me, surely, which made me me, before I had children and since, and it’s still ok to talk about that isn’t it…? We’re not amoebas, splitting in order to recreate an identikit version of ourselves to continue the success of the species. We are totally unique beings, who create more totally unique beings.
In last year’s Conservative party leadership election there was the suggestion that Theresa May was less empathetic, somehow under-skilled to become leader of the Party as she wasn’t a mother therefore couldn’t have a full understanding of The Issues. She may indeed well be less empathetic or underskilled for understanding The Issues, but arguably these attributes – emotional intelligence, economic astuteness, political aptitude – aren’t magically conjured up by birthing a baby, if they were not already there? Has any such accusation ever been levelled at a male leader, in any seriousness? Mumpreneurs, Mumbosses…as yet, men aren’t gazed at through the prism of their status of fatherhood before being defined by their occupation/skills/talents/reputation.
A WhatsApp conversation with my best friends about wardrobe mojo led me to wonder (I feel quite Carrie Bradshaw writing that…although I am typing not from an achingly trendy New York apartment smoking Marlborough Lights, but from my kitchen table in Peckham, with my toddler on my lap on the boob – I can’t be in his presence without him wanting boob, but that’s for another blog post…) about how our very essence is shaken and stirred by motherhood.
My best friend yesterday had an epiphany in our chat about clothes buying (I admitted that most of my wardrobe inspiration comes from Instagram nowadays) that she hasn’t felt herself in her clothes since having her first baby 5 years ago, and she’s been feeling like she’s been playing dress up and not quite “feeling” her clothes ever since. I look back on pictures in the year after Maurice was born and I don’t really recognise myself. I found the practical issues of dressing myself post baby to affect me deeply in terms of how I felt, who I felt I was. Who you are and what you (feel you) look like are so inextricably linked. Inhabiting a different body that didn’t feel happy or comfortable, the logistics of having to find access for breastfeeding meant that I looked like a strange cobbled together jumble of confusion as if rummaging through my wardrobe in the dark. I couldn’t wear my past daily uniform due to a combination of shape and practicality, literally didn’t fit into my pre-baby self any more…didn’t know who I was or who I was going to be.
The physicality of the changes we experience as mums as opposed to what dads experience does inherently mean that our identity as mothers is more viscerally linked to our children. Doesn’t it…? Our bodies swell, our hormones rampage, our bellies split. Our very core is compromised. We are chemically altered. Our careers, perhaps our previous connection to our identity, are more likely to be put on the backburner not just because of the societal expectation of this being the case, but also because physically we need this to be the case? We need to allow ourselves time to learn about our new physical and psychological selves, and ambition might be thwarted by there suddenly being no time, no energy, no money compared to the previous status quo. We are sat on, literally and metaphorically, by our children, in a way that dads aren’t generally.
In my forthcoming book The Supermum Myth there is a whole chapter devoted to identity…it’s a huge issue that we still don’t really tackle openly yet so this loss of mojo can feel like such a shock for new mums. We also don’t seem to honour the postnatal period with any reverence in modern culture, and are expected to be back in our skinny jeans and in our “pre-baby body” within seconds of birthing our child, then wonder why we feel so overwhelmed at our failure to meet these standards and not feel quite like ourselves. But it is a complete metamorphosis. We do change irrevocably, can gaze back at our pre-child self as if through a train window looking at your home platform receding into the distance, travelling to the next which shall become your home. But this is also part of life – anyone without children will probably look back with the benefit and altered filter of hindsight and not recognise themselves or their achievements/decisions/wardrobe choices…?
It’s a conundrum. Clearly we are changed, morphed, transmogrified (to use Calvin & Hobbes’s beautiful word) when we become mums. We evolve. We shed a skin. We learn. But we are still the same person? Is the butterfly still the caterpillar…? Same same, but different. Can we be allowed to be viewed as a person first, and a mum as a wonderful, life-altering and integral piece of this patchwork life.
Kate Figes, in Life After Birth, says, “Every woman who gives birth needs an extensive period to come to terms with the irrevocable changes to her body so that she can more easily accept her new role as a mother. There are billions of tiny lights glowing inside each one of us, and it can feel as if the effort it takes to produce each child is so great that it extinguishes a few of those lights forever. We can live perfectly well without them, but that does not mean that we do not need time to mourn their loss.”
We are shaped and moulded by seismic events in life. Having a baby is a seismic event. Bereavement, job loss, relationship break down: all these emotional tsunamis giveth and taketh away. It takes time to re-establish an equilibrium.
Mourning their loss might mean allowing yourself some time and space to reconnect with yourself. Listen to your favourite music. Spark up some deep creativity in your soul by getting into the garden, drawing, doodling, doing yoga, singing, dancing, whatever floats your boat…. Say hello to you.
You can buy a copy of my book Pregnancy: the Naked Truth here
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