Can I Be A Mom And Still Be Me?

Women describe motherhood like a cliff: It’s a leap of faith that no one knows if she’ll survive.

Now that I’m pregnant with my first child, I keep hearing about all the things I’ll never do again: sleep eight solid hours… have sex… get drunk… wear a bikini… travel… save money… have adult conversations not about poo… change plans spontaneously.

It’s hard not to get depressed with all the negative messages I keep hearing. I’m looking over the precipice, wondering what I’ll have to give up to raise a child. What I’m most afraid of is the idea that motherhood fundamentally changes — or worse, erases — a woman’s core identity.

I’m afraid of losing my identity because I have no role models for a type of mothering that is not all-consuming. My own mom had seven kids in 11 years, because she’s the type who just loves babies and toddlers. She stayed home while raising us, then became a children’s librarian, and she loves spending all day with kids.

But looking back at her life, I know I couldn’t do what she did. My mom made her children her entire life, and even if that was right for her, it would be wrong for me.

A few months ago, my cousin Jenny had twins. Three weeks before the babies were born, she had to leave her job to go on bed rest. She posted about it on Facebook, saying she was sorry to leave because she loves her job.

This is what my mother posted in response: “And so it begins – the babies take over your life, your own wants and needs are put aside in favor of theirs, and you stop being Jenny and start being mommy. Isn’t it awesome!!! You are a great mama already! If you want to learn how to knit or something I’ll be happy to teach you. Prayers are with you and your little angels.”

I could not figure out why anyone would say this to a woman about to have children.

That comment reminded me of the way people in a sorority who got hazed feel entitled to haze the next group. My mom assumes it’s only fair that self-erasure happens to younger moms because she got erased too.

Facebook is the site of much of the self-erasure I see in young mothers. As my friends have had children, their profiles have changed from duck-face party pictures to baby-in-bathtub shots. Where they once posted interesting thoughts on politics, celebrities, and cultural events they’d attended, now they post only about their babies’ bodily functions. Their profile pictures, the icons that represent their online identities, now show other people–their children.

To me, there’s no better way to say publicly, “My identity has been sacrificed on the altar of motherhood.”

My mom thinks being a good mom is measured by how much you sacrifice. Do you know what I call this? A martyr complex. Every parent makes sacrifices, but is that really something to celebrate? Shouldn’t the goal be to minimize the amount of sacrifice necessary? My mom told me that she didn’t read anything longer than a picture book or a magazine article for a solid decade. Maybe she never enjoyed reading as much as I do, but that is a sacrifice I would never make for any reason.

As far as I’m concerned, the less I give up of myself, the more there is left of me to do the job of being a mom. If I take the time to keep myself mentally sharp and emotionally well, that can only benefit my children. A calm, happy mom is better than a stressed, overwhelmed mom, right?

I deal with this fear of losing my identity by creating strange, untenable rules. Like: I will never watch a single sporting event for my child because I find them indescribably boring…. My daughter will have a short pixie haircut until she can care for her own hair…. My child will wear only hand-me-downs and Goodwill clothes until he complains about it…. And I will not spend any money on toys until a child requests a particular toy by name.

I tell myself these little rules will save me time and energy and protect my core self from drowning in the deluge of a child’s needs.

Of course, that’s all bullshit. These rules will not hold up in real life, and I know it. They’re a comforting fiction I allow myself for now, because I haven’t yet figured out what it means to be a mom without sacrificing so much that it makes me crazy. Even now, my mom’s version of motherhood is so ingrained in me that I have to fight feelings of guilt over the selfishness of making limits of any kind on the things that I am willing to do for my child.

What I’m really afraid of is how much I’m going to love this kid. I’m afraid I’m going to love him so much that I stop caring about my own needs and forget who I am. I’m afraid that this love will be so monstrous and all-consuming that sacrifices will become dangerously easy. I will love this child more than I love myself, so it will be only natural to put myself second again and again, until it becomes an entrenched pattern that makes me disappear. It will be easier to give in to my own desire to make the kid happy than to hold back even a small bit of time and energy for myself.

I keep telling myself I’ll fight it, though. Motherhood will tilt my world toward my child. With the ground under me slanted like that, I’ll have to work to keep my balance. I’ll have to check in with myself every day to be sure that my own needs are being met, as well as the child’s. I know this constant tug-of-war will be overwhelming. And I wonder if my mom chose the easier course: to stop fighting for herself and just let the children take over her life.

