“I don’t know your name,” I said, ‘I’m Charlie’. “Hi”, she said, “I’m Elizabeth’s mum, Hannah”. Why do we do that? As mums, why do we say that we’re x’s mum first, before our own name? I do it too. It’s easier in a lot of ways, as the kids often know each other first. The problem is that sometimes it feels like I have lost my own identity.
It’s one of my biggest frustrations about motherhood - my own frustration and on behalf of others; although I feel guilty even writing it. When I became a mum in 2013 I was overjoyed. I love being a mum and motherhood has changed me profoundly - in a good way. I have taken time to reflect on what’s important to me and to make changes in my life that are in line with my values.
Losing your identity when you become a mum
But, there is an unexpected side to motherhood that I couldn’t have grasped until I experienced it. In becoming a mum, I sidelined my own identity. I didn’t mean to do it, it just happened. I describe myself as so and so’s mum. I answer to mummy. Even my partner refers to me as ‘mummy’ when talking to the kids. As I do when I refer to him - “go and find daddy!”.
I joke about having no privacy when I use the bathroom. I share food from my plate. I bundle them into my arms when they need a cuddle, even if I need space. I do all these things willingly because I love them.
It can feel like I exist to look after them. This has been particularly prevalent in the past couple of years when I have had to de-prioritise my career because of covid. Being a mum can feel lonely, relentless and you can feel like no one recognises the effort you’re putting in.
Our identity and self-worth
This isn’t just true for parenthood. We often feel like we've lost our identity with our work. When we meet someone we often ask what they do as a conversation opener, or we open with that information ourselves. Often we equate our job with our self-worth, getting caught up with believing that if we do a good job it means we are a good person. But, what we do isn’t who we are. In the same way that being a mum isn’t who I am. These roles are things I do, hats I wear.
It's easy to fall into a pattern of feeling like our identity is shaped by the things we do and the people we surround ourselves with. To a certain extent, that may be true for many people. The jobs we choose to work, the people we choose to spend time with and the way we parent can reflect our values and aspirations, but they’re not the only way we can express those parts of ourselves, and those parts of ourselves don’t go away when other things do.
Measuring my self-worth
I am not a good mum because I share my food and give cuddles. I am a good mum because I love my children. I am not a good coach because I work late and drop everything to help (I don’t!). I am a good coach because I hold people in unconditional positive regard and maintain the coaching boundaries.
My self worth isn’t based on which hat I am wearing at any given time, it’s to do with how I value myself and it is closely linked with my self-identity. When we feel like we have lost our self-identity we can’t remember what it is to be ourselves. I find clients feeling doubt about decisions, prioritising everyone else’s needs above their own and minimising their desires. It’s not just my clients, I do it too. Losing your identity often results in a decrease in self-worth.
How to find your identity
If you feel you have lost part or all of your identity then there is a way to break the cycle. First thing is to allow yourself to grieve for the life you had or the life you thought you would have. It’s also OK to feel frustrated, confused, unsettled and overwhelmed! They are all normal emotions to have in periods throughout your life. Once you have acknowledged that you feel like you have lost your identity (and the emotions that go alongside), you can try some of these ideas:
Redefine your achievements
Redefine what you consider to be achievements and accomplishments. It is not unreasonable to derive your self-worth from motherhood or the work you do. You are immensely proud of your parenthood/career milestones and you deserve to be. But it is also important to have achievements and accomplishments outside of motherhood (and work). Choose something you have always wanted to do or something that will challenge you. It doesn’t have to be something groundbreaking. But do it for yourself, not for anyone else. Do it because you want to do it.
Find things outside your home
Do you remember pre-kids when you used to socialise, go out for dinner, you had the freedom to fill your day as you pleased. As a parent, our days revolve around our kids but that doesn’t mean that our lives should. You can still be on mummy duty and do other things. If you’re feeling isolated at home, alone or bored then this can make you feel like a different person. Maybe you don’t have the time or energy you used to in order to socialise. While this in itself might not bother you, it will still affect how you see yourself. Getting out can be life-changing. You might join a local book club, try your hand at stand up, volunteer or, like me, get out for a walk/run a few times a week.
It’s really hard to not look back when times are tough. Or look at the other parents around you and feel you aren’t enough compared to them. But, we look through rose-tinted glasses. We have a habit of looking back and forgetting how bad it was or we don’t know what the other family is experiencing. Focus on the now, look for things to celebrate and be grateful for (not in a toxic way) and if you need it, ask for help.
I have said it before but I’m going to say it again. You cannot pour from an empty cup. I talk to my kids about ‘mummy’ needing space, about my cup being empty and how I need to run by myself for me time. Why? Because it’s important to me that I don’t lose myself entirely to the ever-expanding mummy zone. I want them to understand that my needs are important too. If you like your hair to look nice, do your hair. If you need peace and quiet - take some time out. Think about the things that used to make you feel good and do those.
Think about the future
Have been on autopilot? or are you feeling stuck in a rut? This can happen when we’ve settled into a routine (or when we are in survival mode). Whilst the routine may have been helpful to begin with, now it might not be. What did you like about what came before and what would you like to change? Do you want to live somewhere else? Take up a new career? This is your time to do that.