Who am I?
Quite often we bumble along in life without stopping to ask the deeper questions that aren’t solely reserved for the weighty texts lined up in the ‘philosophy’ department at Waterstones.
Before I became a parent I was relatively secure in my (perceived) sense of self. Except I wasn’t as it turned out.
Whether it’s euphoric, strangely surreal, traumatic or somewhere in between, there is no arguing with the profundity of bringing a baby into the world. This new dimension to our lives, being a mum or dad to a tiny, dependent human being can throw us into something of an identity crisis.
This becomes more marked in the interactions we have at the plethora of baby groups we attend and even in conversation with healthcare professionals, when we are referenced purely in the context of being somebody’s mum rather than a person in our own right. I am embarrassed to confess that I see familiar faces from nursery drop-off on the high street and still refer to them as “Isabella’s* mum” or “Toby’s* dad” (*amend name as appropriate) without any knowledge of their own name.
When I became a mum, I almost felt like my identity collapsed. My sense of self was all blurred and I became Oscar’s mum – the anonymous 24 hour care provider to a precious new life. He was a tiny boy but it felt like a gargantuan responsibility.
So many of the parents we meet at our peer support groups admit to a sense of confusion. This all-consuming new role re-writes the script we are so used to (like a comfy pair of slippers) that we can feel remote from ourselves, with a weird detachment…as if witnessing but not actively living our own lives.
This identity crisis was intrinsic to the emotional meltdown I experienced. Without the Natalie I knew, who the hell was I? Couple this with a belief that I was failing miserably as a mum and it became a potent cocktail of confusion and negativity.
It’s not all bad. Confusion is the gateway to learning. The learning curve has been steep at time but that’s ok.
What I’m learning is that we are all the product of conditioning. We try and inhabit prescriptive roles that society has cut out for us and we assign them characteristics that are so limiting by their definition. We then reinforce these perceptions with bold typed ‘shoulds’ that demand conformity and dictate that anything beyond those margins is ‘unacceptable’. Take for example the following five statements:
- Becoming a mum should be the happiest time of your life
- You should be overwhelmed with unconditional love when you first see your baby
- Motherhood should come naturally to you
- Being a mum should complete you
- Maternity leave should be a wonderful time
I believed all these statements without question before I became a mum and the reality was such a contradiction that I felt both ashamed and alienated.
I strongly believe that perinatal mental illness can be so punishing because we feel that we have no right to experience negativity at a time when we are told we should be our happiest.
I now believe that my perceived identity was just a self-limiting bunch of stories I’d reinforced. I have the wider perspective and courage to see beyond the labels that are dished out and I’m not afraid to challenge these constructs. I’ve gone all existential but I’m happy with that and perinatal mental illness has taught me more about myself than I ever thought possible. It’s led me to probe deeper into those meaningful ‘life’ questions and I’ve started hanging out in the philosophy section of Waterstones a whole lot more.
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