Overcoming Postpartum Depression and Identity Loss
“I have five kids under 6, and I’m exhausted. Too exhausted to take the time to brush my own teeth after brushing everyone else’s. And honestly… I am too tired to care.”
When I was 21, I worked full-time as a dental assistant to put myself debt-free through my undergraduate program. A patient in her early thirties spoke this heartbreaking sentiment to me. Her hair was limp and greasy. Stains covered her mismatched clothes. Dark, deep-deprived smudges encircled her eyes. Her teeth were full of cavities, and she looked at a full mouth of crowns or dentures. She cried in the chair after the dentist left, having given her the tragic diagnosis before rushing to the next patient. She was a stay at home mom losing her identity.
I sympathized, attempted to encourage her on a topic I was (at the time) utterly unfamiliar with, and handed her a tissue. But, inwardly, I contemplated, how can you lose yourself so completely in caring for another human being? How can their needs be so consuming that you forget to brush your own teeth?
Five years later, I was empathetically reminiscing on her story, for I had found myself completely lost in motherhood.
While I was still me…
- An MA in English degree graduate.
- An aspiring writer and poet.
- A fitness and baked goods guru.
- A part-time employee who worked remotely.
- A wife.
- An outdoors enthusiast.
- A wanderer at heart.
I was now also a mom… And somehow, that last identity marker seemed to trump all the other items on my list. Months after giving birth, I realized… I wasn’t sure where I ended and my baby began. I felt empty. Lost. Resentful. And completely unprepared, unsupported, and worse, unjustified in my emotions.
I didn’t lose my identity the night my baby was born. There was no single transaction where I sold who I was in exchange for the new title of “Mother.” No, it slowly slipped away as I bartered it for pieces of what I thought motherhood should look like, who I thought I should be, and what I thought I had to surrender to be the perfect mother. The societal pressures weighed heavily on me. And I found the mixture of hormones, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and societal pressures to create a deep, dark cloud of depression. It wasn’t until months later that I learned about postpartum depression and that what I felt was normal among new mothers.
Hello Postpartum Depression
A week after giving birth, I had a 1-week check-up appointment for the baby and a follow-up appointment for me. After the doctor had thoroughly questioned me on the baby’s sleep and nursing habits and bowel movements and weighed and measured every aspect of his perfect little body, she quickly glanced over and asked me, “How are you doing?”
I didn’t know what to say. If I told her I felt lost, overwhelmed, and empty, would she say I wasn’t fit for motherhood? Would she understand if I told her my body went from feeling too full with this new life to gutted and empty after birth? If I told her the darkness was all consuming and most days I didn’t want to move from my bed, would she call someone to take my baby away? So I used the last reservoir of my strength and resolved to paste on a fake smile and nod, “I’m great.”
The doctor nodded – jotted down a few more measurements from the baby, and that was the end of it. A few moments later, as she was getting up to leave, I said, “I thought I had a follow-up appointment today, too?”
“You did. We just had it.”
As my little man started screaming, I quickly gathered the diaper bag and slowly hobbled out to the car, my undercarriage still a mess from pushing out my 8-pound, 8-ounce baby boy.
The weeks following my son’s birth resulted in a slow goodbye to the self I knew through the all-consuming task of keeping this new tiny human happy and healthy. I no longer had a say when I slept, how long, when I ate, or what temperature my food was. Clothes were no longer selected for style, to complement my body, or to make me feel good, but grabbed in a hasty rush from a lumpy pile off the floor, occasionally checking to see if there was spit-up on it before slipping it on.
Slowly Losing Your Sense Of Self
My body was no longer just my body. And after a shocking positive pregnancy test just four months after my first son’s birth, my body wasn’t my own. I had a tiny human eating off me and a small human growing inside me.
The months following my son’s birth forced me to slow down and speed up. I used to work full-time while attending grad school. I worked 2-3 jobs at a time to put myself through my undergrad program debt-free. I had 14-hour days, seven days a week, and I thrived. I felt accomplished. I still made time for the occasional girl’s night out, weekend venture with my then-boyfriend (now husband), and time for some self-care. I worked out 2 hours a day, five days a week. I looked good. I felt good.
Now, I dwelt in this oxymoronic universe in which I was constantly busy but forever bored. I stayed home, worked part-time, picked the same toys up off the floor a million times a day, swept the same patch under my son’s highchair, changed the same bottom, sang the same songs, read the same books, and experienced limited adult interaction. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.
