Who are you and what do you love to do? It’s a question many women struggle to answer. If you’re one of them, here’s how to reclaim your identity.
I was sitting at a sewing machine when I finally slipped out of my trance.
Up until that point, it had been a year of pottery classes and private knitting tuition, of sewing courses and endless runs to Spotlight.
Who the hell have I become?
I asked no one in particular as I stared down at the dress I was completing for my daughter’s birthday party.
And more importantly, why?
It’s a feeling The Lise and Sarah Show podcast host Lise Carlaw understands all too well, having found herself playing a role she says was built on decades of social conditioning.
“I think I automatically forgot who I was and stepped into a way of thinking that was ‘Well, this is how I’m going to be as a mum’,” Lise says.
“I just didn’t have the experience or the maturity to say, ‘Yes, but what about you as Lise, the person? That got lost somewhere.”
Why it’s common for mums to lose their self-identity
Psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson says it’s all too common for women to lose their sense of self in the early stages of parenting in particular.
“After the first birth, a woman’s body usually becomes a breeding and feeding entity for someone else, and often ‘baby brain’ or foggy thinking results as well,” Dr Ferguson explains.
“After the second, they’ll go through this all over again, plus there’s an older child to look after, demanding the rest of her physical and mental resources.
“By then, many women feel they’ve totally lost themselves physically and mentally.”
A revolutionary study found that our brains do indeed change after giving birth, as multiple neurological pathways rebuild to optimise an ability to tap into what others (our children) might be thinking and feeling.
The problem with this, of course, is that knowing – and celebrating – who we are outside of the parenting realm is integral for our own mental health, happiness and general life satisfaction.
“Hopefully you’ll launch your child one day, and you need to make sure you have yourself and your life flourishing before then,” Dr Ferguson says.
“Occupational health and safety says the same thing as psychology: parents need to put their life and health first so they can be there for their kids.”
Chief executive, business coach and author of Self Belief is Your Superpower Tory Archbold feels it’s a way of thinking she cannot stress enough.
“A mother or carer’s instinct is to give, and often they’ll miss the most important point – place the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can then help others,” Tory says.
“The best advice I was given after a near-death experience was, ‘A happy heart is a magnet for miracles’.
“This means a happy heart is the best gift you can give yourself as when you find freedom in your heart, you are able to pay it forward by sharing that good energy with others.”
How to reclaim your identity and a happy heart
Take time to think (and dream)
Creating space in your week to remember the things you love and the things you miss is essential, Lise says.
“Once I started doing that, I began tapping out of the things that I didn’t enjoy doing – like camping with the family – and used the time for much-needed solitude, which then led to going back to the things that I remembered really enjoying before I became a mother.”
Put yourself first
It can feel counterintuitive initially but building a put-yourself-first affirmation into your daily life can change things radically, Tory says.
“If you’re not happy, the people around you will not be happy,” she says.
This can be anything from saying yes to that solo holiday, weekend away with the girls or taking up a new hobby that will take you out of the household every Saturday.
Dr Ferguson says don’t even bother feeling bad about it.
“Children need to learn that they are not more important than the parents,” she says.
“Children who are made too important can either feel too responsible or too entitled, and (may) develop narcissistic personality disorders as adults.”
Buy a calendar
It’s time to start making dates – with yourself and with others.
Think back to the things you enjoyed doing and lock in a regular time, be it weekly, or monthly, to explore these further.
This could be locking in a night of dancing with a friend, going hiking, spending a day at the beach reading or yes, pottery classes.
Tory also recommends making regular coffee dates a priority to help recharge your energy.
Question your relationship with ‘Yes’
Ask yourself whether you say yes to make others happy – even if it results in living a life inauthentic to you?
Defining yourself by what others want – and what they expect of you – can get in the way of rediscovering who you really are and want out of life.
Practise saying no in a manner which walks the line between respectful and not to be asked again.
Try something new
There’s nothing to say we all have to go back to the Nirvana t-shirts and smoky bars of our youth.
As with everything else, we’re always evolving.
Don’t be afraid to try new things – sign up for comedy improv class, join a cycling club, volunteer for an organisation that tugs at your heart strings.
There’s a chance that you have irrevocably changed, but with a little investigative work, this new you could be better and stronger than ever before.