It’s kind of a cliche for a pregnant woman to go on about how she’ll be a totally different kind of mother from her own mom, and then when the baby arrives, she falls into the patterns she knows, and realizes why her mom made the choices she did. I hope that a bit of self-awareness both makes it okay when this happens and helps me to recognize when I’ve gone too far.

Either way, I’ll have a new understanding and empathy for my mom and all mothers. I’ll have made the leap off that cliff. I have faith that it’ll be worth the plunge.

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I grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio with my six siblings, attending Catholic schools and reading a lot. From there, I went to Centre College, then got an MA in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. In 2008, I moved to Nashville and started teaching. My blog (www.mereader.wordpress.com) focuses on book reviews.

Latest posts by Mary Jo Cramb (see all)

35 comments

  • You my love will experience a love that is exactly what you fear! You have just created a human life, so tiny and sweet and you will do anything to make sure that life is safe, happy and loved unconditionally. You don’t have to sacrifice everything, but you will find that your interest change a bit. You will still be able to do things you love, such as reading and working but it may be just be less than you desire. Although you will probably desire sleep for the first few months! 🙂 You will soon realize why your mom did what she did, and realize why all of you turned out to be such enjoyable successful people like you are. There is challenging times especially in the beginning, but when they smile at you for the first time and when they coo and sleep so cute and peacefully, you and your husband will realize it’s the best decision you have made yet!

    • Of course I know that parenting has great rewards; if I didn’t believe that I never would have started down this path. But honestly, the sentimental stuff about how sweet and precious this tiny life is doesn’t interest me right now, although I certainly acknowledge that I may feel differently in 6 months. From where I sit now, I can only anticipate the personal disadvantages of the overwhelming love of a parent, and can feel none of its positive glow. So you’re right when you say I don’t know what is going to happen to me when this baby is born. I don’t have a clue, and that’s kind of the point of the essay. That uncertainty is the source of the fear. You seem to be telling me that this fear is entirely reasonable and realistic.

      What really interests me is whether my mom’s prediction has come to pass. You’ve grown and changed since your babies were born, sure, but are you an essentially different person? Has there ever come a moment when you “stopped being Jenny and started being mommy,” only mommy, and nothing but mommy? If that happens to me, I fear for my child, because it will mean his/her mother is dead or in an insane asylum!

  • P.s I wrote this on my iPhone holding a baby while feeding another so excuse the grammar. ( is should be are) 😉

  • Your life is about to change (as you already know) but it’s going to be in the best way ever imaginable. You can’t make sacrifices you aren’t willing to make. You can hold onto everything you have now but you’d be sacrificing being an amazing mother and having an incredible bond with your child(ren). I worried a bit about losing myself and for awhile, I did. But with that I began to find a new, better me. A happier person who felt right at home doing everything that I did. I can’t imagine any other life than staying home with my kids and being the one to raise them and influence. To teach them a love of books and music. I have four kids. My oldest just recently turned four, I have 2yo twins and a little one who will be 5 months old tomorrow. I sit here and write this while she lays sleeping across my lap after just happily nursing to sleep. This is how most things get done. Either wearing her or holding her. Sometimes wearing or holding one of the others. It makes things harder, but the warm feeling inside from knowing your kids feel secure and loved can’t be beat by anything else. I must also add that I do find time to be a Beachbody coach and am also training to be certified Fitness Trainer. Anything you want to do can be accomplished, even with kids. You just have to have your priorities in line.

    If you fill a jar with big rocks some might say it’s full. Until you put in some pebbles and realize there is still more space. And then some sand to fill in those cracks. Your kids, your family…those are the big rocks. Every thing else is just pebbles and sand. AS long as you make sure your big rocks go in first, you will always have room for everything else.

  • As a newly minted mom, I can say this: you’re going to be MORE you, not less. I had so very many of these same fears (and plenty more besides). You seem to me to be a very different woman from your mother in the ways that matter to you, and you’ll be a different kind of mother in the ways that matter, too. Choosing to parent intentionally, in a way that benefits your children and yourself (and your partner!) is a bold, brilliant step. You’re going to be fabulous.

  • This should be called, “Can I Be A Mom And A Selfish Low Life Piece Of Shit ?”

    • What is the purpose of this comment? You’ve added absolutely nothing constructive or intelligent to a touching, thoughtful essay on motherhood, identity, and feminism.

      Mary Jo, thanks for posting this very personal reflection and being brave enough to expose yourself to pointless criticism that only perpetuates the culture of “mommy guilt.” Wishing you the best with your pregnancy and motherhood!

