DFWChild / Articles / MomLife / Relationships / Identity Crisis: Rediscovering Yourself in Motherhood
iStock image of woman looking through a window at night, Identity Crisis: Rediscovering Yourself in Motherhood

Identity Crisis: Rediscovering Yourself in Motherhood

Why we lose ourselves in motherhood and how to find your way back

“I’m a mom. I’m not sure what else.” It wasn’t until I heard myself utter those words out loud that I realized it: somewhere along the way, I had lost myself in motherhood.

It happened years ago when I worked in an office divided into identical beige cubes. The only thing differentiating one from another were their colorful, custom name plaques. Cartoon characters, race cars, refreshing vacation scenes—each placard told a little story about the person who sat inside that cube. But when it came time for me to design my own, I froze. What did I like? What were my hobbies? I honestly didn’t know. Though I had a career, a husband, friends and family, the most central part of my identity was being a mom—so much so, that I couldn’t remember the most basic qualities that made me me 

Experts say that many—if not most—moms will at some point come to this crossroads. So many mothers have a moment when they feel that their entire identity is wrapped up in the role of mom. According to the 2020 State of Motherhood survey by Motherly, 71% of moms report being “most strongly defined” by their motherhood. Among moms under 30 with young children, that bumps up to 78%. And those who are not in the workforce—87%—are more likely to feel this way.  

“Losing yourself in motherhood is so common,” says Heidi McBain, a marriage and family therapist based in Flower Mound who specializes in coaching moms and moms-to-be. “Women are often socialized to put other people’s wants and needs before their own, which can be an easy pattern to continue in motherhood. Also, women are still more likely than men in this day and age to become full-time stay-at-home parents or cut back on their work hours to take care of family, which can lead to motherhood becoming all-encompassing.”  

But whether working, staying home, or somewhere in between, motherhood is all-consuming. It’s a demanding, round-the-clock job, where one day’s responsibilities bleed into the next with no breaks in between. In fact, a 2018 study found that the average American mom “works” about 98 hours a week caring for her family, the equivalent of two-and-a-half full-time jobs.

But more than a non-stop barrage of tasks, being a mom is mentally and emotionally consuming, as well. No wonder maintaining one’s independent selfhood while also having children can seem impossible. At some point, women come up for air and realize that they’ve slowly faded away from themselves. 

“Being a mom is a wonderful legacy, but that’s not all of who I am. I was a whole person before I got married and had kids.”

“That sense of identity loss often comes with a sudden realization, because its progressive,” says Annia Palacios, a licensed professional counselor who owns Tightrope Therapy in Fort Worth and specializes in working with mothers.

The Oncoming Identity Crisis

“We don’t realize it until there’s a distinct moment where we’re like, ‘wait a second, I don’t know who I am outside of motherhood. What do I like? What do I enjoy? I don’t even know anymore.’ It’s not like a light switch where it’s on and off and you lose your outside hobbies and interests. It gradually builds over time, and we don’t realize that it’s even happening.”

For Jennifer Jurek Land, the loss happened over the span of 15 years. The Fort Worth mom poured herself into homeschooling her five children for nearly two decades, a job that took nearly all of her time, energy and attention. Her own passions and pursuits were afterthoughts; squeezed into her life as her kids’ schedules allowed. But when her youngest was finally old enough to not need her so intensely, she didn’t feel relief. Instead, she says, it felt “weird.”  

“I felt lost,” she says, “like I needed to understand who I am now at this point in my life.”  

Elisabeth Reta, a mom of two from Dallas, came to a similar crossroads after she moved from working outside the home to being a stay-at-home mom amid the pandemic.  

“I kind of felt like all I was doing was mom stuff. There wasn’t really anything in my life that was just for me anymore,” she says. “I felt like I was having like a midlife crisis. Like if I died tomorrow, what would my legacy be? And being a mom is a wonderful legacy, but that’s not all of who I am. I was a whole person before I got married and had kids.”

You, but different  

Do we really lose ourselves when we become moms, or is it that motherhood fundamentally changes who we are? A little of both, experts say.

Matrescence is a distinct year-long period of change that marks the emergence of a whole new identity: a mother.

“In motherhood we may lose touch with ourselves because we’re prioritizing taking care of our kids over taking care of ourselves. But motherhood does change who we are fundamentally as well,” says McBain. “The woman who becomes a mom is not the same woman she was before having children, starting on day one.” 

