My mom doted on me and my sisters endlessly when we were kids. Her life revolved around us. I have very little sense of who she was as a person outside of being my mom. I’m immeasurably grateful for how singularly devoted she was, but her dedication has created an unexpected tension in my own motherhood experience. I, too, want to be a great mom—but still be my own person.
It’s easier said than done. When I became a mom, I was wholly unprepared for how my entire identity would suddenly become defined by my relationship with my little human. The other parts of me were relegated to second (or third or fourth) fiddle as motherhood usurped all. I saw no other option than focussing on my newborn and nothing else.
As my kids became schoolagers, I was able to bring back some of my other selves. I started working more, going to social events sans kids, and attending fitness classes, and it was amazing. It made me enjoy motherhood more.
Then COVID hit. Stuck at home 24/7 with my children, I found myself back to being all mom, all the time. And although there’s been some light in the COVID tunnel, it’s fair to say I’m tired of mothering.
I love my kids and I’m proud to be their mom. But ten years and two kids in, it still doesn’t sit well with me to be thought of by others solely as “Annabel and Levi’s mom.” I was always a bit ambivalent about becoming a mom; I’ve been much more intentional with my career. But since motherhood happened, it seems a lot of what I worked for beforehand matters little. Especially when my kids were very young, I had to put them first all the time, even when a dream project came knocking. I missed out on opportunities to hone my skills and advance my career. Even now that my kids are seven and 10, my mom self, which is often unscheduled, messy-bunned and flying by the seat of my pants, rarely jibes with my deadline-driven, professional and put-together work self.
Despite my mom and work selves being two sides of the same coin, I find them very hard to reconcile, especially when you throw in my other selves like wife, friend and daughter. Before motherhood, I could juggle various roles with ease. But since becoming a mom, motherhood dominates, both internally and in how others view me.
Melissa Hogenboom can relate. “When I returned to work, I felt I had to leave my motherhood self at home,” says the mom of two and author of the new book The Motherhood Complex. “I knew the two selves wouldn’t align.”
My experience with this lack of alignment left me feeling rather lost. In hindsight, I realize motherhood is not only a monumental shift where a beautiful little human fills your life, but there’s also loss involved. When you become a mom, you gain a new identity, but you also lose parts of yourself.
“This loss of self is really prominent but not often talked about,” says Kate Borsato, a registered clinical counsellor in Sydney, BC, and founder of the Perinatal Mental Health Collective. “Becoming a mom is the biggest transition that a person could ever go through. We’re told we should fully embrace it and let go of our pre-mom self and be grateful. This makes it really hard for moms to discuss the painful parts of motherhood and the parts they miss about their pre-mom selves.”
What’s more, of all the roles I fill—writer, wife, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, board member—the mom role came with the least amount of preparation and time to adjust, but also the most scrutiny.
“As soon as you’re pregnant, you’re no longer you,” says Hogenboom, who is based in London, England. “People feel like they have a say.” You suddenly become subject to a whack of public opinions. In no other realm do even complete strangers feel more entitled to offer their viewpoints (and judgment) than on mothering. In The Motherhood Complex, Hogenboom examines how these experiences influence mothers’ sense of self, both personally and in the way society treats us. Motherhood forcibly shapes the way we see ourselves and how others see us, thereby affecting the choices we make.
“With motherhood, there’s an imposed self that is so challenging,” she says. “But we don’t have time to process these emotions because we’re so busy being mothers.”
That’s just it. Motherhood is never exactly what you think it will be. There’s so little opportunity to stop and reflect on the biggest thing to ever happen to you because it’s so hectic just trying to keep your kids alive and well, amid a never-ending influx of advice and criticism from, well, everyone.
What’s more, we hold so many expectations of ourselves as mothers, and they are often shaped by things we have no control over, like our upbringing and societal pressures. “There’s the bombardment of expectations of perfectionism, the feelings of guilt, the assumptions about how mothers behave and judgment about how much we work, or whether we should work at all,” Hogenboom says. “All these ideas and ideals about what motherhood is—it’s enough to give you a complex. These competing pressures are why we have this constant clash of selves.”
The complexities have been further amplified by the pandemic. When schools shut down and we all stayed home, moms found themselves having to mom more than ever—and for many, while simultaneously working. Moms were left to figure out how to manage with little support, and shoulder much of the additional home and childcare responsibilities.
