It is the cliche of all cliches that having a baby changes you. Bringing a new life into the world, a new life for which you have almost exclusive responsibility, is bound to be transformative: to a woman’s identity, to her outlook, to her priorities. This is natural. This is normal. And most of the time, it is short-lived in that the balance with your ‘old’ self is re-struck before too long. But what happens when it isn’t? When the days turn into months turn into years and the person you used to be is still buried, deeply, within the mother you have become?
My standard line about being a mom is that it doesn’t actually ‘change’ your personality, it exacerbates it. The features – wonderful and wicked alike – that were defining of you in the past don’t disappear. Rather, they tend to take on an exaggerated form. Control freaks become more high-strung and exacting. Whimsical types become more emotional and dreamy. The tentative become crippled with indecision. The doers become manic. You were a healthy eater before, not a morsel of refined sugar will pass your child’s lips. Music is important to you, that baby will hear Beethoven daily. Support a football team, Junior will have a onesie bearing its crest in every size.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: most new mothers are a little bit crazy. It’s not our fault. The hormones combined with the relentlessness combined with the sleep-deprivation make for a mind-altering cocktail. Throw in a traumatic birth experience, a cracked nipple or two, a baby who won’t stop crying or a regressing toddler and there is more wonder in the face of those who manage to stay sane through it all. And yet, the weeks go by. The colors of life begin to return to their previous shades. It’s not your old life per se, but at least it becomes again someone who is recognizably you that is living it.
When exactly this reclaiming of oneself happens, or whether it happens at all, varies from woman to woman. Breastfeeding (or not) must matter; prolactin and its gang are influential playmates indeed. I have vivid memories of stepping outside of myself at several points in my children’s babyhood and asking, ‘do I feel normal now?’, while at the same time wondering what ‘normal’ even meant anymore.
In the course of the first year of each of their lives, there were moments where I could see that progress had been made – I could read a book again with something akin to concentration or get out on a Saturday night and actually enjoy myself. But then I would reach the next milestone to realize, by contrast, that it wasn’t quite as much progress as I had thought, the fog was still thick. And then I would wean and there was a true clearing of the air and the journey back to myself would begin in earnest. Only to be interrupted by the conception of the next kid.
This journey ‘back’ can take a long time, depending on how many children you have and how they are spaced, and it doesn’t usually end where it started. Some of us are far better able to regain the balance, as it were, to fit the role of motherhood neatly into the shape sorter of our broader persona. For others of us, though, motherhood itself becomes the shape sorter into which everything else must fit. I can’t help but think that the latter group is more likely to be comprised of stay-at-home moms for the obvious reason that raising the kids in this situation becomes both the full-time job and the extra-curricular activity. It is easy to see how such a mother’s perception of herself can hinge on how those kids are faring and not much else. And how her equilibrium can be lost as a result.
Stay-at-home or not, it is the parent’s job to make sure that the kid is faring well. In this way, one of the emotions that all mothers will experience, the persistent existence of which might genuinely be novel for them, is fear. Babies are delicate and unpredictable creatures: they usher into our lives a whole new crop of things to be scared about. Being scared can change people. It can chip away at our reasonableness. It can cause us to make choices different from those we might otherwise have made. Sometimes in a very serious, post-natal depression kind of way. Sometimes in a less clinical, but equally behavior-modifying, way.
I remember walking my first baby in an open pram through the streets around our apartment, passing in and out of tunnels of scaffolding as we went. I used to walk under scaffolding all the time before he was born, without a second thought. Now however, almost out of nowhere, images of falling debris started flashing before my eyes, my stomach lurching at the prospect of this baby, my baby, struck by an errant pipe or piece of wood. The pictures would come into my head – the horror, the heartache – but they would go again just as swiftly and, in the end, they didn’t make me change my route.
For other women, though, the pictures don’t fade so swiftly, the route does in fact change. One friend of mine suffered from terrible bouts of anxiety for at least a year after the birth of each of her children. The fear was that they would be taken from her, abducted or lost, and it meant she could barely sleep at night. The worst of it subsided once the babies were weaned, she reckons, but the panic is still inside of her, where it wasn’t before. Another friend won’t drive a car anymore, either with her children (two years old now) or without, in case there is an accident. She won’t get into a car with somebody else driving either or a taxi or a train. For many months, she travelled on foot or not at all.
These are, of course, the extreme examples. But we all have some story to tell about what we will or will not do now that there are little people in our houses who rely on us so heavily. We all have quirks – good and bad – left over from the early years of our children’s lives that have entrenched themselves into our personalities. We all have a focus that has shifted, inevitably, away from ourselves and our partners and onto the newest members of the family. Perhaps in this way the idea of ever getting ‘back’ to the old self is a myth. Instead, there is only the present task of weaving together the remnant of that self with what motherhood has made us in the interim. And hoping, in the process, that the people around us will like the new version just as much.