Tuesday 21 August 2018

'I want to scream, 'I am still me' but friends don't call and life is harder' - parents on losing their identities once they have children

It is common for mothers and fathers to struggle with feelings of lost identity once they have children. Jen Hogan talks to parents about their experiences

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Parenthood is a time of immense change. No matter how much advice you receive or research you've done, nothing can quite prepare you for the impact it has on your life. It's an unpredictable, rollercoaster journey that's filled with highs, lows, love, snots and sleep deprivation for good measure.

But whilst you're at the fair, enjoying and enduring all that parenthood has to offer, sometimes it's easy to lose our sense of self. That person we were before can take a backseat to the person we feel we need to be, or have inadvertently become. Tiredness, never-ending demands and a lack of things in common with our friends who aren't yet parents, can lead to us feeling removed from ourselves of old.

So, does it need to be like this - is all changed, changed utterly? Can we reclaim the old us or is there much to be embraced in the new you? Whatever the answer, few of us can honestly say that our identity hasn't altered at all.

Emma-Jayne O'Donnell says becoming a mother has changed her completely - even down to the way she dresses, behaves and socialises. Before parenthood Emma-Jayne says she "was a very outgoing, sociable and busy person who had many different circles of friends and was involved in many different activities." Now, "I feel like I'm an example or role model for my children but also I feel other parents expect me to behave like a mummy, too."

Having two children close together and suffering postnatal depression prevented Emma- Jayne from returning to work as a nurse. "I have lost touch with that part of my life and found many friends drift away as they don't have any children and don't quite understand the responsibility."

She misses the confidence she used to have in herself the most, and how she was known as a nurse and friend - "not just the kids' mummy as I am now," Emma-Jayne adds. Building on where she finds herself, she set up a supportive mental health group called 'Tea and Toast' in her area. "It's for mums only, no kids allowed, for two hours to chill and listen to the two speakers talk about their specialist areas and have a moan and groan with a cuppa and a wee homemade baked goodie."

Postnatal depression also affected mum Brona English's sense of identity. Brona of @snappyhappymummy says, "I knew things would change. Oisín was a planned baby but my expectations of motherhood never became a reality. Unfortunately, one thing I never expected to happen was postnatal depression. It took hold of me and took away a lot of the joy I had hoped to experience".

"Freedom" is what Brona misses most and says when she returned to work that she felt like she "didn't fit in anymore." Having recently quit her job to take on some part-time agency work, Brona feels differently now. "It has taken me a while to enjoy being a mother but at the moment I am loving it and am feeling so much better since I made that decision. I was clinging on to the old me but after counselling and lots of work I am happy with the new me. PND was something I never expected to have and said it wouldn't define me, but it has made me a stronger person."

Prior to parenthood, Gemma Hall worked long hours as an accounting professional. Motherhood proved very different to her expectations. "I thought it would be all shiny and rosy like you see on TV and films, basically I'd be able to carry on as I was before - just with a baby attached to me."

Gemma says, "I feel like I am standing in the shadow of my husband and children. I put them first 100pc of the time, often to the detriment of what I want to do or making sure I get enough self-care. My children are young - five and three - so don't see me as anyone apart from 'just mum'. Partly it's down to me, I've not spent a night away from either of them yet as I just feel like I would miss them too much."

When it comes to how a mum 'should' behave, Gemma says, "I definitely see the pressure, especially now I have a blog (mummyswaisted.co.uk), and there are so many other perfect mom bloggers out there. The ones who get to take their kids to Disneyland or have the latest kids outfits sent to them to try."

She is, however, clawing back some of her old self. "We are trying to get out to gigs and football matches now and then, but trying to work around sleep deprivation and childcare is sometimes a challenge. I'm also trying to look after myself more now that my children are a little bit older and I don't feel so guilty about leaving them to get my hair done or nails painted. I do think I have some way to go, though, before I settle on the final mummy-me."

For some parents, the loss of identity parenthood brings can be further compounded by additional factors. Writer Ger Renton (geraldinerenton.com) is one such mum. Her eldest child Ethan has a terminal, rare metabolic condition called Hunter Syndrome.

