It’s phenomenal that reading one sentence in a blog post can cause a fairly significant sensation of rage, and incite a flurry of activity. But that is what happened to my online colleague Jessica, after reading the following sentence:
“You are a Mom first and foremost.”
Does that spark any particular feelings for you?
Some women might nod their heads at that sentence. Yes. They agree. They are a Mother first and foremost.
However, Jessica is not alone in feeling the rage towards this statement. There are entire generations of women feeling frustrated at what Valeria Luiselli in her novel Lost Children Archive aptly described as “the relentless social pressure to subsume personhood under motherhood.”
Although I’m aware that this sense of injustice is made possible by our privilege, when Jessica turned to me for support, I felt compelled to weigh in on the topic for both personal and professional reasons. Personally, I experience frustration. And professionally I do work that is centred around identity and its impact on health and well-being.
I work with people who are building their own business. They are often finding the transition from paid employment to self-employment exciting and challenging and have been frustrated by the superficial advice provided by the online influencers, business consultants and/or mindset coaches they’ve interacted with so far. They’re still looking for the right fit.
It’s no surprise to me that more and more new parents are building their own business, or even that they’re finding my work because it was when I was becoming a parent that I decided I needed to start my own business. In fact, it was the miscarriage of my first child that had me questioning my entire approach to life. It was one of two main catalysts that moved me to quit my secure, well-paid job and start my own health and fitness business with my husband, and zero prior business experience between us.
So, for those of us who are building a family and a business based around a personal brand, the question is this:
Why does our identity become blurry when we become parents, and how does this impact upon us as professionals, creatives or business owners?
To dive into this we’ll look at a few things:
What is identity:
Some of the most simple concepts are the most challenging to define. We refer to ‘me’ ‘myself’ ‘I’ many times per day. We’re aware of our personhood.
But we also grapple with the wider existential questions of ‘who am I’ and ‘what is it I am meant to do?’ These are the questions that seek to define and carry forward what kind of person we are.
Women’s identities are often blended together - our role as parents and as professionals are seemingly inter-reliant. The common segregational language of ‘working mother’ or ‘stay-at-home mother’ is pervasive in a way that ‘working-father’ or ‘stay-at-home father’ simply isn’t.
However, more and more women are redesigning this particular box by choosing to build a business, micro business or side-hustle that is autonomous, location independent and flexible around their family. I’m one of them.
So what is it that compels us to tackle these two huge life-changing and identity seeking events at the SAME time - starting a business AND planning or raising children?
To explore the phenomenon of how we reevaluate who we are around the time that we become parents and/or business owners, let’s dive into what ‘identity’ is.
PERSONAL FACTORS THAT BUILD IDENTITY
Two familiar scenarios happen all the time.
A meeting in real life:
‘Hi, I’m Louise.’
‘How are you, Louise? I’m Jessica.’
‘So, what do you do?’
A meeting online:
*reads post on internet
‘Hmmm. This person is interesting...wonder what they do’
*clicks profile pic
Our identity is tied to what we do.
Not just what we do to earn a living. All of the goal-directed things we do every day from working to parenting, spending time with friends, cooking a meal, engaging in hobbies, driving, styling our hair and even tying our shoes. All of these things are not just key to being a person, they’re key to being a particular type of person.
Our identity is closely tied to what we do. But it goes deeper. Our identity is also tied to our perception of how well we do what we do, and whether it accurately represents the person we feel we are.
How do we evaluate this? Like it or not, we have a very strong desire for ourselves and others to see us favourably. We move through life with an awareness of both:
When there is a gap between who we are being now, and our perception of our ideal selves, we’re either motivated to change or struggle with a feeling some kind of lack of alignment in our lives.
Phew, there’s a LOT in that section!
Identity is related to our sense of ourselves. We like to have a strong sense of who we are, and we’re motivated to create a consistent, positively perceived representation of ourselves. However, there are deeper layers. Our sense of self is shaped by our relationship with others. Let’s explore...
SOCIAL FACTORS THAT BUILD IDENTITY
We started the previous section on how our occupations - all the things we do beyond just work - impact upon our identity.
When you think about most of the meaningful roles in your life, your role at work, as a parent, a friend, a spouse, a sibling - they all involve other people.
We operate in an ecosystem of relationships with others, and we care what they think. You may have tried to school yourself not to care, but ultimately there are certain people whose opinion we DO care about. We like to be seen favourably by others. It feels good.
So we’re building a complex picture here. Not only are we aware of our own sense of self and our perceived ideal self, but we’re also aware of how others perceive us.
The is where self-esteem comes in. It’s not just what we do but how well we do it. We want to be seen as effective, capable, successful people and part of that process is evaluating feedback from our community.
From the time we’re a baby, crawling over to something we’re not allowed to touch, we learn to look back at our parent and scan their face for a reaction.
As a teenager, you’ll have vivid memories of how imperative social acceptance was and how much you were willing to modify your behaviour just to fit in.
If you think back to when you entered the workforce for the first time, you’ll remember trying to do your job in a way that would please your boss or even your co-workers.
We build our identity in the context of society and then we refine it as an individual. It’s a fluid process, and we may present a somewhat different version of ourselves at work compared to at home. We adjust to the context of specific circumstances.
But overall, we have an inherent desire to present ourselves consistently. We have a set of personal values that are fairly solid by the time we finish adolescence - and we use them to create a meaningful life.
