Motherhood identity issues

Melissa Hogenboom’s new book explores how motherhood and the way it is perceived affects our sense of identity.

Image of a baby's hand holding an adult hand


There have been a spate of new books on motherhood of late, many of them dealing with the complex identity issues it throws up.

Science journalist Melissa Hogenboom’s book, The Motherhood Complex, tackles motherhood from a scientific perspective, but also from her own experience as a mother.  Hogenboom says that, after becoming a mother, she voraciously read about it in an effort to understand how it was affecting her. She highlights how books and articles on it are not taken seriously when they are the prelude to huge and fairly common issues of identity change. Her book aims to put those identity issues and the social and other pressures that shape them front and centre.

The book starts off with questions about the lack of research in certain areas, for instance, changes in the brain during pregnancy, often seen in the negative. Is ‘pregnancy brain’ to do with tiredness or actual cognitive changes? she asks. Hogenboom says it can be hard to disentangle the research from the way culture affects the direction of research. Are the scientists asking the right questions? Hogenboom says: “Mum brain is not entirely a myth, but it is not quite the detrimental decline it is commonly painted to be.”


Hogenboom also explores issues such as the lack of support for women in early miscarriage, birth, bodily changes after birth, gender norms and pregnancy and maternity discrimination.  She writes about sharing parental leave and asks whether generous maternity leave policies can actually penalise women even more when they return to work.

Hogenboom says: “I understand that maternity leave is all about balance. The longer we are away, the harder it can be to re-enter the workplace, and return to our old lives. The less time we take off, the more stark and abrupt the feelings of guilt, anxiety and sleep-deprived juggling. And for those who don’t return to work at all, they face perhaps the starkest, selfless challenge of a lived reality of choosing to be present. If it’s a choice at all, mothers everywhere should be valued and saluted, as each ‘choice’ involves less of something else. Less of ourselves, or less of our children.”

Mothers at work

Hogenboom also writes about how becoming a mother changes your workplace identity, often because mothers are expected to behave in a certain way and are heavily scrutinised. She covers everything from expressing milk at work and ‘benevolent sexism’ [“the notion that women have certain vulnerabilities or personality traits that make them better carers and, simultaneously, paints them as inferior in positions of power or authority at work”] to lack of childcare support, with childcare being seen as a personal ‘problem’ rather than a wider social issue.

An unsupportive workplace affects a mother’s sense of identity, she argues. “It remains the case that when a woman’s workplace or cultural expectations, her financial constraints or limited maternity policies override her sense of who she is, or what role she could grow into, it becomes likely she will develop a motherhood complex,” she writes.

Home front

Then there is the home sphere. In a chapter on how mothers are perceived, Hogenboom talks about the difficulties associated with sharing care due to the invisible tasks that mothers often perform, the mental load of anticipating needs, identifying how to fill those needs, deciding what to do and monitoring the results and the assumption that it is women’s role to do all the organisation around children’s needs. Added to that is the pressure that surrounds all things parenting for women to be perfect, and its companion – maternal guilt.

The solution, she argues, is greater gender equality and greater awareness of the full burden on women which, she says, will not only lead to happier mums, but happier children. She concludes: “It becomes apparent that women are sold the idea from politicians and from their workplaces that we live in an equal society. That itself sets us up for failure. If we are told we can empower ourselves at work, and that companies are minimising the gender pay gap, it puts the onus of ‘failure’ on ourselves, when in fact we are operating in an unfair society from the outset.”

Women should not, she says, be forced to make the ‘choice’ between being an ‘ideal worker’ or a ‘good mother’. “Aiming to do both often comes at a cost to our career, our children or our sense of self,” says Hogenboom. That choice, when the social pressures on women and the minimal support of government are taken into account, is not a real one. “If our society was more equal from the get-go, there wouldn’t be as much pressure on mothers and the identity shift so many of us experience wouldn’t feel as stark…”

*The Motherhood Complex by Melissa Hogenboom is published by Piatkus Books. 

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