When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew that motherhood wouldn’t change me.
I joked with friends about how I’d be back in the pub as soon as the baby was out, with a big glass of red wine, and the kid would just be basically a big handbag. I was going to go back to the same job, working the usual 60-hour weeks I’d always worked. I would still write and go dancing and dye my hair crazy colours and be the same me I’d always been.
Then my daughter was born. Most new mothers know the fuzzy bubble of those first few months, a hazy awareness of bursts of sleep punctuated by feeds and Netflix and baby cuddles and occasional walks to see if outside is still there. For me, that baby bubble was a kind of chrysalis, and I emerged from it as a creature so vastly different from the one that had gone in that, not only did I not recognise myself, it took me a while to recognise that I had even changed.
Those glasses of wine I’d been craving suddenly made me feel sick, and for the first 18 months of my daughter’s life I was entirely teetotal. And I certainly wasn’t going on nights out, I couldn’t even entertain the idea of staying up past 9pm. Forget going back to writing a novel – for a long time I couldn’t even read. Not just novels; I couldn’t get through a paragraph of a news article. The thought of reading tweets felt a bit intense. Dancing? Who the hell has the energy? And forget getting my hair dyed, I barely had the time to get it brushed.
The former job also was no longer an option. And I hadn’t realised up until that point how much I had defined myself by my career. Not just by what I did, but by the way I did it – the fact that I worked relentlessly long hours and put so much of myself into my work. The fact that I was always striving for perfection and received positive feedback for half killing myself to get there. Suddenly, I had to reinvent myself. I had to become self-employed, something I’d never planned or expected to do, and I had to work part-time hours around my baby. It was a huge shift in behaviour and mindset.
I just didn’t know who I was anymore.
I didn’t recognise the person in the mirror. I didn’t recognise my life. I had this small person, completely dependent on me, and no matter how much I’d visualised being a mother while I was pregnant, it hadn’t prepared me for the reality of it all. Of my body belonging to someone else, of being constantly needed, of not sleeping, of never having a moment to myself, of loving someone so much that I was always terrified of something bad happening to her, of caring about someone else so much more than my own self. I didn’t have my career anymore, not the one I’d built my identity around, anyway. I wasn’t seeing my usual friends as much because I couldn’t bear to be away from my baby, and I didn’t have the time or energy to do any of my usual activities, so the lifestyle I recognised fell away completely.
The truth, that no one seems to talk about, is that when you become Mummy, the person you were before disappears.
Everyone else around you – completely unintentionally and well-meaningly – supports this process, too. All anyone can talk to you about is the baby, everyone wants to see the baby, the focus is all on the baby; everyone forgets to ask about you.
You fall into the same pattern – your focus is all on the baby, their needs, their wellbeing, and you forget to take care of yourself. You eat what you can, when you can; you shower if and when you get a chance; you count it as a win if you manage to brush your hair; and you live in your pyjamas or whatever scruffy clothes take up residence nearest your bed. You’re putting so much thought and energy into making sure your little one has everything they could want and is getting the best possible start in life that you have no room in your brain left to even remember that there might be things you want too.
The general expectation seems to be that you should become a different person. More than one well-meaning bystander told me, when I talked about how much things had changed, “Oh well, you’re a mum now.” As if that was it. I was a mum. That was my full identity. I was wrong to want to be anything more than that. Society puts out the message that, once a woman has a child, that is her defining characteristic. She is a mum. And that perception contributes to 54,000 women in the UK losing their jobs every year because of pregnancy or maternity. It contributes to the government putting woefully little financial support into childcare, and why they’ve allowed mothers to be so heavily penalised by the rules around covid-19 business and self-employed support. You’re a mother – what are you doing trying to be anything more?
I spent a long time in that brain fog where I didn’t even know that I’d lost myself. It was a while before I realised there was a problem, and a while longer before I started to piece together what it was. By then, the idea that I might have an identity of my own, beyond being “Mummy”, was a concept I had to work my way back to. Then I had to start figuring out how to shape that identity again. I couldn’t go back to who I’d been before, and I didn’t really want to. For all the stress and drain of motherhood, something huge and life altering had happened to me – I’d created a beautiful, magical little life, and I had a pure, unconditional love on a scale I never would have been able to comprehend before. Of course I was different – after she was born, everything was different. Being a mother was a huge part of who I now was; but it didn’t have to be all I was. I could be Mummy and still be Allegra. Just not the old Allegra – she was gone, I had to mourn her and let her go so that I could move on.
Then I had to become someone different. I just needed to figure out who that was.
It was a long process. I was finding my way through unknown territory without a map. No one else seemed to be talking about this, everyone else just seemed to know how to be Mummy like it was completely natural. It was only as I started to open up about my feelings that people started saying, “Oh my god, that’s exactly how I feel!” Well why are none of you speaking up then?! I thought. But I knew why, it was the same reason I’d been scared to say anything. We all feel like we have to act like we’re perfect at this, like we know exactly what we’re doing and we’re loving every minute of it. Like the toughest job in the world that you get absolutely no chance to train or practise for would just come totally naturally to everyone. Sure, that’s realistic. But nothing about motherhood is realistic – we have insane expectations on ourselves from the second the sperm hits the egg. That’s probably a whole other blog post, though…
So I wrote the map myself, slowly, painstakingly, figuring out how to get in touch with what was at the core of my being. Relearning about my values, my passions, my drives, the mark I wanted to leave on the world and on others. Identifying what it was that I wanted my life to be all about. I looked at the all the things I cared about, all the areas of my life that mattered to me, and worked out how the strands all wove together. I thought about the kind of mother and wife and businesswoman and friend and daughter and sister and neighbour and human I wanted to be. And beneath all that, I asked myself, if you stripped all of those roles and expectations away, what was sitting at the centre? What was the essence of me? After that, perhaps the hardest challenge, was figuring out what steps I could take to bring all those elements to life. Carving out time and space for me to work on my goals and my needs and my own self-care. I realised I needed an action plan for my own development not unlike the one we were following to help my daughter find her way in the world.
I won’t say I’ve totally nailed it now, because who ever does? We’re all continual works in progress, and we’re always learning and developing and changing. That’s the whole point of life, after all. But I definitely feel more whole in myself now, more in touch with my inner self. I feel more calm and clarity and fulfilment. I know how to ask myself if I’m on the right track, both in my work and in my parenting, because I understand how to recognise if what I’m doing is aligned with my sense of purpose and mission. I still have days where I don’t get time to shower, and my hair could definitely do with some TLC, but that’s all in service of a bigger vision now. It’s centred messiness. Which is all you can ask for from life, at the end of the day.
And guess what, I want all that for you too! I didn’t have a map, so I’ve drawn one for you. Download my worksheet for Rediscovering Your Sense of Self and find your sense of inner calm and fulfilment in knowing exactly who you are and what you want your life to be.