Pre-pandemic, I felt comfortable balancing my mom identity against my other ones. But the pandemic forced me to dial mom up to one hundred again. My husband’s job is considered an essential service, so he continued to work outside the home, leaving me to parent, teach and carry on whatever work came in. It brought back all of my early motherhood frustrations at having to forgo everything else and put momming first. So what’s a mom to do?
Like most everything, motherhood has its highs and lows, and we shouldn’t feel bad about not loving every minute because it really does suck sometimes. Especially during a pandemic. “Our society paints this picture of motherhood that's pure bliss,” says Borsato. “But you can be grateful for your kids, and at the same time recognize there are things you don’t love about being a mom. One does not cancel out the other. There’s nothing wrong with moms who feel like motherhood isn’t totally fulfilling.”
It's actually beneficial to admit there are things you miss since becoming a mom. “There’s an overwhelming feeling of loss that isn’t spoken about enough, whether it’s loss of self, ease, career, social connection or fun,” she adds. “With any loss, there will be sadness. We need to feel it and heal it by naming it, talking about it and moving forward. When we don’t give ourselves permission to feel it, it doesn’t go away.”
When I let myself grieve the losses—and this is an ongoing process—it helps me feel okay, even good, about wanting to pursue things separate from motherhood. We need to accept that sometimes we just miss our former selves, and we need to make space for these feelings.
We don’t have to abandon our other identities in order to be moms or always put our mom self before all others. “When you bring your ‘self’ into mothering, it helps to heal and get through,” explains Borsato. “But recognize that your ‘self’ is going to look different. This isn’t about going back to what you used to be like. It’s about a new iteration of you. Reclaim pieces of yourself.” Borsato suggests starting small. Instead of listening to Kids Bop in the car with your kids, listen to your own music. When making healthy, beautifully arranged snack platters for your kids, make yourself one too instead of just picking at the leftovers. “Start by taking little moments and making them about you, then progress to bigger moments that express your creativity and who you are.”
Moms often feel like we don’t have enough time to satisfy any of our identities and if we prioritize one, the others suffer. But, it’s important to make room for all of them, because not doing so is potentially damaging to both us and our kids. As Hogenboom writes in her book, "Our identity as a mother is tugged at, pushed, pulled in many directions, from our own critiques to outside pressures. Protecting ourselves, our well-being and therefore our true self … is of utmost importance for the long run. ...Our children will thank us later for putting ourselves first at least some of the time. If we are happier, they are bound to be too."
Being a good mother doesn’t mean giving all of ourselves to our kids. It means incorporating who we are into how we mom. I love to read so I do that with my kids. I also love music and movies so I expose them to my favourite artists and films. I have them try foods I grew up with, and take them to places that I enjoy.
It also means taking time away from my kids, even if it’s just a few minutes each day, so I can hear my own voice—even just to remind myself that I have one! For me, that can be as simple as taking an uninterrupted shower, reading a chapter of a book or just having a cup of tea, while it’s still hot, alone with my thoughts. For a longer escape, I look to yoga for some real peace and to focus on myself. I can’t wait for in-studio yoga to start up again. It’s just not zen with my kids and dog constantly barging in.
Taking time for ourselves gets easier as our kids become more independent and don’t need help with everything. It’s a gradual transition where you’re both growing—they’re learning new things and you’re relearning old things you used to do. In the early years, taking that time can feel impossible when you’re in the thick of caring for your baby. But it does get easier. Consider it a pause versus a full stop on pursuing former aspects of yourself. “Know that this is temporary,” affirms Borsato. “You will feel like yourself again. It’s a progression.”
It’s important to continue to be a fully formed human when you’re a mom. Motherhood does involve sacrifice, but it shouldn’t mean sacrifice of self. It’s critical for our kids to see that their moms are people too—full of our own needs, wants and dreams. We encourage our children to be self-aware, to listen and believe in themselves, yet we rarely do this for ourselves.
I can rest easier now knowing that I can embrace my mama bear without compromising the other parts of me. And reminding myself that when my mom-self does have to take precedence, it’s not forever. At other times, my writer-self takes priority. Or my daughter-self does. It is a continual state of flux. After all, it is my many selves that collectively define who I am.