Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How to Cope with the Identity Crisis of New Motherhood

This is an article I wrote a few years ago. I sent it along to a friend yesterday who is working on a book for new moms. I thought I might share it with all of you in case it might help somebody. Please feel free to share it with anyone you think might benefit from it.

It happens to all of us. There comes a day sometime after the birth of your first child when you look in the mirror and barely recognize the woman looking back. You haven't had a full night's sleep in weeks (maybe months) and you are exhausted. Your relationships with your partner, your family, and your friends are all changing. Your own priorities are shifting. You are now responsible for another human being 24/7 and everything else seems to have fallen by the wayside. You stop and ask, "Who exactly am I now that I am a mother?"

Welcome to the identity crisis of new motherhood. As Marianne Williamson writes in The Gift of Change, "When a woman gives birth, two are born: a baby is born from the womb of its mother, and a woman is born from the womb of her former existence." This becoming a new woman can be a difficult process, and in many ways involves grieving your former self. This transformation can also be a wonderful learning experience, however, and the end result is well worth the effort.

Here are ten ways to help you successfully navigate this transition:

1. Realize you are not alone

One of the most difficult aspects of new motherhood is the isolation you may feel. It is all too easy to look at other new moms and think, "They have it all together - why don't I?" The secret is that they are looking at you and thinking the same thing. Every new mom feels overwhelmed and tired and is trying just as hard as you to adjust to this new lifestyle. Yes, you love your baby, and yes, it is completely normal in the early months of motherhood to look back at your previous life with some longing.


2. Give Yourself Time


If you were taking on a challenging new career in an area you had little experience in, you would not expect to be a complete success your first day on the job. The same holds true for motherhood. It can take from six months to a year to be comfortable in your new role. Do not rush to judge yourself harshly when some aspects of mothering don't come easily. In time, your instincts will come in. You will learn what your baby's different cries mean, and how to soothe him or her (at least most of the time.) You will figure out how to carry your baby and the diaper bag and still open the door, and how to get out of the house in less than an hour. These things and all the other skills that motherhood requires will come. Give yourself time to learn.

3. Enjoy your baby's feeding time.

Feeding time is meant to be special. It is a quiet time to sit, rest, and bond with your baby. Breastfeeding often feels like the first test of motherhood. If you are breastfeeding and need help, contact the La Leche League. Lisa Mladinich, a former writer/actress in New York City, felt completely overwhelmed when her two-month-old daughter Theresa was cutting teeth, suffering from chronic diarrhea, and her pediatrician had her take her off breast milk. In desperation, she called the La Leche League. As she states, "the advice they gave me by phone, for free, saved Theresa's health and my sanity." She started attending meetings regularly and found that the group really helped her and her husband start to enjoy parenting. To find a La Leche Group near you, check your local phone book, visit www.lalecheleague.org, or call 1-800-LALECHE.

If you are not breastfeeding, know that your child will be just fine. Yes, mother's milk is best, but there are often very good reasons not to breastfeed. The important thing is to bond with your baby during feeding time. Don't prop the bottle. Hold them close. Feeding time is special, no matter the method.

4. Join a Mom's Group

You have just gained a new job in life - that of mom. Just like in your career, it is important to network with others in your field. I joined a church-run playgroup when my first son was 11 months old. I wish that I had joined much sooner. Mothers are a tight-knit group. They will listen to your stories of sleep-deprived nights and celebrate small milestones in your baby's life. We have shared experiences that only another mother can understand. To find a mom's group in your area, check with your local church, library, YMCA, or the hospital where you gave birth.

5. Nurture your spiritual side.

Take time to pray. This need not be formal prayer. Simply talk to, and listen for, God. Prayer centers us and gives us strength. Take a walk and appreciate the beauty of creation. You can pray while pushing a stroller or while in the shower. It doesn't matter where you are, just that you take the time to nurture your soul.

It can be difficult to attend church services with a young child. Many churches have crying rooms or nurseries. If yours doesn't, respect local custom regarding young children being in attendance. While caring for a young child is a legitimate reason to miss church services, do all you can to attend. In addition to meeting a spiritual need, churches can provide a wonderful sense of community and can be a great way to meet other mothers.


