Who am I? Rebirth as a mother

Pshychologist Fiona Santangelo, BSc (Psych), Assoc MAPS, looks at the revolving door which our bodies and minds enter and exit as we turn from working person, to mother and working person (home and/or workplace), to what next....

One issue that keeps coming up in my conversations with new mothers is the re-development of a sense of self.

I say re-develop because quite often, pre-babies, these women knew who they were, had their own interests and felt like they had some direction and a sense about who they were. They may not have had everything but they felt in control. They were women in the workforce, a great friend, had energy to laugh and enjoyed socialising at night. The mothers I have come into contact with are beautiful, inspiring and loving mothers – but what else do they have in common? They have left, some temporarily, stimulating and fulfilling careers to enjoy motherhood and all this brings.

The time of connection varies, but the issues they face are all too similar...

  • Feeling a lack of support or acknowledgement of the 24/7 ‘work’ that being a new mother entails – it is relentless
  • The distance arising between them and their partners and the selfishness that seems to appear, often referred to as having another child to look after
  • Wanting stimulation, whether it be from returning to work, adult conversation or finding outlets to be recognised as an independent person with intelligence, skills and opinion - but guilt at putting this ahead of their child at ANY time
  • Time to finish a hot coffee without interruption
  • How to balance the demands and emotions of motherhood, adding to already existing roles of being a loving energetic partner, a friend who you can rely on to drop over anytime when needed, giving full attention to others. It is now more difficult if not impossible to achieve these other roles at some stages of motherhood
  • Having an open discussion about the mixed feelings motherhood brings without judgement that you would choose another path – the love for their children remains priority and desire for other things or a moment to themselves is an almost impossible feeling to describe accurately
  • The complex emotions felt in making decisions – often feeling more judged by family or other parents when finding a way forward – who’s to say what is right between return to work / stay at home, childcare / family babysitting, when to ask for help, how much help is too much, the breast or bottle, the list is endless

BUT, what seems to be the most common overriding theme – with a major life change is:  who exactly are they and where did the old self go?

Wherever your life takes you as a new mother, creating a clear path forward with goals and measurable milestones needs to be a part of it. Perhaps this is why managing a first newborn is the monumental task it is – there isn’t a manual. How do you set goals when you don’t know where each moment is headed? Stopping to be in the moment and resolving each new challenge as it arises is what gets you through, although at the time you don’t know exactly how you survive. You don’t think of what’s on next week or even your dinner that night when you haven’t slept for more than a couple of hours at a time for weeks on end. This planning usually comes a few months to a year down the track when life feels less like pea soup fog and more like a light mist. In this mist is the realisation that perhaps life could be different, not greatly, but perhaps your new years resolution could be meeting your own needs once before the next year steam rolls towards us.

I often hear "I would like to do this for myself but don’t think I don’t love having my baby, I’d never change that". The statement always brings home to me that these women feel a level of guilt or judgement that thinking of themselves cannot exist when they become mothers. How many fathers are being asked ‘how are you going to manage that with children", whether it be returning to work or meeting a friend? Mothers are constantly put in this position when trying to balance life demands and desires.

One thing that always seems to frustrate mothers is the organisation, pressure and lack of choice they have. What if work demanded longer hours or after work socialising? What about an art course at night? The thought makes most mothers yawn because they are so tired, but the issue is that the choice is not theirs alone. How often do their partners get home late because of social functions or meeting a deadline – who knows and who’s counting - it is the freedom to do so that is the point. And here is the flipside because most mothers can never experience anything without having mixed emotions and thoughts. There are times they think nothing of it because the bond with their children exists because of the consistency and being ever present, regardless of what life brings.

So what practical strategies have I witnessed working over time? Many, and each by trial and error. A few are:

  • Talk to your partner – work together to improve things and to regain or remember all of the things that brought you together
  • Always write things down – it helps reduce worry, makes you feel organised in the chaos and reduces the chance of you questioning yourself when something is forgotten
  • When immediate pressure of motherhood has calmed, take time to set personal goals and work towards these gradually over the year. Whether it be managing a household, returning to work or finding new direction – it all deserves to be acknowledged and a sense of achievement felt when reflecting at the end of the year
  • Remembering that role modelling to your children to be all that they can be is one of the best lessons they can learn from you. An effective way to mind yourself of this is though self talk "it is OK to treat myself", "I need to take care of myself to take better care of others", Taking care of myself does not mean my children and family are less important"
  • Maintain your own integrity and not minimise how you feel / think, regardless of ‘hormones’, ‘sleep deprivation’ or other reasons women aren’t rational or fit to make decisions / give feedback / criticism. How you talk to yourself and you respond is in your control. For example saying to yourself "I feel out of control but this feeling can’t last forever", "I made the best decision I could given the circumstances and I always have my child’s best interest in mind" or "I can’t control what is said to me, but I can control how much I will let this take over my thoughts and how I feel about myself"
  • Seek support – can be from anyone as long as you feel you can be honest and free of judgement. The best time to seek support is when you can’t get something off your mind, to reduce the chance of a crisis occurring.
  • Lower expectations of yourself and others – balance is a myth and there will be times when different parts of your life will get priority – being aware of balance is usually enough to ensure it will occur or re-establish over time.

For more information email fiona@2think.com.au or visit the website on www.2think.com.au.

Fiona Santangelo BSc (Psych), Assoc MAPS