A Motherhood-Induced Identity Crisis

By Jen Holman

Do my kids view me as just a house cleaner?

Several years ago, my daughter drew a picture of our family. We were stick figures—artistic talent does not run in our family—but that’s not the important part. What mattered, what sucked the breath from my very soul, were the labels she’d written above the figures. Mine read “haws clenr.” House. Cleaner.

I tried not to take the label too seriously, too personally. But really, how could I not? It was how she saw me. Not the woman who rearranged her whole life to be a mother. Not a nurturer or a teacher. Not the woman who’d worked so hard to finish grad school while she was still a toddler. None of those things.

Looking back, the profound realization I received from that drawing was probably why I went back to work. It’s why I’ve tried so hard to show my kids something tangible, something more than a clean house. Don’t get me wrong, being a mother is enough. It’s a beautiful and important—and tough!—job that’s fulfilling and right for so many great women. It’s enough for me, most of the time. But in that moment, I looked around the house, I looked at her, and I looked inside myself. Is that what I’ve become, I wondered. Is she right? After becoming a mother, my body had changed, sure, but everything else was the same. Right?

Well, no. I’d quit my job when I realized I couldn’t leave her. I had travelled more before becoming a mother. We had dinners out more often. I went to concerts and community events and laughed with friends. I had a social life. Suddenly I realized whether they were conscious decisions or not, I’d let go of so many things I enjoyed. I had changed. Who am I now?

In many ways, we mothers aren’t really in control of our own lives those first few years. We sleep and eat on someone else’s schedule. We put our children’s needs before our own without a second thought. Many of us can’t find time or energy to do hair and makeup like we did before, or even shower. We’ve changed. Who are we now?

Even though the choice to spend most of my time at home with my children was mine—and I don’t regret it—motherhood came with a lot of shocks. For one thing, there’s no outside validation for a job well done. Not a whole lot of collaboration or comradery, if I’m telling the truth. Performance evaluation? Raise? Yeah, right. Not unless you count the bonus of someone else in my bed.

Some mothers feel guilty for no longer financially contributing to their family. Some feel inadequate because they need help. Others thought they’d excel at motherhood, that they’d be naturals like Claire Huxtable, only to find theirs is more the style of Morticia Addams.

This mothering business is a perpetually demanding and often thankless grind. Anyone who says different is full of number two.

Now, are there sweet, perfect moments like a baby’s first laugh, or when a toddler says you’re the best mom in the whole world? Sure. Do those moments make all the hard work and sleepless nights worth it? You bet they do. But—and I’m guilty of this myself—I think we have to be careful about displaying only the cutesy side of our lives.

Real life doesn’t pin pretty. Moms face a lot of pressure to make it all look effortless and perfect, and it’s just not. Perfection isn’t possible and, frankly, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by pretending it is. What we need is a whole lot less judgment—both of ourselves and each other—and a whole lot more kindness and support. How can a mother be kind to herself? By forgiving herself if she can’t do it all with a smile. By asking for help. By giving herself permission to pause, and taking time to relax and regroup. By allowing herself mistakes and trying to do better next time. I’m as guilty as the next girl of not practicing these, but I promise to try. I’m working to make motherhood a part of me, not everything.

The identity crisis I mentioned earlier upon discovering my daughter saw me as a “haws clenr?” What about moms who feel guilty for wanting to get out of the house and go back to work? Those who don’t know who they are without laptops or speadsheets or board meetings? The ones who thought it would all come naturally, but it just hasn’t? My best advice: Take the time to seek out former—or even a few new interests. Plan a poker night, get involved with the PTA, start a mom’s Bible group. Whatever. Do something that makes you feel like more than the sum total of pumped ounces.

In my opinion, playdates make the new mom world go ‘round. If you don’t know any moms, you’re not alone, trust me. I met some of my best friends at the Central Arkansas Library System’s story times. Maybe you will, too.

For me, perspective helps. Phases pass. You won’t always be pregnant/nursing/carrying a 40-pound car seat/dragging a screaming toddler. Much too soon they’ll be going into fourth grade, like the artist I mentioned, who right now thinks I’m the best, smartest mom in the whole world. Yes, I know. This phase will also pass…but I’m ready.

 Jen Holman is determined to be a voice of reason amongst reality TV and mom-judgment-gonewild. Her newest novel (as yet unpublished) won the 2017 Rosemary award for excellence in young adult fiction. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and three (im)perfect children.