6. Give yourself permission to not be perfect.


Yes, you want to do what is best for your child, and of course you should always try to make the best decisions you can. The reality is, however, that you are not perfect. None of us are. Try as we might to do all we can to give our children the best start, there are times when we fail to live up to our own expectations. Thankfully, young children are rather forgiving. We need to forgive ourselves as well. Parenting is an on-going learning process. Learn from your mistakes and move on. It does not do you or your child any good to dwell on them.


7. Continue to talk to your friends and family.


Relationships do change as a result of becoming a mom. You may not have as much in common with some people as you did before you had a child. There are, however, those true friendships in life that can survive the changes that life brings. It may take some creativity to nurture those friendships now that you are a busy mom. E-mail can be a lifesaver, as can a phone call after the baby is in bed. Also, make time to go out and do something with your friends, even if it is only once a month or once every other month.

This is also an opportunity to renegotiate your relationship with your own family. Mothers and sisters who have children can be a wonderful resource in parenting information and support. There will be times that you will disagree on how best to parent your child, but you are one of them now - a mom - and they can help you fit into this new role.

Also, don't forget your husband. While it may sometimes seem like he doesn't understand or appreciate the changes that you are going through, he is going through a big change in his life as well. Pay attention to the relationship that made you a parent in the first place. It's great if you can get out for a date night, but a date night in can be just as nice. Just be sure to make some time to connect, to talk, and to touch.


8. Make the best decision you can about working outside the home, and feel free to change it if it doesn't work out.

Whether you are a working mom or a stay-at-home mom or something in-between, the important thing is for you to make the best decision for you and your particular set of circumstances. The difficult part is that your initial decision often has to be made before your baby arrives. It is hard to know how you will feel about leaving your baby with another caretaker, or about leaving paid employment, until after the baby arrives. The good thing is that nothing is set in stone.

Some people leave work only to return on a part-time or full-time basis after a certain amount of time. Others return to work immediately after maternity leave only to discover that is no longer where they want to be. Both financial and personal circumstances change and this is one decision that can change as well. Many moms decide to pursue an interest of their own and start a business that they can work from home while caring for their child. Others negotiate for more flexible schedules or part-time work. The possibilities are endless. Do what you can to be comfortable with your decision, and ignore the voices out there that tell you that you should be doing something different.


9. Cultivate a Hobby

This seems counter-intuitive because you have probably never been busier in your life than you are right now, but in your search for identity, it is important to have something you can call your own. Dedicate at least some time to something that interests you and will engage your mind. Do you like to read? Keep a magazine or book handy. It is amazing how much reading you can get done one paragraph at a time! Do you like to take pictures? This is a wonderful time to put those skills to work taking pictures of your baby and perhaps putting them into a scrapbook. If you enjoy writing, keep a journal. Whatever you enjoy, there is probably some way to integrate it into your new life. If an old interest is truly out of the question, then this is the time to find something new. Learning a new skill or practicing an old one will invigorate you and help you realize that while you are a mom, you are also more than a mom.


10. If you need it, don't be afraid to seek professional help.


It is one thing to be going through a challenging time of change; it is quite another to be suffering from depression. The American Academy of Family Physicians (http://familydoctor.org) lists several signs of postpartum depression. If you have lost interest in life, suffer from loss of appetite, feel hopeless, or have thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby, it is time to seek professional assistance. Postpartum depression is real and treatable. It is an illness, not a sign of weakness. Consult your doctor, your pediatrician, or the hospital where you gave birth for information on where to go for help.

While you are navigating this transition into motherhood, it may feel endless. You may worry that you will never feel comfortable in your new skin. There is a destination, however, and it is a wonderful place to be. The day will come when you truly feel like a mother. The new person will have come forth from the woman you once were. On the way to getting there, you will discover new skills and strength that you never knew you possessed. You will learn that you are capable of a depth of love and dedication that you never thought possible. Both you and your children will be better for the experience. In the meantime, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and know that you are well on your way.

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