“Being a mother is learning about strengths you didn’t know you had and dealing with fears you never knew existed.” ~Linda Wooten
It was October of 2016 and there I was staring at the wall after yet another sleepless night, nursing my one-year-old, and feeling like a total failure because this motherhood thing still didn’t feel at all natural to me. Why couldn’t I tap easily into my motherly instinct? Why did I feel that, instead of completing me, becoming a mom was actually making me fall apart?
I always knew I wanted to be a mother. It was a given in my case. And, like many little girls, I grew up romanticizing the idea. I couldn’t wait to be one.
Even when I began to understand that things could get hard (because babies don’t sleep right?), I was still confident that with my love, strength, and sheer drive I could surmount it all. Like many of us, I believed being a mom comes naturally to women, that we’re born to be mothers, so even when we struggle, our instinct eventually kicks in and we’re able to figure it out.
Fast forward to a year later and I can honestly tell you that my love, strength, and drive were simply not enough. The truth was that becoming a mom ripped my identity apart. It made me question everything. I didn’t recognize myself anymore and my self-confidence was in the dump. I felt I had broken into a million pieces and I didn’t know how to put them back together.
It took eighteen months of total overwhelm and endless questions without answers for me to finally understand that the old me was never coming back. Everything had shifted.
For the longest time it felt like I was drowning, desperately looking for a lifeline. What I was really looking for was my own permission to want more than being a mother and the courage and self-love to go for it. I realized my identity had been lost to mothering and it was time to take it back.
I reached out for help, went to therapy, and hired a coach. I gave myself the space to mourn the loss of my old self and began to slowly redefine myself as a mom and a woman. Throughout my journey I’ve worked endlessly to boost my strength, courage, and self-confidence and to build my self-worth and step into the world as a new me.
Here are five things I learned about motherhood in that journey that I wish someone had told me back then when I was feeling so lost:
1. It’s not you. You’re not the problem. It’s not in your head.
As I struggled to understand what was happening to me when I became a mom, I sincerely thought that I was the only one feeling this way. That I would never be able to measure up and be both the old and the new me. That it was only me who was always feeling less than regardless of what I did. But as I dug deeper into how other mothers felt, I realized that there are actual terms for what we mothers experience. I never felt so relieved and validated than when I first learned about them.
The academic study of the transformation of woman to mother is referred to as matrescence, a term first coined back in 1973 by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael. Matrescence is the complete transformation (physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual) a woman experiences when she becomes a mother.
Think of it like adolescence. Remember being a teenager when hormones were all over the place, you were questioning everything, and you didn’t feel like yourself anymore? Pretty much the same thing is happening when you become a mom, only this time around you’re expected to be cool and happy about it, not awkward and lost.
And the inner split in matrescence refers to the feeling of being divided between the person we used to be and the mother we are becoming. It’s not just us or in our heads. It’s a REAL identity shift and the reason why we constantly feel pulled in every direction except the one we want to go in.
2. The expectations the world places on mothers and women are at odds.
On top of our individual struggles in becoming a mom, we also have an added layer of the expectations and beliefs society as a whole has placed on us as women and mothers that don’t support us in this journey.
There’s a huge pressure for us to strive to have it all: to lean into a successful career and at the same time be a great and dedicated mother and partner at home—not to mention an endless array of other shoulds. But if you look at them closely, the expectations we all have of what a good mother should be versus what a successful woman must do are at complete odds.
For me, this was my biggest source of guilt. Always trying to be loving, dedicated, and almost martyr-like for my kids, while simultaneously trying to have a successful career that I needed to be equally dedicated to. Needless to say, I felt like I was falling short on all fronts.
It wasn’t until I understood that I was using external definitions of success to measure myself that I began to look at what being a good mother and successful woman really meant to me. And when I started giving myself the permission to only do what felt right for me, I started feeling more at peace with my daily decisions.
3. Motherhood is hard. You’re not alone. It’s a shared experience yet few speak of it that way.
Motherhood is full of contradictions. There’s no right or wrong. Joy, love, guilt, sadness, and anger coexist side by side. The daily shuffle can feel like a grind or a blessing. Yet none of us feel safe expressing this. Nobody has told us that what we’re feeling is not only normal but also expected given the massive identity shift that we’re experiencing when becoming moms. And since nobody talks about this, we don’t realize it’s actually a shared experience by all mothers around the world.
We need to allow women to express the full spectrum of emotions when it comes to motherhood. No mother should feel alone in this journey. I’ve learned that this is why sharing our stories is so important. And why reaching out, speaking up, and building a community of other mom friends that can help and lift each other up is vital to our journey.
4. Feeling guilty for wanting more may be a good sign.
Oh, mom guilt. All moms know that’s one ugly sucker to be stuck in. You feel guilty for not wanting to be a mom all the time. For not being present with your kids when you are with them. For not being the perfect partner. For needing to mentally check out of your daily life every once in a while. For craving space. For taking space! And the list goes on and on.
My guilt used to eat me up. It would paralyze me and prevent me from taking action. My days were flying by without me enjoying anything for me, for my own sake, because I felt so guilty not doing what I thought I was supposed to do. As I began my healing journey, I realized that if I continued this way, my guilt would turn into resentment and to move out of resentment is much harder to do than from guilt.
Nowadays, I view my guilt differently. I take it as a sign that I’m not in alignment with what I really want or need. It’s just one more way my soul is calling me out and telling me I’m ready to start moving forward with what I actually want in life.
When I feel my guilt creeping up, I take a pause and remind myself that I’m more than just a mom, than a partner, than my job. That there’s nothing wrong with wanting more than what I’ve got. And after a deep breath I ask myself, “What do I really need?” and I go do it.
5. This is your chance to completely redefine yourself.
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that motherhood can be a catalyst for change. The loss of identity I felt when I became a mother embarked me on a journey of self-discovery.
I’ve had to shatter old beliefs and expectations on what I should be and do. Step by step, I’ve rebuilt my self-confidence and redefined who I am now. I work daily on ensuring that I’m aligned with what I really need and want to feel vibrant, balanced, and free.
Motherhood is a journey of unraveling, redefining, and rebuilding, and no mom should feel alone, unseen, and unheard in what probably is her greatest challenge to date: the discovery of who she’s really meant to be.