This is a guest post about finding a sense of self through Motherhood, from Joanna, who shares over at My Anxious Life.
Motherhood. There are highs and lows and we all have different experiences, but one thing we can all agree on for certain is that it’s all-consuming.
From the moment you begin your future of indignity and near-constant spotlight on bodily functions by weeing on a stick, you’re a Mother. You are no longer just you. You are the home for another human, safe-keeper, provider of nourishment. You sacrifice so that another may thrive. Gone is the good stuff like wine, brie and cured meats and instead you try to develop a new love for spinach smoothies. You take stretch marks, wee leaks and swollen ankles on the chin because they’re no longer what’s important.
Then comes birth – painful, scary, exhausting. But all of that is washed away when you finally meet the little person you’ve literally been living for. Well-wishers come to visit, but they’re not coming for you any more. They’re coming for the beautiful bundle of perfection you’ve created. The beautiful bundle that’s entirely dependent on you. You. The bringer of milk, wiper of poo, giver of incomparable love. All day. All night. No breaks. Hormones, painful body parts, exhaustion, adoration… then STOP!
The world stops humouring you and tells you to re-join society, sharpish. You’ve no longer ‘just’ had a baby. No one wants to know about your birth story or cracked nips any more. There’s work to be done! It’s time to be assimilated back into the ranks. And you’re expected to slip right back into the box you left, as the exact person you were. But you’re not the person you were, and you no longer fit in the box. You’ve gone from old you to new you to some kind of hybrid you, that’s torn between two worlds, desperately trying to find a way to be everything to everyone.
No wonder so many women say that having children causes them to lose themselves, to feel that they just don’t know who they are any more. Their sense of self has been shattered, and they haven’t been afforded the time or space to piece it back together.
But my story is slightly different.
I came to the Motherhood party with very little sense of self. I had a good career, but I fell into it by accident after Uni. It wasn’t my passion, my motivator; I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I have friends who have always known who they are and what they wanted to do with their lives: an artist, a doctor, a lawyer. Not so for me, I was clueless. There was no vocation or calling to play a part in forming my identity.
There are many interests I’ve always enjoyed: film, photography, history and art. But I always felt I was a strange melting pot – again, no one hobby or pastime to help define me. My husband is a cyclist; a friend a crafter; another is a rower; another a regular music gig attendee. But I’m not an ‘anything’. When I met new people, I’d get the fear. What will I say about myself? Should I just pretend I play the flute?!
So no career or hobbies that defined me. Unfortunately, what had defined me for most of my life, internally at least, was mental ill health. Anxiety, depression and a period of disordered eating had all been a part of my formative years. Not only is that not the way you want to introduce yourself at dinner parties, but those internal struggles had led to low self-esteem, constant undermining and self-criticism…. To self-loathing, really.
And that’s where Motherhood came in. I was lucky enough to have two fairly easy pregnancies that I loved (the result of them have nearly killed me since, but that’s another blog post!) And although childbirth was agony (and certainly wasn’t smooth sailing, particularly with my first), I felt – still feel – a huge sense of achievement that I’d never felt before. It’s an accomplishment like no other.
I found that I took to Motherhood easily. Don’t get me wrong, every single minute brought a new challenge or worry. But my ability as a Mother was, strangely enough, the one thing I didn’t constantly question or undermine myself about.
I found myself growing in confidence and pride – the self-loathing was diminishing, in one area of my life at least. An illness (from which he was thankfully discharged on his second birthday) meant that for the first two years of our eldest’s life, I dealt with hospital appointments, tests and frequent NHS issues. I had to find strength, resilience and dogged determination like never before. I started to appreciate and respect myself for what I’d endured and what I never thought I was capable of, both physically and mentally.
After a traumatic year last year, I found that all these pieces of myself that had been growing and strengthening came together – they gave me drive and bravery to make changes and pursue new avenues for myself, with some of the confidence of Motherhood and less of the self-hatred of youth.
And I realised I’d been looking at everything all wrong. I’d been trying to pin my sense of self on all these external factors and completely missed the point. Who I am was much, much more than my job or hobby – the clue was in the title: it was within my self. My children, and the crazy ups and downs of Motherhood, had unknowingly guided me right to the sense of self that was always missing; to the realisation of who I am.
I am a work in progress. The background is in place; I have a palette – loaded with creativity, strength, power and intellect – to hand; and there are some sketched outlines just waiting to be developed. It’s OK that my sense of self isn’t tied to one thing. Because I am free – I can use my tools to paint any kind of picture I want.