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  • Writer's pictureAshley Hommersom

Me, Because of You ~ Identity in Motherhood


It is no secret that being a mother is practically synonymous with ‘busy’, – having another who needs of and from you has led to multiplying to-do lists with seemingly less hours in the day. The opportunity to have spontaneous dinners with friends, go away for a weekend, read a book cover to cover, quietly meditate, or wonder the promenade with no one wanting or needing anything from you, might seem like a distant memory once children come along. It is no wonder then, that women can experience significant challenges in connecting (and re-connecting) with themselves once entering motherhood. Perhaps becoming a mother was always your plan, a long-desired wish and want, perhaps it came as a (unwanted) surprise, perhaps it meets all your expectations, perhaps it meets none. But one thing is certain – becoming a mother, and stepping into the social realm of motherhood, changes you.


I have frequently heard about, and experienced for myself, the destabilising, and at times draining, and all-consuming nature of childrearing, and thus the sense of ‘loosing yourself’ in and to motherhood. This is not just because of the growing piles of laundry, and constant demands placed on you by another, but also due to changes that occur within us, and around us, as we transition into the social role of mother. This change of self can rock us to the core, leaving us questioning – “who am I now?”.


So, identity, and what makes up our identity, is thought of differently by different theorists. As a social worker, I see and understand people (their experiences, behaviours, and identity) within their environment, and in relation to others, making it almost impossible to separate out oneself from the world around us. In other words, who we are, and how we see ourselves, is largely based on how we relate to others, and what we have experienced, as well as how we are similar or different to others. This in turn is influenced by the society in which we live, and the social rules, norms, and expectations - the ‘shoulds’ - that we are taught from a young age, and passively, even unconsciously, absorb from the world around us.


What this means for women who become mothers, is that long before you have a child, you already have some ideas or notions of what being a mother is all about. This perhaps comes from our own experience of being mothered (or cared for by an adult – the process of ‘mothering’ isn’t only undertaken by a (biological) mother), as well as what we understand a mother to be. The archetype of ‘mother’ that we have become familiar with in our society and popular culture and media, is someone who, amongst other things, is selfless, tender, sacrificial, maternal, gentle, patient, has a stable and ‘typical’ heterosexual monogamous relationship, is fulfilled by mothering, and dedicates everything to her children 24/7.


In contrast to this, living in a neoliberal capitalist society, means that we see ourselves and others as being autonomous beings, in control of our own life choices and self-interest, with a particular focus on economic growth and success. With this, waves of feminism have taught women we can do it all. We can enter the public domain of the workforce, earn our own living, and be powerful, independent women. Womanhood can now include ambition, having our own sexual desire, and strive for success. Yet, we are caught in a trap, because ‘woman’ remains synonymous with ‘mother’, as it is assumed that our biological capacity as a woman means we are destined to become mothers (which is a bigger conversation in and of itself). This means that we are both expected to be ‘productive’ autonomous members of society by working and contributing to the economy (mothering is not seen as being ‘productive’ in this way), but also dedicate our everything (by eroding ourselves) to our children. Doing anything less than this, puts us in the ‘bad mother’ and/or ‘bad worker’ category, leaving us feeling like we are ‘not enough’ and ‘failing’, often at both. This can have a huge impact on how we see ourselves, and thus our identity.


Besides for the societal and cultural factors that impact maternal identity, becoming a mother changes our brains. Whilst the neuroscience is still in its infancy, we are starting to understand that the extreme hormonal changes in pregnancy prepare a mother’s body for growing, birthing, and feeding another human, but also prepare her brain for the emotional, mental, and behavioural aspects of mothering; providing the required care, nurture, and protection of her baby, by attending and responding to its needs for survival.


This process of reorganisation and restructuring of the social part of a mother’s brain (the bit associated with relationships and social connections/interactions), not only impacts on how she learns (because it’s not necessarily instinctive) to tend to her baby, but also changes the way she views herself and the world around her. A woman often becomes more outwardly focused, concerned about the state of the world, and astutely aware of risks to herself and her baby. This often results in a changing of values, interests, and priorities, causing a shift in all areas of her life, including relationships and work interests. This complete upheaval of self has been defined as ‘matrescence’, like ‘adolescence’.


Matrescence was first written about and coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973, and describes the process of undergoing physical, emotional, hormonal, and social transitions when becoming a mother. Whilst the term, and the social understanding around ‘matrescence’ practically disappeared from our collective conscience not long after it was first written about, it is slowly starting to re-emerge, and contribute to the way in which we can understand and suitably support women in their motherhood journey.


So, bringing together the social and cultural expectations, rules, and beliefs of women and mothers, which influence the ways that individuals collectively experience motherhood (and how they are either measuring up, or not, to the ‘mother’ archetype), along with individual brain changes that occur during matrescence, it is no wonder that women identify that the transition to motherhood rocks and changes them.


For some, motherhood can therefore become a catalyst for growth, either by entering a whole new version of themselves, one which did not exist prior to becoming a mother, or ‘unlocking’ parts of themselves that were previously hidden away. For others, becoming a mother reinforces and strengthens who they already were pre-motherhood. However, for many, becoming a mother can also be very disorientating, and not necessarily a catalyst for growth, but rather for confusion, feeling like they have lost themselves, without a roadmap home. This can feel distressing, isolating, and shameful, especially when the messages we receive over and over are about joy, excitement, celebration, and amazement.


The unsettling process, and upheaval of self, associated with entering into motherhood, is a very large contributing factor to poor mental health in the pregnancy and postnatal period, as well as for many years after. It is for this very reason that talking about the process of becoming and being a mother, both from the perspective of social and cultural influences, as well as individual biological changes, is imperative, if we are to understand it’s impact on a woman’s identity (how she sees herself, and the world around her, as well as how she relates to others) and her overall wellbeing.


If you feel that motherhood has caused you to feel somewhat disconnected from yourself, you might like to reflect on some of your values, and how they are present in your life at this stage and phase of mothering, as a way of beginning to re-orientate to yourself.


If you would like to share some of your thoughts or reflections afterwards, I would like to hear from you. If you feel that you are grappling with aspects of your motherhood journey, identity, wellbeing/mental health, or your matrescence, and would like some guidance or support in this process, please reach out – you are worth it.

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​Acceptance

Encouragement

Kindness

Adventure

Excitement

Love

Assertiveness

Fairness/Justice

Mindfulness

Authenticity

Fitness

Order

Caring/Self-Caring

Flexibility

Persistance

Compassion

Forgiveness

Respect

Connection

Freedom

Responsibility

Contribution

Friendliness

Safety

Cooperation

Fun

Sensuality

Courage

Gratitude

Sexuality

Creativity

Honesty

Skilfulness

Curiosity

Industry

Supportiveness

Empowerment

Intimacy

Trust

Which 5 values are the most important to you, right now? Are they equally important in all areas of your life, or is there a variation when it comes to mothering?


Which values have become more important to you since becoming a mother? How do you feel about this?


When you are living by your most important values, how will you treat yourself, others, and the world around you?


How can you model these values and create environments, situations and relationships where these values thrive?


What is in the way of enabling you to fully live by your values, and what would you like to do about it?

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