POSTPARTUM IDENTITY & THE CURE FOR "MOM GUILT"
Parenthood and primary caregiving changes and challenges your identity. There are times when you’ll manage it better than others, but it is forevermore tied to your personal identity. In the early years, it’s very much defined by a physical invasion of personal space. How can you feel totally centered in your own energy when you have a kid (or kids) on you, underfoot, breastfeeding, being held and carried, physically demanding your attention, day and night, and when they are literally in you for nine months? It’s called being “touched out”, and it can just about put you over the edge when your partner wants even more physical affection from you the minute the kids go to bed. It’s not an easy thing and there is no easy solution. I’m not going to say, “Make time for yourself”, because it’s just plain annoying when you don’t always have that power – especially if you’re a stay-at-home parent and/or have limited access to childcare. The important thing to do is acknowledge it, help your partner understand it, and find a way to honour yourself, your body and your emotions through a touchy time (pun intended!).
Mom guilt is a buzzword that we hear floating around a lot. Simply put, mom guilt is the byproduct of impossible standards and impossible standards are the byproduct of unwritten, imbalanced gender expectations. Guilt is not even the right word, because guilt implies fault. What moms are actually feeling is defeat. Many moms – perhaps all moms and primary caregivers – are made to feel as though they are not succeeding in meeting their children’s needs, and that they either should be able to meet all of their personal needs simultaneously, or that they shouldn’t have the same personal needs they had prior to children. Before you had children, no one questioned you if wanted to have a career and a relationship and a fitness routine and a meal plan and friends and a hobby and a book and a pet and a houseplant and nights out and a nap, occasionally, on top of personal hygiene and household maintenance. Your time is suddenly crunched, majorly. You’re only feeling guilty for one of two reasons: you think you don’t deserve fulfillment outside of parenting or you think you can time-manage your way to attaining it all. I believe the cure for mom guilt is to admit defeat and, instead, celebrate the hell out of every little victory.
It’s not always a struggle, and that is so important for parents to remember and for parents-to-be to hear. I remember my partner and I thinking that taking care of a newborn was a breeze, because our expectation of difficulty surpassed the reality. Our expectation was based on accounts from parents who were saying they weren’t getting any sleep, couldn’t get through one hot cup of coffee, couldn’t find time to shower, couldn’t even go to the bathroom on their own, and that just wasn’t our experience in the beginning. Parenthood also strengthens your identity in countless ways. It’s fulfilling, it’s joyful, it’s interesting, it’s rewarding, it’s fun. It’s a love fest! Personally, I didn’t experience significant strain on my identity until I started working again after my second child. It will hit at different times for different people, in different areas, to varying degrees. What I have learned is that parents are not trying to scare anyone when sharing about the tough times. It’s really about letting others know they’re not alone; that we don’t need to pretend things are perfect and that we have it all together all the time. It sometimes feels like we live in a parent-hating culture. We hear this rhetoric of, “You chose to have children, so deal with it”, as though we don’t deserve to say, out loud, if we are struggling or not enjoying every moment. Acknowledging the challenging parts and seeking supports does not make you ungrateful, pessimistic, selfish or regretful.