I don’t know who I am other than mom. Even when I have the time and can do whatever I want, I don’t know what I like to do anymore. I feel invisible. I only feel valued for the things I do for others. I have nothing to talk about aside from my kids. I wonder if they’ll think I’m boring.
Clinical psychologist Jessica Michaelson, PsyD, often hears these statements from her clients. It’s not that being a stay-at-home mom is inherently bad or damaging to our sense of self. In fact, if it aligns with your core values, it can absolutely strengthen it, said Michaelson, who specializes in postpartum depression and anxiety, stress management and parent coaching.
Problems arise when moms believe they need to give everything — all their time and attention to their kids — without nurturing themselves, she said. “Also, our culture still praises selflessness in motherhood, so there is a fear of being judged if you take time to attend to other interests and needs.”
Plus, parenting is hard work. Sleep deprivation, lack of structure and the newness of motherhood can mess with our identity. Even if staying at home gives you a powerful sense of self, you still might feel overwhelmed, irritable and bored, said Elizabeth Sullivan, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in helping moms and the entire family. “Meaningful work is not always easy or even fun.”
“Anyone who spends long hours alone with a monotonous routine with children begins to lose [their] sense of self,” said Shawn Fink, a family wellness and work-life balance coach. “When we are responsible 100 percent of the time for little people, we start to forget that there is a part of us that really needs to be nourished and fed and maintained.”
If you feel like your sense of self is slipping or you want to find more ways to nourish yourself, consider these tips:
Process the identity shift.
Sullivan emphasized that moms need to talk honestly about all the feelings and changes they’re experiencing—and to have “non-judgmental ears” to listen and make sense of these reactions. You might get this through talking to other moms, family members, a group or therapist, she said.
Pay attention to your preferences.
This is something Michaelson recommends when women feel disconnected from themselves. “It’s the true self that spontaneously prefers one color from another, one taste over another.” Even the smallest choice is worthy of celebration—like knowing that you’d rather wear black jeans over blue ones, she said. What does your true self gravitate toward?
Journal to understand yourself.
Fink, founder of The Abundant Mama Project, talks regularly about inner work: “that land between what we do for others and self-care. That’s where we find our sense of self.”
Journaling is a valuable way to do this inner work. One of Fink’s favorite prompts is: “What do I need right now?” “When I ask myself that, I instantly feel connected to myself, who I am and exactly how to proceed next in the chaos of motherhood and life.”
Focus on what fascinates you.
“Fascination is driven by the true self; it’s a strong interest in something without having to justify or explain the interest,” Michaelson said. She asks her clients to reflect on what fascinated them in the past because that fascination rarely fades. Once you know what those things are for you, focus on being fascinated.
Maybe you notice beautiful flowers on your way to the grocery store. Maybe you read about van Gogh, whose work has captivated you for a long time. Maybe you start writing or drawing or sewing.
Seek out honest, helpful resources you can relate to.
For instance, Sullivan believes that Anne Lamott’s book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year should be required reading for every new mom. “It is a totally honest look at the bliss and the—frankly, sometimes—misery of new motherhood.”
Move your body.
“Exercising asserts your body as having its own needs, which can be a powerful reminder of your self,” Michaelson said. The key is to pick physical activities that you genuinely enjoy (not activities that feel like a chore or punishment). This might be anything from dancing to doing a yoga DVD.
Check in with yourself every season.
“We can really change during our motherhood journeys,” as we’re keeping up with our kids’ various stages and phases, Fink said. That’s why she recommends women experiment with all types of self-care and inner work during the different seasons of motherhood.
Also, “busy, modern moms tend to not feel productive if they are just relaxing, so working in something that feels productive and nourishing is the ultimate win for a mom who feels she has lost herself.” For Fink that activity is walking. “It moves my body to promote good health but the movement also puts my state of mind into a much better place.”
Many moms tend to feel selfish or guilty for focusing on themselves. But remember that self-care is powerful and necessary. Plus, “feeling like a fulfilled mother is probably the biggest gift you can give your child,” Sullivan said. After all, we can’t give anything from a dry well. But we can give so much from a full one.