I stopped dreaming about my own future and surrendered all ambitions and aspirations to what I thought I should want to give my babies the best possible start I knew how to give. Then, a few months after our son was born, my husband asked me, “What do you want your future to look like?”
I quickly replied, “Well, I would love to send Leo and the New Baby to a quality private school and live somewhere where they can try different hobbies, sports, and music and have access to friends in a safe neighborhood – maybe a cul-de-sac. And I want to ensure I am waiting at home for them when they return from school. Ideally, with a plate of nutritious, homemade, healthy cookies.”
My husband asked again, “But what do you want to do?”
The question was really quite simple. It should have been easy to answer. But it paralyzed me. The truth was, I couldn’t answer it. This inquiry over my ambitions left me dumbfounded. The only thought I could muster was, “Will you judge me if I say I want to sleep several hours uninterrupted after peacefully eating a large dark chocolate bar? Oh, wait, no, enjoy a cup of hot tea in a local, trendy coffee shop with a friend. No, enjoy a few minutes on the toilet alone. No, wash my hair, put on make-up, and then pick out a trendy outfit without an elastic waistband. No, go work out. Wait, get my nails done! Um, can I have it all?”
My ambitions suddenly reduced from wanting to be a successful, influential technical writer, changing the world through the power of the pen, to craving a few hours of sleep and sweetened cocoa.
I thought something was wrong with me. Why was everyone else seemingly doing so well at balancing this new title of mother? Yet, while nothing was wrong with me, there was something deeply off balance concerning my expectations and perspective of motherhood. And it wasn’t necessarily my fault. Society did a great job weaving into the fabric of my being all the unrealistic expectations I needed to meet for motherhood.
What Is Matrescence?
We don’t talk about this often enough, and we should. Feeling lost and unsure how this new piece of your identity fits into your carefully constructed old one and needing to embark on a journey of self-discovery to find yourself again is healthy. It is normal. You may even expect it. It’s something mothers across the world experience to varying degrees and scales.
Matrescence: the physical, psychological, and emotional monumental transformative process of becoming a mother. Similar to adolescence – another transformative, hormone-filled transition full of physical and emotional changes.
Medical anthropologist Dana Raphael noted that culturally speaking, North America tends to ignore the impact a child has on a woman’s identity and development. She begins most of her essays with the simple observation that while some cultures say, “a woman has given birth,” here we say, “a child is born.” Aurélie Athan, a reproductive psychologist at Columbia University, observes that with this simple statement, “the emphasis gets shifted on the child.” The focus is on what you are gaining (which, yes, is a truly incredible gift) but dismisses what you are losing in the process.
Society told me many wonderful (and often true) things about motherhood:
- Motherhood is beautiful.
- It was life-changing.
- I wouldn’t truly know what love was until I became a mom.
- Pregnancy would make me glow.
- Being a woman and bearing children was an empowering gift.
- I would want to do it again and again.
- It would complete me.
- It would fulfill me and my natural “nurturing” role.
- Your baby will make you so happy.
- Your body will return to normal (in a few short weeks)!
- The moment you hold your new baby in your arms, all the pain of labor, the struggles of pregnancy, and the insecurities over your changed body would melt away in a halo of love.
But there is also a reality that motherhood is tough.
I was never told that motherhood was:
- A little complicated.
- Amplifying (your exhaustion, insecurities, fears, anxieties).
I was never told that:
- Your body would never feel the same, even if it may (eventually) look the same.
- The way you see the world will change.
- If you aren’t careful, you lose a part of yourself on the journey.
- You may feel like you don’t have time to find yourself again.
5 Ways To Help Rediscover Yourself In Motherhood
I truly and desperately needed to find myself again — Because my all-consuming love for my child was turning into something ugly. Growing resentment, frustration, and anger at being “trapped” in a life I didn’t think I needed or wanted—the constant feeling of emptiness like I was walking through a black hole. The intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts scared me.
And that’s how, in my late 20s, when my friends were finding their stride and becoming confident in who they were and what they were doing with their lives, I was starting my journey of self-discovery over again – trying to fight postpartum depression with the limited resources I found online, embarrassed and ashamed that I was already such a poor excuse for a mother. While I regrettably never sought professional help, I did find some tips that helped me rediscover myself. So, I am sharing five things that helped me find myself after motherhood.
1. Get Reacquainted With An Old Friend
I decided it was time to get reacquainted with an old friend – me. I encourage you to dedicate time to getting to know someone genuinely remarkable… yourself – this new version of you. Sit down and write a short list of “I am…” statements.
- Who are you outside of being a mother?
- Who are you as a mother?