TRANSITION TO MOTHERHOOD
When you look at the complexities of what makes up our identity, and the importance of identity on having a meaningful life, it is less surprising that the transition to parenthood has a huge impact upon our sense of self.
Almost every one of our daily routines, habits and life roles change with motherhood. The person we thought we’d be as a parent (because we thought we had a clue what it would be like) changes. Ms “I’d never put my toddler in front of a screen” is suddenly investing in a childproof iPad cover. Ms “I do my hair and makeup everyday” no longer has the time and energy. Ms “Busy, successful (insert occupation here)” is suddenly a new mother spending 3hrs per day googling the answers to questions she never knew she’d have to ask.
We’re grappling with confidence in what we do with this uncharted human and why. We’re trying to build competence, make priorities, form routines, find a sense of belonging, understand, and adapt to a completely new arena (whether it’s your first child or your fifth).
We’re trying to get a hold of our emotions and our physical health. Our social environment and the kind of social engagements we have are unrecognisable. We’re trying to keep hold of some of our ‘old self’ while also adapting to these new demands in a way that is personally satisfying or appear that way to the stream of visitors sitting on our couch sipping tea and observing you at work (or so it seems, we can’t actually see the score paddles they’re concealing, but we feel them). It’s hell, and, the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done, at the same time (if we’re lucky).
Suddenly there’s a gap between who we’re currently being and our perceived ideal self and it takes time to realise our ideal self was bullshit, and adjust our expectations.
Now our sense of who we might become suddenly starts to shift. It’s not clear, we don’t know, there’s a lag between keeping this new human alive and figuring out all this stuff!
We struggle with the conflict between self-focus (becoming a better version of ourselves), and self-transcendence (looking after others, in this case, our children).
DOING, BEING, BECOMING
What we are doing, who we are being, and our ideas of what we could become are all in a state of flux at this stage. Meanwhile, our awareness of how we are being perceived by others is coming in fast, unbidden and from left field! Even writing this chapter I dislike using the term ‘motherhood’. It’s become such a loaded term! I find ‘parenthood’ much less fraught with expectation and judgement.
Every parent has experienced the feeling of being watched, evaluated or judged.
Every reasonably together, somewhat coherent woman has experienced the shock of feeling like a vomit covered, greasy-haired, sleep-deprived, cognitively impaired, shadow of her former self dragging around a body that does not feel like her own.
The stages of child development are unpredictable when you haven’t done them before, and even when you have, because every child is different. I clearly remember looking forward to the stage when my oldest child started school. I believed I would get more ‘time back’. However I soon discovered that school days are very short, school holidays long, and extracurricular activities highly dependent on the availability of a parent to provide transport. I didn’t get as much ‘time back’ as I expected. My perception of who I could become, and when, was constantly shifting.
So why do some of us choose this time to make a major change-up in career?
It might be related to stages of life development.
We’ve moved beyond the adolescent time of seeking social approval.
We’ve been through the early career stage where we adapted to become self-reliant adults who can thrive in the working world.
We’ve most likely if reading this article, built relationships and had babies.
We’re moving into the stage closer to the middle of our lives where we’re seeking opportunities to honour our individuality and authentic self-expression. To live into our values.
For some of us, that means building our own business or side hustle. We’re seeking to do more meaningful work, we’re seeking more flexibility, more autonomy, more opportunity to help others. There are limited barriers to entry, but that doesn’t mean the barriers don’t come up!
In the age of social media and online marketing, we’re building our business in the public eye, because most of our ‘audience’ are our friends and family in the beginning.
We’re grappling to figure things out, we’re aware of how others perceive us, we’re concerned that what we’re putting out into the world isn’t a true representation of who we ARE or who we’re trying to be. But we have this fire in our belly. Our hope is louder than our fear! Although it wavers when we’re 3 wines deep telling Aunt Peg that we’re not going to be who she thought we’d be and we can see she’s thinking our idea is ridiculous.
For me, personally, my miscarriage created a space between deciding to have children and actually having them. It triggered my ability to analyse how I was showing up in the world, and whether I wanted to instil that approach to life in my children. I knew that if I wanted to raise my children to believe they could be whatever they wanted to be, I needed to actually live into that value.
I needed to start interacting more boldly with this world.
Earlier I spoke about the values conflict between self-enhancement or self-transcendence. That tension between doing something that is great for you but might take time away from your family, or impact financial security for your family, was palpable in my life. It still can be. But I don’t buy into the ‘relentless social pressure to subsume personhood under motherhood’. I know with fierce certainty that I can only engage in my role as a mother most effectively if I also engage and develop my role as my self.
SO HOW DO WE MOVE FORWARD?
Honour that building or expressing our identity is a fluid, changeable process. There will be tension between the important roles in our lives, especially when we’re carving our own path. Choosing the path of uncertainty means choosing a level of anxiety because there’s no guarantee our idea will work! Focus then, not on the outcome you seek, but on who you’re becoming in the process of seeking that outcome.
Commit to interacting more boldly with this world and helping others to do so too, even if it frightens the hell out of us. Even when it feels messy, even when others are doing the opposite to you, even when it involves telling people that you’re not going to be the person they thought you would be. If it’s in our nature to care what others think, it helps to surround yourself with others who are on a similar path to you. Find your people, online or in real life, we’re here. You’ll find some of us over on my social media pages - strike up a conversation.
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