Returning to ourselves: how I’m making peace with “me” in motherhood

When I became a mom, I didn’t realize that when I met my first little blessing, I’d also be meeting another completely new person: me.

It’s not that I was suddenly unrecognizable, but a gulf now seemed to separate the old me from the new one. That disconnect was jarring. How I spent my time, the things I cared about and prioritized, where I invested my emotional energy — it all changed, and left me dizzy in the process.

The innumerable ways motherhood changes us are both remarkable and disorienting. The capacity of our hearts seems to have grown overnight, with newfound purpose and motivation, and yet we’re left grasping for pieces of our life we weren’t yet ready to part with.

For me, when the dust settled, I remembered that two things can be true at the same time: becoming a mother forever changes us, AND, at our core, our unique wiring and the passions and dreams inside of us haven’t disappeared.

Internalizing both of these truths is easier said than done. I don’t want to throw motherhood under the bus by believing that I’m not complete unless I add other, more “interesting” things to my resume. I don’t want to devalue my role by insinuating that mothering isn’t a good use of my skills — that I’m somehow “overqualified” and not living out my potential.

At the same time, I don’t want to spend the next 18 years pushing down my most heartfelt dreams. I don’t want to sacrifice other areas of fulfillment because moms “just don’t have time”. And honestly, it’s not even mainly about not wanting to sacrifice; as we’ve heard time and time again, you can’t pour from an empty cup. We give our children a gift when we mother them from a place of inner thriving. Joyful, fulfilled people are more present, engaged parents. Society hasn’t caught up to this concept and begs us to choose, but we don’t have to allow it.

So how do I marry the two “me’s”? How do I pursue peace amid this tug-of-war inside me?

The list of identity struggles we face as moms is long. Today, in Part 1, I’ll touch on two of the struggles that are looming largest in my life right now, and how I’m pursuing peace in the midst of them.

Struggle #1: Who we are feels deeply intertwined with what we do…

…and what we do changes drastically after having children. Suddenly we’re having much less contact with other adults. When we do, we’re less likely to be having meaningful, high-level conversations thanks to shorter chunks of alone time, our kids’ interruptions, or decreased mental energy. Our world seems to have shrunk, and we’re no longer getting the energy boosts that creative thinking and new ideas bring.

And on top of that, if we’ve reduced our work hours or taken a break from the workforce altogether, we have much less of a sense of completion at the end of the day. We likely haven’t checked any items off of a to-do list that seem “significant” to us. It feels like the parts of our brains that we’d use at work, or having an intellectual debate with friends, or even just chatting about our favorite TV shows, are all gathering dust.

To pursue peace: Change the way you see your “wins”

Two things that have helped me combat the lie that “I haven’t accomplished anything”: celebrating little wins, and different wins.

Little wins can energize us toward bigger ones (see last week’s post on willpower). To maximize on this, I’ve begun daily practices that I can “check off” with minimal effort for a sense of empowerment that carries me into my next tasks. A solid, quick morning routine (7 minute workout, devotional, affirmation) has been instrumental for me. I’m pretty much bursting with pride by the time I complete those three simple tasks, since consistency has always been a struggle for me. Celebrating those little wins makes me feel like I can exercise discipline and prioritize the things that are important to me on any given day. It helps me feel confident and competent.

I’ve also found celebrating different wins to be impactful on an even deeper level. I often evaluate myself as being much less productive now that I’m a mother; I’m used to the deep frustration of stewarding many areas, and getting a barely-passing grade in all of them. But what if we changed our definition of productive? This isn’t a feel-good technique, but rather a more accurate appraisal of the impact of our days. If our checklists included things like “laughed really hard with my daughter” or “really stopped and listened to her silly story when I wanted to zone out,” we might realize we’ve made a greater impact than we thought, AND be motivated to be more present in the little moments than before. This is a work in progress for me, but I’m already seeing a difference.

But missing the intellectual stimulation of a former job or hobby you no longer have time for is still oh-so-very real. Which leads me to:

Identity struggle #2: “I don’t want motherhood to be all there is to me”

When I look in the mirror, I see a compassionate soul, a bubbly extrovert, a caring friend, a singer/actress who wishes she could dance, a bookworm, a Georgetown and Michigan grad, a passionate advocate, and so much more. Those closest to me see all (or at least most) of those things, too. But I can become fixated on this nagging fear that most people see me as “just a mom.” This feeling is so unhelpful for two reasons:

1. Even if I were “just a mom” (which literally no one is, but I digress), that would be a fabulous, glorious thing. Motherhood is a million jobs in one, a profound and fulfilling calling, and an incredible feat of which every single one of us should be deeply proud.

I don’t think it’s the “mom” title itself that makes us want to push back against it, but rather the way society devalues it. The longing to be fully known is universal. No one wants to be pidgeonholed as “just so-and-so’s daughter” or “just that quiet girl” or even “just a doctor.” But being seen as “just a mom” adds an extra layer because it carries a particular connotation in our minds: one-dimensional; bland; lacking vibrancy, color, and nuance. And who wants to pour their whole heart and soul into a job that (we fear) others perceive in this way? This thought pattern leaves us feeling not only insecure, but demotivated.