The shift starts with the period of matrescence, which Palacios explains is a physical, hormonal, emotional and social transition into motherhood. Just like adolescence marks the growth from children to young adults, matrescence is a distinct year-long period of change that marks the emergence of a whole new identity: a mother.    

“It’s normal to feel you’re redefining your identity in this time,” says Palacios. “And every time you have another child, you go through this period. Maybe the changes that you go through will look different from a first-time mom to a second-time mom and beyond. But it’s a year of transitioning into your new role.”  

But once this period passes, moms don’t just go back to who they used to be. Instead, they continue to evolve, going through their own seismic shifts just as their kids grow and change. Being a parent reshapes relationships with family, friends and partners—and the way we see ourselves.  

“Now, you’re somebody’s mom,” says Palacios. “We even describe ourselves like that: ‘I’m Sarah’s mom,’ instead of using our own name.”  

But preserving a sense of self outside their kids is vital to a mom’s mental health. “Then you bring a better, more fulfilled woman back to yourself, and into the family and your relationship with your partner,” says McBain. “You have something to give versus always feeling depleted by others.” 

Rediscovering your interests  

Fort Worth mom of one Jessica Parham says a loss of self eventually led to “a serious anxiety spiral.” So her therapist prescribed that she do something she used to love: read a book.

“It was like I woke up,” she says about picking up a book for the first time in 10 years. “After that one, I couldn’t stop.” In the last year and a half, she’s read almost 100 books, started a book blog and Bookstagram. “I finally feel like myself again and it’s awesome,” she says.  

Jurek Land had a similar assignment from a counselor as she grappled with her own identity crisis: make a list of all the things she used to love to do as a kid. She realized that she still loved many of those things, she just didn’t do them anymore. 

“It had me reflecting on how to incorporate those ‘old me’ things into my new life in a way that was fulfilling. I began making lists for myself. What are some things I want out of life? What are my dreams? What have I always wanted to do? And what’s stopping me from doing it?” she says. Eventually, her journey to reconnect with herself led to a new career and stronger sense of identity than ever before.  

Returning to the things you enjoyed before kids may be one way of rediscovering yourself, but it’s not always the answer. For some women, it’s more about balancing who you used to be with who you are now. After all, interests change and what was fun or fulfilling before children might not be the same today. So finding yourself after motherhood might mean accepting that you’re no longer the same person you were before having kids and connecting with the new version of you. What fills her cup?

Wait, what are my interests now?

Not sure where to begin? That’s common, says Palacios. If you feel like you don’t even know what you like anymore, she suggests starting with what you don’t like and working from there.

“I tell moms, ‘let’s talk about the things that you really don’t like right now. Let’s talk about what’s really bothering you, and then we try to find the opposite,’” she says. “So for example, maybe someone feels overstimulated and touched out because the kids or the baby is just always on them. So let’s talk about what the opposite of that might look like.” 

From there, figure out concrete but easy actions you can take. If you need alone time, try taking a walk without the stroller, without the dog—just you. Palacios says a little trial and error can help you figure out what does feel good.

Make me-time a priority

But the biggest key in connecting with yourself, experts say, is making it a priority. That may feel backwards to moms, who are used to putting the needs of their kids first, but it’s possible to prioritize your children and yourself. In fact, since a child’s wellness is directly related to their mother’s mental health, taking time for you is taking care of them.  

Be intentional about carving out a few minutes of me-time every day, and make sure you’re not “living on leftovers,” says Palacios. Too often, mothers take care of themselves in leftovers of the day—naptime or after bedtime—and in those spaces, they are already mentally and emotionally drained. Plus, what if the baby takes a short nap, but you were counting on that hour to do something for yourself? “This is where we begin to lose ourselves because we don’t intentionally carve out that time to have time for ourselves,” says Palacios. 

In the moments that you take for yourself, focus on self-care from a wholistic standpoint. How can you truly care for your whole well-being, including intellectually or creatively? Maybe it’s listening to a podcast, reading a book that’s not a bedtime story, drawing or painting or just connecting with other adults.

“What matters to each person, what fills your cup, is going to be different based on each individual,” Palacios explains. “It’s about taking the time to find those things and then prioritizing them and protecting mom’s ability to do that.”

RELATED: Mommy Burnout: Why Moms Are So Overwhelmed and How to Fix It

Top image: iStock