"Having a terminally ill child has definitely made an impact on my identity". Ger explains, "I have become the mother no one would ever want to be. I am Ethan's mom, 'The poor thing. God love her and God bless us all… an inspiration', the reason people light candles. Of course it's nice to be thought so highly of but sometimes I want to scream, 'I am still me'. Parents avoid me. Friends don't call and life is harder. That's the truth of it. No one wants to be around sadness or the reality of a sick little boy".

A "social butterfly" before her children were born, Ger says, "My friends used to be able to ring me and meet me - all within the space of an hour. Now it takes days, sometimes weeks to plan. It's a hard balance because you are proud to be a mammy and you know it's a privilege, but sometimes you'd love just to be you, meeting your friends with no buggies and having a glass of wine in the middle of the day.

"I was three months shy of my 21st birthday when I had my first child and I think that experience changed me so quickly that even my closest friends got a shock. I was a single parent, too, so that took a toll on me; forcing me to do it all and be it all for my son.

"But the one thing I didn't foresee, and I don't think any really mother does, despite being told it and reading about it, is the pure love that runs through every part of your body as soon as you meet your baby. You know things will never be the same; you know that this little being will forever be walking around with a big piece of your heart attached to them. It's a powerful reality.

"I am embracing my mother identity as best as I can. I use our life to let other families know that no matter what they are facing, they are never alone. I have suffered from anxiety and stress for years, Ethan's life and the way he deals with so much made me deal with my own struggles. I am not sure I would have asked for help without having Ethan shown me the way," she says.

Of course, it's not just mums whose identity can feel challenged. Daddy blogger, Alan Herbert (omgfamilylifefood.com), was catapulted into the realities of parenthood. "Before I met my partner and automatically became a stepdad to her two boys, I was a workaholic," he says.

The major parenting adjustment came for Alan when his newborn son arrived, with all that entails. "At around the same time we got a diagnosis of autism, ADHD and dyspraxia for one of my stepsons" he adds.

As a stay-at-home parent Alan says he misses working. "I pretty much am Dad all the time. Being the only driver in the house, it's me who does all the school runs, drives the boys to training and matches as well as all hospital and therapy appointments. Then with four kids there is always housework or something that needs doing.

"I was never one for having loads of friends and heading out to social events, but I did enjoy the banter and friendships that were made through work. As well as having someone to call upon for a night out when sitting at home got too boring. Being a stay-at-home dad and carer for my stepson I don't have the opportunity for that anymore.

"Having no one to have a joke with and talk about the footie or world events with, led to me getting frustrated and snappy with the kids," Alan explains, which led ultimately to him starting his blog.

"It's my thing. I've made a number of very good friends on social media and have an online group of friends to chat to," he adds.

Life coach Ben Edwards (benedwards.com) says every parent experiences a varying degree of identity loss, "based on a number of factors, such as being male or female and personal circumstance."

Ben feels the loss of identity "stems from a worry that they can no longer behave in a certain way or do the things they want. What I want to reiterate is that while changing certain behaviours is necessary to be a good mum, being a mum doesn't define you.

"It's crucial that you can spot the early warning signs of feeling this way so that you can make these emotions more positive. People tend to muddle through, especially as new parents; this is a very hectic time and you may not even notice that you're not making time for yourself because so much has changed. If you allow time for yourself and do the things that you love, you will be the best mum or dad you can be because you'll be happy."

While Ben does recognise that mothers are more susceptible to feeling like this, he adds that the feelings materialise "differently depending on your own experience and situation, regardless of your gender, because so many people now raise children their own way."

Embracing your new identity (and reclaiming some of the old)

  • Be aware your life is going to change as an expecting parent . you can never be too self-aware. This will ensure you don't lose your identity but instead adapt.
  • Make time for you - you'll be a better parent.
  • Remember, there's no shame in being your own person, especially as a single parent. Continue to do the things you enjoy without feeling guilt.

Tips from Life Coach Ben Edwards / benedwards.com

Irish Independent

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