The Journey to Ourselves

Few things can prepare you for the life-changing, identity-shattering, soul-shaking experience of becoming a mother. Luciana Bellini considers how we need to rediscover our sense of self when we become parents…

I discovered the shock of new motherhood for myself almost two years ago.

Looking back at that period of my life – which coincided with the anxiety-inducing start of the global pandemic – I was so focused on getting pregnant, then growing and birthing this new, tiny human, that I forgot to properly consider what it would do to me and the life I had cultivated for the past thirty-three years.

And I’m not alone in this oversight: frank discussions about the transition to motherhood, in its warts-and-all glory, remain frustratingly hard to come by in mainstream media and medical institutions. All too often, postpartum fears and frustrations are pushed aside and dismissed.

While I was lucky enough not to suffer from post-natal depression, I struggled enough to seek books that might explain my experience. Emma Brockwell’s Why Did No One Tell Me? focuses on caring for yourself before, during and after giving birth, while Kimberly Ann Johnson writes in Call of the Wild: ‘I was shocked, as many women are, at how little I knew about the process of becoming a mother.’

That process has a name: matrescence. Coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in the seventies, it remained largely unexplored in the medical community but has undergone a resurgence as women seek a deeper understanding of our bodies and ourselves.

Like adolescence, becoming a mother is transitionary and complex. ‘It’s a holistic change in multiple domains of your life,’ reproductive psychologist Aurélie Athan told NPR. ‘You’re going to feel it perhaps bodily, psychologically. You’re going to feel it with your peer groups. You’re going to feel it at your job. You’re going to feel it in terms of the big philosophical questions.’

The emotions that accompany this powerful transition are as much about chemical shifts in your brain as they are about profound changes that cannot be explained by science. Hormones – mainly oestrogen and progesterone – course through your body and are responsible for many of the mood shifts you experience in early motherhood (and beyond). You might be filled with joy and benevolence one minute, reduced to tears the next.

‘A woman does not become a mother the very minute she gives birth,’ writes Elif Shafak in her memoir on motherhood and postnatal depression, Black Milk. ‘It is a learning process.’ Two years in, these words ring truer than ever with me, as I face the seemingly never-ending challenge of the » modern mother: ‘the juggle’. We have been raised to believe we can have it all, yet realise, just that little bit too late, that of course we can’t. In the perpetual balancing act of trying to be a good mother, a good wife, a good employee and a good friend, we too often sacrifice the one thing that holds it all together: staying in touch with ourselves and dedicating time to nurturing our true identity.

Of course, the notion of identity is a slippery subject. In Black Milk, Shafak discusses six ‘Thumbelina’ women within her – each representing a different facet of her personality – and how entering motherhood forced her to get that discordant internal orchestra to sing the same tune. ‘Perhaps all women live with a mini harem inside,’ she writes, ‘and the discrepancy, tension and hard-achieved harmony among our conflicting selves is what really makes us ourselves.’ And if there is one experience that will make you reassess everything you thought you knew about yourself, it’s becoming a mother. Shafak sums it up perfectly: ‘My personality was shattered into pieces so small there was no way I could glue them back together again.’

Many of us begin with a preconceived notion of what a mother should be – endlessly patient, kind, nurturing and all-giving – then chastise ourselves for falling short of that impossible ideal. There is very little room in this wholly unattainable superwoman scenario for accepting our authentic self and what she might be able to bring to the table. ‘Most of us,’ writes Joanna Hunt in her book Find Your Mama Groove, ‘are so busy trying to live up to other people’s ideals of motherhood that we become disconnected with our own unique approach.’

Certain emotions are deemed acceptable for mothers: love, joy, gratitude, happiness. Others are not: rage, guilt, shame, boredom. Ambivalence is another that seems to have no place in the image of motherhood, yet is an overriding emotion that many of us confront on a daily basis. In Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence, psychotherapist Rozsika Parker hails the push and pull of wanting to keep a child close, while simultaneously craving space, both physical and emotional, as the norm. We must learn to accept that the experience is not all good or all bad: it is good and bad.

So how do we reconcile these conflicting emotions? Joanna Hunt says we need to cultivate self-awareness. That, she writes, ‘is the gateway to a balanced, happy and connected life and family. A self-aware mother knows herself fully. She accepts herself wholly.’

But the best, most truthful description of the experience of motherhood that I’ve found is in Jessi Klein’s newly published I’ll Show Myself Out: ‘Motherhood is a hero’s journey. For most of us it’s not a journey outward, to the most fantastic and farthest-flung places, but inward, downward, to the deepest parts of your strength, to the innermost buried core of everything you are made of but didn’t know was there.’