Identity dilemmas after childbirth

Do you struggle with work life balance? Do you feel like you have lost your identity after giving birth?

A tv production company* is producing a programme presented by Davina McCall which will explore how first-time mums struggle with identity after birth and problems with work life balance among other topics.

The production company Twenty Twenty are looking for working mums who would benefit from expert support, guidance and understanding. We spoke to leading coach Amanda Alexander to find out some of the issues that might come up around identity. Do you think the identity issues linked to moving from before having a child to being on maternity leave and then return to work are sufficiently recognised?

Amanda Alexander: Absolutely not!  Becoming a mother is a major life change – you are adding another role to your life that you had no concept of before. As a new mum you almost have a grieving period: You say goodbye to the “bump” who you had built a relationship with and you start a new relationship with the baby that the bump has become. New mums no longer have the luxury of making decisions without it impacting others – this brings with it a loss of independence and autonomy. Often, their primary “role” becomes “mum” rather than “woman” and that, by definition, means that the filter of who they are is seen through the needs of their child, rather than their own needs.

It is difficult for an employer to comprehend what a huge transition it is and you can’t really expect them to know this either – after all, they have their own challenges to deal with in keeping the business running.  Without the employer being a mother (and having it fresh in her mind about the identity shift) or without the employer being trained to be aware of the identity shift, it’s not something that you can expect people to understand.

WMs: Some employers offer help with the practical issues linked to return to work and support for parents around the practicalities with looking after kids, but what about the whole turmoil associated with changing priorities, values and deeper identity problems – eg going from being a person to being a role, etc, etc? What support do you think works best?

AA:  I feel a bit cheesy saying this, but I really do believe that the answer to this is coaching!   Having seen the difference coaching makes to my clients (and, of course experiencing it myself) I know that the only way for a woman to make sense of those changing priorities and values and to re-establish her sense of identity is through coaching – as essentially it’s a very personalised form or learning. Even group coaching, online coaching, workshops that help women to work through values, needs, conflicting priorities can be very helpful. It’s about acknowledging that becoming a mother is an example of a major life transition and that, when these happen, self-awareness develops resilience and helps people to make informed choices.  It’s easy for a woman to fall back into work and “just get on with it”, but for many, this will sooner or later lead to problems with the woman feeling that “something is not quite right”. This sense of dissatisfaction can lead to depression – simply because there’s a nagging sense of something not being right which grows and grows.

Helping a women through a “coaching type intervention” (again it’s not necessarily about personal coaching, but about offering techniques that allow a woman to reflect) allows her to be aware of how her identity is evolving. And when we are aware, we are able to make choices and feel in control, rather than being swept along by circumstances.

WMs: With your clients, do you see any general patterns in terms of, for example, when people turn to coaching [on maternity leave, on return to work, after a few years in work, after the second child, etc]? How do they find their way to coaching generally?

AA: Those who had started to feel the sense of dissatisfaction with their career BEFORE they became pregnant will feel that dissatisfaction powerfully when they are on  maternity leave – it amplifies the issues, because work is not as “easy” to just get on with when you have to think of childcare as well as all of the emotional issues surrounding returning to work.  So I’d say that maternity leave is a prime time – it’s when the cracks that have already appeared get bigger. This was the case for me.  Like many women, I was worried about going back full time, about not being able to “be a mum”, about being called away on business and how I would deal with those logistics. It was when I turned to coaching.

Often women will come to me after a second or third child. They have found that what might have just about worked first time round is not working any more – I think there is a second identify shift after the second child. A woman is naturally more confident about having a second child (because you’ve done it once, so you know you can muddle through) so is more likely to be bold about the possibility of exploring a career or life change.

Around 95% of my clients are mums and they find their way to me because they want help with one of two issues – the first is that they want to make a career change. This could be a transition, a progression or just to get the hell out of a job or away from a boss that is sucking the life out of them.  Many of them harbour dreams of setting up on their own, but worry about giving up the security of a salary. There is a lot of self-doubt (“what if I can’t do it? What if it doesn’t work?”)

The second reason they come to me is that they really HAVE lost their sense of self and they are out of balance. I used to offer a free course called “Self Discovery 101” that helped women with this – it was very popular.  And the first group coaching programmes that I ran – called “FaB” stood for Fulfilment and Balance.  These two words really spoke to my clients – it’s what they wanted more than anything.  Fulfilment is a more significant word to women who become mums than success in my experience. Being fulfilled is about feeling that they have meaning in who they are and what they do.  Balance is always made up of I want more time for my family, more time for my friends and I really want more time for ME.

WMs: How deeply do you delve in terms of exploring identity issues?

AA: I’m a coach so I don’t go back to their past, unless my clients think it’s particularly relevant to where we get them to in their future.  If we do, then it’s  “ok, let’s recognise and acknowledge this – how can we move forward from this now?”

The way I coach is through the “who” first – i.e. WHO my client is. Once they’ve got clear on who they are (what makes them unique, how they get in their own way, how others see  and appreciate them, who they are becoming, how they are evolving, how they want to evolve), then it is a relatively simple “job” to get them clear on WHAT they want. And once we’ve got that, the HOW is a matter of step by step, knowing down the obstacles one by one.

So in answer to your question, we delve deep, because once you’ve got clear on the identity, the rest follows – it’s like a domino effect.

WMs: How important is maintaining the link with a person’s pre-children interests?

AA: It’s not necessarily about pre-children interests, because, with any life transition, we change, our values and priorities change. Some women may still want to go out regularly with their friends who are not parents. Some may not. Some may want to initially, but then realise that what they want to do is different.  I think it’s more important to maintain a link with YOURSELF.  If that means your pre-kids interests, then that’s great. But it might not be – it might be about exploring a new you outside of the “mum” you!

WMs: How do you maintain that link when there is often little time [and you are often exhausted]?

AA: Having a supportive partner is important and having the conversation before you become parents about how you will each give the other regular space. You may need to accept that, especially at the beginning of your parenting journey, quality of experience beats quantity. And sometimes you just have to push yourself to do it – just like getting up to exercise on a cold, dark morning. It’s about mindset – you have to push through the resistance.  Almost everybody who make the effort to do the thing they are resisting knows deep down that it will bring them satisfaction if they push through. It’s the same with getting yourself out when you’re an exhausted mum. You know the lift you’ll get from doing something that brings you joy gives you more bang for your energy buck than sleep.  And you have to decide on a case by case basis. Sometimes sleep has got to win. But I do think that in the early days of being a parent, all the usual rules don’t apply as everything is tossed up in the air. Babies don’t understand rules.

WMs: How important is work in that sense of identity?

AA: It is incredibly important.  A friend of mine was made redundant nine months ago and she has found it very difficult. Her whole identity is through her work. There are some women who say I am a mum and that is who I am, but most women nowadays would go crazy if that was their only role. It can be a thankless job. It is not publicly acknowledged. Your kids often don’t thank you, particularly teenagers. You are entirely reliant on who your kids are. When they are teenagers you have no control over them. They will be their own person and it could be devastating.

*If you want to take part in the Davina McCall programme, email or ring 0203 301 8663.

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