2. We shouldn’t believe how motherhood is often characterized in our society because it’s a lie. But also, by falling into this mental trap, I’m giving others permission to define how I feel about myself. Who cares if 99% of the world doesn’t know that I taught myself to cook and bake from scratch, or that I was high school valedictorian, or that I watched every Jim Carrey movie released between ‘94-’04? Does that somehow make me less interesting, less intelligent, less creative? How could it? Yet I can easily hand that power to others and, in so doing, forget to water my own grass and cultivate what makes me “me”. When others’ perceptions infiltrate my own, I’m more likely to neglect the parts of me that make me feel unique, fun, and whole. As self-sabotaging as it is, I subconsciously resign myself to the attitude, “if they don’t care, why should I?”

To pursue peace: Never stop basking in — and uncovering — who you are

Take some time to really examine, “who am I at my core?” Motherhood changes every facet of our lives, but it doesn’t erase the beautiful complexity of who we were created to be. We’ll almost certainly grow new passions and discover new priorities, but everything that has brought us to this point is still with us. And the best parts of motherhood only serve to enhance and sharpen who we were “before.”

One of my favorite things about motherhood has been the way I can integrate my passions and interests into the way I parent. One example: I’ve always been deeply invested in the fight for racial and economic justice. In parenthood, I cherish taking my children to protests, choosing books that help them understand history and embrace their power, and answering their questions in a way that inspires deeper thought. This energizes me and reminds me that my passion hasn’t been put on a shelf, even though I can’t attend many community meetings or research current policies as much as I’d like in this season.

What’s important to you? How can you creatively integrate self-expression into your parenting? Maybe it looks like more museum trips or science projects, or creating incredible household routines, or choosing some new supplies for arts and crafts time, or trying a new workout/dance class together. Whatever gets you excited!

The more I’m expressing my core identities in the little moments of parenting, the more I can truly celebrate motherhood — not seeing it as something that ties me down or limits the fullness of who I am, but something that is intricately woven into all the things that make me “me”.

And in those quiet, kid-free moments (however rare they may be these days), we can nourish those parts of ourselves, too. This year, I am thankful to have 4 hours per week set aside in my schedule to write. I look forward to this time to explore whatever topic is on my mind, and it fulfills me in a way that helps me enter the rest of the day satisfied and renewed.

Maybe you don’t have 4 hours that you can dedicate in that way. But what can you do? Maybe find an audiobook or podcast on a topic you wish you had the time to engage in more, and just listen for 10 minutes before you go to bed, or while you’re folding laundry. (This is another practice that gives me so much life, and occasionally even makes me excited to get to folding, lol!) Any time you carve out for you will have a ripple effect on your family.

We also need to ask ourselves, “who and what am I living for?” It’s so easy for the perceptions of others to be a driving force in our decisions. Take this very post, for example. I realized quickly while writing that it would take two or three posts to cover everything that’s on my heart for this topic. At one per week, that means maybe three weeks of motherhood-specific posts. My heart sunk. “But I don’t want people to think I’m ‘just’ a mommy blogger!’” (There goes that “just” again.) Because I’ve internalized society’s valuation of motherhood, I think I have to put all the other amazing aspects of myself on display in order to “be” somebody in the eyes of others. But if approval is what I’m chasing, I’ll end up drained. When I pursue purpose, I find myself recharged and empowered to walk in the fullness of who I am.

Take a moment to remove others’ perceptions from how you evaluate your choices. What truly makes you feel as though you’re walking in your purpose? For me, my evaluation consists of:

  1. Am I living in a way that’s consistent with my faith, bringing glory to the One who created me?
  2. Am I honoring the unique way I was created, maximizing the gifts and passions I’ve been given?
  3. Am I impacting those around me in a positive way, while tending to my own mental and emotional health?

Figure out what questions get at the heart of what matters most to you, and don’t settle for choices that make sense to others at the sacrifice of what you’ve decided is most important.

…..

Of course, there is so much in our lives as mothers that simply can’t be changed. Our time, our relationships, our priorities are different. Those realities are worthy of stopping to truly grieve — even if we wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything — and they affect us all differently. Like you, I’ve heard plenty of well-meaning advice and thought, “that’s nice, but you don’t know my situation.” Mental or physical health diagnoses, availability of childcare, financial status, marital status, size of your “village”, number/ages/special needs of children, and so much more all have an impact on how much time or emotional capacity you’ll have to pursue self-discovery.

That being said, I invite you to take stock of not only your limitations, but of what can change — even if that’s something as small as a mindset shift, like changing what you consider a “win”. We’ve all been in that low place of comparison and discontentment. Sometimes the feeling is acute, like a pain in my chest. But getting stuck there doesn’t help us to experience joy and live intentionally. What does? Recognizing whatever power is in our hands, and using it to build a life of wholeness.

…..

This is only scratching the surface, and I can’t wait to post Part 2. In the meantime, tell me: where are your biggest identity struggles in motherhood? What ways have you found to return to yourself?

Published by Ellie Hunja

Ellie is a mother of two (ages 6 & 3) who's on a journey to cultivate a life of purpose, authenticity, and joy. She writes about parenting, racial justice, faith, autism awareness, mental health, and more. She believes that empathy and vulnerability can change the world, and that there is ALWAYS room for dessert.

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