- What are your ambitions, hobbies, passions, goals, and dreams outside of your children?
- What strengths do you want to model for your children, and what strengths do you already model for them?
2. Don’t Look Back – You’re Not Going That Way
Your old life won’t fully fit into your new life, and that’s okay. The past is a powerful tool. It educates us, provides us with memories, and reminds us of where we have been and are going. It enchants us and can encourage us to live deep within its memories. However, constantly comparing your life before this new one can leave you frustrated, depressed, and angry. You experienced a monumental shift in the road. Your life is now divided into pre-mom life and post-mom life. Things will never quite be the same, and that’s good. Our lives are cyclic, evolving, growing, and constantly changing. Don’t live in the past because fantasizing over what you no longer have can destroy what you have gained.
3. Time For You Is Okay, Too
Find time (even if it is only 10 minutes a day) to do something just for you. I know, I know, it sounds impossible, but it is doable. I committed to taking 10 minutes daily to do something I care about – just for me. Always remember that you are a human being with needs outside of meeting the needs of others. So, take time to meet a few needs today.
4. Remember The Person You Fell In Love With
I know I am driving home a point you have all heard before, but I can’t emphasize enough how easy it is to lose your partner while embarking on the adventure of parenting.
Enjoy each other outside of the baby. Have conversations that don’t revolve around your children. Make time to be intimate with each other physically, emotionally, and mentally. Fully engage with your partner because they need to know that you haven’t been fully consumed by motherhood. You are still you under the spit-up, baby poop essence (and maybe prickly legs).
Even if you can’t manage a weekly date night, take focused time, ideally 2-3 times a week, to enter into a “no kids” conversation. A conversation purely focused on your thoughts, ambitions, goals, and lives outside of your children.
At the Savvy Sparrow, Amy has some fantastic conversation starter suggestions you can check out here. Here are a few to get you started:
- What would it be if you could pick any job in the world (money is no object!)?
- If you could live one day over and over again for the rest of your life, which day would it be and why?
- When are you at your happiest?
- If you could only use two beauty/toiletry products for the rest of your life, what would they be?
- What is one thing that you wish you knew how to do?
- What is the strangest food you’ve ever tasted? Did you like it?
- What would it be if you could never have to do one household chore again?
5. Goodbye, guilt!
It’s okay to need a break… really. We are mothers – not machines! Giving yourself that grace to take a moment to yourself helps you from resenting your children, your partner, and your life. It enables you to take a few minutes to gain perspective and maybe even miss those little hands clinging to your legs so you appreciate them all the more.
Finding Yourself Again
While many of the positive things people told me about motherhood were true, they created unrealistic expectations for what it should be, how I should feel, and who I now was. It exasperated postpartum depression and made it impossible for me to feel justified in seeking help or even knowing where to find it.
Nothing can fully prepare you for motherhood. There is nothing quite like it. Full of oxymorons, motherhood is breathtaking, heart-wrenching, and life-changing. It is beautifully empowering, demoralizing, and confusing. It can embolden you and enslave you. It can bring out your worst and your best. It can make you feel like a celebrity and a failure – all at once. While motherhood is many things, if we lose ourselves in it, motherhood can rob not only ourselves but our children of joy, independence, and purpose.
Leslie Davis shared a profound thought concerning her journey to self-discovery after finding herself lost in motherhood, “… if we lose ourselves, our children also lose us.” Surrendering our identity to the consuming title of “motherhood” leaves no room for us to be someone outside of a mother. Likewise, it leaves no room for our children to be someone outside of us.
As Alexandra Sacks beautifully states, “When you keep a part of your identity, a part of yourself, you leave room for your child to develop their own.”
If you recently had a baby and feel lost, please know you are not alone. It is alright not to feel like yourself. Many women feel empty, depressed, exhausted, angry, and overwhelmed. It’s okay to ask for help. While the above tips are a few simple tools to support yourself, there is no substitute for professional help and counseling. If you are experiencing postpartum depression, there is help.
Here’s To You!
So here’s to you – messy, beautiful you! To rediscover pieces of ourselves we have lost on the journey. To feeling directionless, to feeling purpose-driven, to taking wrong turns and wishing for redos, to treasuring the roads we’ve been on, anticipating the roads to come, and appreciating the road we are on.
Here’s to you and your lifetime of self-discovery; it will be glorious!
Share your motherhood journey with us! The Racing for Mental Health community would love to hear about your experiences. We offer a Community Ambassador program so you can help create a society that courageously speaks out about postpartum depression. Contact us today!