Weary. That was the only way to describe my dear friend as we hiked across Muir Beach. Half moons hung under her eyes. Every step seemed labored. It was the most gorgeous day in recent memory, but even the sight of the sunshine couldn’t make her smile.
“Have at it,” I finally said. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m worthless,” she said. “I’m just a homemaker. Nothing more.”
Just a homemaker would be the last way I would describe this woman I’d known for years. When I thought of her, of course I thought of her devotion to her husband and their three children, the way her house never failed to smell less than heavenly, and the killer chili she once brought to a potluck I’d thrown. But I also thought of her astonishing knack for statistics, the provocative questions she asked during book club, and the volunteer work she did every other Friday, rain or shine. Being a homemaker was only one aspect of the vibrant person she was.
“Some days I swear I forget my own name,” she said. “I’m just mom.”
I had been there, and had only recently emerged from the feeling that my identity was entirely wrapped up in my responsibilities as a mother. A sentence from Nancy Mairs’ Voice Lessons popped into my head: “How do I invent an identity for myself in a society which prefers to behave as though I don’t exist?”
How do we?
But one I’m prepared to answer.
Here are five ways to maintain your identity and boost your self-esteem when mothering seems like the only verb in your vocabulary:
1) Lean on the Support of Other Mothers. I’ll be candid: Motherhood is a desolate and disorienting destination, a place where you are always and never alone, particularly when your children are young. To mitigate the self-doubt and unhappiness that isolation breeds, reach out to other mothers, whether it’s for guidance or to commiserate over a glass of wine.Spending time with other women who are in the same situation as you will lighten the weight of seclusion.
2) …But Don’t Forget about Your Childless Friends. I’ll be frank again: Motherhood creates tunnel vision. Given the endless demands of children, there are moments when it’s impossible to consider that people who aren’t constantly concerned about where their son left his homework or if braces are really necessary actually exist. Getting out and engaging with friends and family members who haven’t taken the plunge into parenting will broaden your perspective, remind you of what awaits, and take you away from the tedium that can occasionally define your days. What’s more: the parts of your personality you worry have been lost somewhere between naptime and bath-time will naturally emerge. Another bonus? You can live vicariously through their shenanigans, and then go home to the comfort of your own bed.
3) Participate in On-line Communities. There is only so much satisfaction you can derive from replacing selfies and snapshots of you and your partner on vacation with photos of your children on Facebook. Move beyond the ephemeral joy standard social media sites bring and participate in on-line communities that allow you to express yourself in a meaningful way. A study conducted by Penn State in 2012 found that mothers who read and participated in blogging communities reported feeling more confident and connected and less stressed. Better yet, creating your own blog—whether it’s about the mishaps of being a full-time parent or about your affinity for silent films—will provide you with an outlet to share your experiences and passions.
4) Consider Motherhood a Trimester in the Grand Scheme of Life. Remember how each stage of your pregnancy felt ridiculously long, only to be surprised when the next trimester arrived seemingly without warning? Your body changed as your infant developed, just as you will transform as your child matures. The person you are now—the one who is caught up in nurturing, carpooling, shopping, cleaning, cooking, and organizing—is not set in stone. Enjoy the trimester, with all of its highs and lows, and be prepared to embrace the next phase of life once your children have grown and flown. It’ll arrive before you know it.
5) Carry On As You Were. Consider what brought you happiness and bolstered your sense of worth before you became a mother. Perhaps you dabbled in writing fiction. Maybe you played softball in a league. Whatever your hobbies and passions were, don’t abandon them. The more distant we grow from the aspects of our life that brought us pleasure, the more lost we start to feel. Carve out time to nurture your interests, and you’ll find that the real you hasn’t disappeared. She’s just been distracted.
“We’re going to a party tonight where I’m sure I’ll be asked what I do,” my friend said with a sigh at the end of our hike.
“Tell them the truth,” I said. “Tell them you handle accounting, organize lives, cook for crowds, maintain the property, book appointments, stack pantries, manage conflict, and chauffeur people around.”
“Good god,” she said. “It sounds like I’m running a hotel.”
“Well, we are, aren’t we?” I said. “And somewhere in it there’s a room just for you.”