Identity Transformation in Motherhood

Who am I now?

Will I ever be me again?

Will I ever matter?

How long until things return to normal?

Will I ever have space for me?

Is it wrong that I want more from life than mothering?

These are questions that I have asked myself and that I hear regularly from mothers I support.

One of the biggest psychological challenges we can experience through motherhood is in times of transition. The transitions that can occur can be major developmental shifts (such as Matrescence) and can also be the transition back to work, to childcare or school for our children and even at the birth of subsequent children. All of these transitions touch on our identity or sense of self in some capacity.

One of the psychological frameworks I used in my former executive coaching career is William Bridges’ Transition Model. This model is equally applicable to motherhood as it nicely conceptualises the psychological process we go through including the disintegration and reorientation of our identity. There are three psychological processes in any life transition:

  1. Endings: Letting go of the old situation and identity that went with it and the grief over the endings.
  2. Neutral Zone between their old and new reality that may still be very unclear. It is a time where hope and despair oscillate, and it can feel so uncomfortable that all we can do is go through the motions. It is also where reorientation happens. It is where we learn more about ourself and what we want from life and how to integrate mothering with being our whole self.
  3. Creating a new beginning that is much more than simply a new start. It involves developing new skills, new relationships, and becoming comfortable in the new rhythm and way of being. It can feel like our rebirth.

It can bring much relief to learn more about what is expected and, I have provided more detail on each stage below.

Endings

In this first stage, there is a letting go of the old situation and identity along with natural grief over the endings.

There are three core aspects of this stage:

  1. Disengagement: a separation from the world and life that used to exist. This may include a feeling that we took the old life for granted. If we are deeply identified with the person we used to be, this can be a painful separation. For example, I was very identified with my role as a career woman, and it was painful for me to separate from this (temporarily) as I got so much satisfaction and confidence from this identity. Typical mourning behaviours can arise in this time: denial, anger, bargaining, grief and despair that happens right before acceptance.
  2. Disidentification: the old identity must go to create space for the new identity to emerge. This can be both painful and confusing. We can grasp onto our old self and feel like we are just waiting for the time when things can go back to normal. The empowering gift is that the new identity (once we allow space for it) can be more aligned and connected to the true, deeper self than ever before. Just like an adult doesn’t want to return to a child again after adolescence, the woman does not want to go back to her pre-mother self permanently (temporarily, yes, a million times yes!).
  3. Disenchantment: what used to make sense does not make sense anymore. This can be a painful realisation. We may have come into motherhood or this particular season with ideas about what we thought motherhood would be like, what we imagined we would get from this stage and how capable we believed we would be in navigating it to our ideal standards. We can be alarmed that the previous skills and tools that we used before motherhood no longer work, and in fact can become weaknesses (e.g. perfectionism, high demand for organisation and control). We can feel resentment and bitterness here, and the only way through is to allow the grief, disappointment and whatever else arises to be here.

Neutral Zone

The mourning for what has been lost, the confusion over identity, and the bitterness of disenchantment will flare up periodically like an underground fire that can only burn itself out. William Bridges

This is the space between our old reality and a new reality that will still be very unclear and uncertain. It can feel like no-man’s land. It is empty and can also feel dark. It is the wilderness between the endings and beginnings. It is a time where hope and despair oscillate, and it can feel so uncomfortable that all we can do sometimes is to put one foot in front of the other.

It is also where reorientation happens. It is where we learn more about ourself and what we want from life and how to integrate mothering with being a whole woman.

In a society that reveres instantaneous progress, the neutral zone calls for a slower pace, space and patience.

The beauty in the darkness

Despite it being a place of confusion and pain at times, this stage is a constructive and necessary part of our development.

Society tells us that we must ‘get over it’ and be positive, but this is not based on the reality of life.

The light of life is revered as the only ‘right’ way to be but we don’t grow when there is only light. The darkness of life is as normal and constructive as the light and yet very few people talk about it. It is through this time that we evolve.

We can only know happiness if we have known sadness.

We can only know clarity if we have known confusion.

If we allow ourself the space to be in the discomfort that is naturally part of this stage, we will be rewarded with clarity and integration.

In Japanese culture, this neutral space — a place for pause — is revered as necessary to be able to know how to act next.

Being over doing

Productivity and effectiveness can be absent, and this can be personally painful. We can be so used to and rewarded for productivity and effectiveness before motherhood. And let’s face it, the world rewards productivity and effectiveness over silence, space and reflection.

This is a time of becoming rather than achieving.

There are three critical aspects to this stage:

  1. Disorientation: This can feel like a journey where you have left behind the old and are looking to discover something new. You are lost enough to find yourself now — Robert Frost.
  2. Disintegration: This can feel like everything has fallen apart and can even feel like you know nothing, and that parts of you are dying off. Old patterns that you felt were long resolved can arise once more for further integration. The pain of letting go is real, and it is a great idea to proactively seek professional support to help you make sense of it all.
  3. Discovery: According to Bridges “in the ancient rites of passage that used to carry a person through periods of transition, the Neutral Zone was spent in a literal ‘nowhere’. There, in the desert or forest or tundra, the person could break away from the social forces that held his or her old reality in place, and a new reality could emerge. The Neutral Zone wilderness was believed to be a point of closer access to the spirits or the deeper levels of reality, and so the Plains Indians called the journey into the wilderness a ‘vision quest’. Along with the pain and confusion that can accompany the Neutral Zone, it is also one of great creativity and discovery”.

There have been many incredible creative works of art in all domains that have occurred in a Neutral Zone for the creative. In this time, we are more likely to learn what we really want rather than adhere to what society or others tells us what we ‘should’ be.

New Beginnings

New beginnings emerge from the learnings obtained through the Neutral Zone. Despite us naturally wanting to fast forward to New Beginnings, it will appear when the time is right for us. New Beginnings doesn’t mean that life no longer has suffering, or that it is always easy, but in this stage, we have truly let go of the old, learned about ourselves and created a future we feel content about pursuing.

Creating a new beginning is much more than simply starting a new life. It involves developing new competencies, new relationships, becoming comfortable in the new rhythm and way of being. It can feel like a rebirth — the birth of a mother.

In early motherhood, this can mean a sense of rhythm and relief and optimism for the new life. We can realise that we know more than we thought and we have cycled through many of the firsts and survived and ultimately thrived.

As we progress through motherhood, new beginnings can come with the acceptance of the cycles of motherhood (and life) and that we are works-in-progress — everchanging and flowing with what motherhood asks from us. We can progress our own projects and passions and feel a sense of flourishing.

Passing through the stages can feel like a wild and confusing ride, one that cannot be rushed or skipped over. The psychological experience of transitions can be painful and also constructive.

The journey is not linear with a specific ‘right’ timeframe. It can be more the experience of two steps backward and one step forward. It is messy and, it is also necessary for our growth. The reward at the end is a version of yourself that you love more than the old you.

Reflection

  • What stage do you feel you are in right now?
  • What is necessary for your stage: acceptance, letting go, discovery, learning, doubling down on support, other?
  • What thoughts and emotions arise for you as you read about the stage you are in?
  • If there is no problem to solve right now, what would exist?
  • What support do you need to move through your transition? It is natural and encouraged that we all seek professional support as we journey through life transitions.

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Founder of the Motherhood Gathering