Mental health

Maternal identity: how motherhood changes you

August 21, 2021
Woman holding baby - maternal identity - Naytal

Short on time? Then the key things to know are:

  • It is normal to find becoming a mother difficult - many do. There are multiple adjustments being made, and it can be a time of great change and upheaval

  • It is common to feel disconnected from your prior self and overwhelmed by the new role of motherhood as you get used to this new part of your identity

  • The process of finding your own authentic identity as a mother is a process that takes time - be compassionate towards yourself as you navigate this new terrain

  • Counselling and psychotherapy is a great resource that can help you to make sense of your new role and the emotions this brings up for you

  • Don’t be afraid to seek help from your GP or speak to one of our specialist therapists online if you feel your mental health is suffering beyond what feels manageable

 

Entering into motherhood for the first time can be a period of great change and upheaval. There can be multiple adjustments that are being made - the physical recovery, the lack of sleep, breastfeeding, feeling overwhelmed with a new baby, changes to your family/relationship dynamic… and then some!

It’s important you make time for yourself to check in and care for your mental wellbeing. Here we share how this life-changing experience can affect us - and what you can do to support your postnatal health.

A shift in identity

Adjusting to motherhood can be a difficult process. Even if you haven’t experienced a difficult birth, you can be left with post-birth anxiety. It is a time of mixed emotions.

It has been well established that a woman’s experience of childbirth can have an impact on her mental health. As we know 10-20% of mums experience perinatal mental health difficulties during this period and can feel very overwhelmed and anxious as a result.

Mental health during this period and caring for your emotional wellbeing has thankfully gained more awareness in the media and the maternity space. However, another key factor that is not always talked about during this time is the profound changes in identity that can occur.

Entering into motherhood

Galyna S. Shewtchuk’s defines maternal identity as a psychological construct through which a woman expresses her complex perception, awareness and experience of being a mother. The process when a woman begins to identify herself with her new role as a mother.

This links to the concept of Matrescence coined by Dana Raphael in 1973. Matrescence has been defined as “the physical, emotional, hormonal and social transition to becoming a mother.” It is likened to the process that pre-teens go through as they become adolescents which is also experienced in the transition to motherhood.

Often new mothers already had a strong sense of who they were before they became mothers. This can be in the domain of their professional life, family and social lives. In becoming a mother, they discover a new dimension of existence that had not previously been experienced before. This can leave you feeling disconnected from your prior self and overwhelmed by the new role of motherhood.

It is normal to experience a period of losing oneself whilst reconfiguring your identity in a way that makes space for your new relationship to your child or children, and then reform your identity in a way that includes yourself both as a person, and a mother.

Letting go of expectations

Research has shown that for some, entering into motherhood can lead to an over-identification with the way they were mothered. This can lead to difficulties in finding your own path in mothering that is different to how you were mothered.

Doing things differently from what is familiar to you can be anxiety-provoking and lead to a lack of self-confidence in your own role as a mother. For others, they may not have had a good experience with their own mothers and so may not have a good example of what it means to mother, well.

There can also be a discrepancy between the expectation vs the reality of motherhood. It is not unusual for some mothers to have felt secure in their role as a professional, but feelings of anxiety and inadequacy can arise as they navigate the new terrain of motherhood. This can be compounded by a pressure to live up to the idea of being a “super mum” or perfect mother in order to assure their identity as a mother.

A support network is key

Pressure to pursue the perfect image can lead to anxiety and depression. It can also get in the way of forming an authentic and realistic version of yourself as a mother. In navigating what is both a normal but challenging transition for many, research and anecdotal accounts repeatedly suggest that having a support network of other women and mothers plays an important role during this process of an identity shift.

Having the support of your peers and other role models of mothering in one’s village can provide both the guidance and space needed to connect with your own authentic maternal identity so that you are able to still feel connected with your core sense of self whilst navigating this new realm of life.

Coping with anxiety after childbirth - where to seek help

It is important to remember that experiencing changes in your identity and feelings of ambivalence or confusion about the process, is completely normal. Becoming a mother in a physical sense happens in an instant but becoming a mother in the emotional sense is an ongoing and iterative process.

However, for some, the shift in identity and transition can lead to mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression. If you are struggling with your mental health or identity, counselling and psychotherapy can be a great resource. It offers a safe space within which to begin to explore and makes sense of this new part of yourself, whilst allowing space for growth, change and reconnection with the parts of yourself you hold familiar.

You may also want to consider joining a support group as mothers can often find the companionship and understanding they need from others who are going through this journey too. If you feel you're experiencing postnatal depression, anxiety or any other perinatal mental health issue please talk to your GP or refer yourself to your local talking therapies service or perinatal mental health team.

Looking for one-to-one support from a qualified therapist? Our team of psychologists are here to help with any mental health issues, including challenges with maternal identity. Find out more about our online services and how you can speak to a therapist today.

Dr Orinayo, Naytal Lead Psychologist

Dr Orinayo is a psychologist who has worked across the NHS, charities, schools and in private practice. She has a special interest in working with women experiencing emotional difficulties during the perinatal period.

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