    • Yes I'm a Mom Too

      I’m surprised you could type this whilst holding tightly to your wooden cross.

    • Do you have children? If you do, then you should understand and respect another Mother’s reservations. Having children takes a toll of women physically and mentally and it is hard to see a world where you are caring for another and still trying to maintain your own self. Personally, I climb fourteeners and have very complicated pregnancies that result in multiple surgeries and bed rest and it is hard to see myself going through it again and still coming out the other end able to do the things I love in ADDITION to taking care of multiple children. There is NOTHING wrong with getting advice and hearing stories of how other women do it. We are not just baby making machines who are put on this earth to raise families.

  • I’ll give you my short view. At first you won’t care that you’ve lost yourself but when that newness wears off it shouldn’t be too hard to find yourself again. You’ll give a little but, staying true to you is what will make you a great mother. Congratulations and good luck!

  • I think when I first read this I thought “wow she’s so selfish why would she even want to be a mom”. Then I thought more and realized, that scary love, you already feel it. It’s overwhelming and even painful. Yes, you love someone else more than yourself. You love this little person so much it hurts. Becoming a mom is scary. This person depends on you for everything. It’s such a huge responsibility and sometimes it’s hard but it’s never a burden. I honestly think becoming a mom made me a better person. I think about life before my kids and feel like I was nothing before them. My whole world revolves around them and I’m ok with that. They consume my thoughts all day. I think about their laughs while I’m at work and can’t wait to pick them up to hear “mommy!” when they see me walk in the door. Do you honestly think you can make a person and not feel the same way? Your strange rules, are not just strange, they are quite ridiculous. I love watching my son play baseball and seeing how proud he is of hisself when he hits a homerun is one of the many joys of motherhood. I also enjoy fixing my daughters hair and picking out bows to match her outfit. People compliment me on her beautiful hair all the time and I love it because I made her. Set reasonable goals for yourself like get a massage once a month or have a date night every other weekend. I’m very interested to see how you feel about this topic once your baby arrives. Best wishes for the rest of your pregnancy and motherhood!

    • I really appreciate that you took the time to go past your first reaction and consider the message I was trying to convey. Thank you for being a sympathetic reader.

      I don’t even know you, but I know that one thing you said isn’t true. You were not “nothing” before you had your kids. You were a vibrant, strong woman with a full life, with hopes and dreams, some of which included the children you now have, and some of which were probably independent of them. You do yourself a disservice to dismiss your past self like that. For example, I love my husband just as you love your kids, but I would never say that I was “nothing” before I met him. Saying that a woman is nothing without her man is pretty anti-feminist; saying that a woman is nothing without her children is, too, through perhaps less obviously.

      I certainly don’t think I’ll be unchanged by motherhood; the point is that I know I will be changed and am nervous about how much. When I introduced those rules I tried to make, I deliberately described them as “untenable,” meaning I know I won’t be able to follow them. Just after describing the rules, I called them bullshit. So, yes, I know they are ridiculous; that was the point. I hope I end up feeling the way you do about baseball and my daughter’s hair.

  • So maybe I’m different than most moms out there….? I never once felt like I was going to lose myself becoming a mom, I felt that my life journey was about to begin! I never was “not excited”, I never thought to myself that doing something for myself was more important than supporting my children. I knew that once my husband and I decided to have children that our wants and needs were second in line to theirs. I knew that breastfeeding twins was going to be a very time consuming and difficult task, but because of the benefits to them (not my waistline or bank account) I was going to give it 100%, and so far I have been successful. There are days that I do not get sleep, or days that I hardly get lunch. But I made this commitment and I am sticking to it.Today I am a mother, a full time employee, a student finishing her bachelors degree, and a wife. All of which are important, but there is not a moment that goes by that when I’m these other things that I don’t think of my twins and love them unconditionally and un-selfishly, just as my mother and step mother have done for me.

    • Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Your feelings are valid and so are mine. For your sake I’m glad you’re able to balance parenting, working and studying. That shows me the answer to my question above: you haven’t stopped being Jenny. I would have been sorry if you had. Balance is what I’m going to aim for too; if I’m truly balanced I won’t have to choose between doing things for myself and supporting my child because I’ll be able to do both. The fact that you didn’t see motherhood as at least potentially opposed to any other goals you have for your life only shows that you and I see our lives differently and have different goals. There’s nothing wrong with that for either of us.

    • This awesome article tackles some of these issues so well: http://www.modernalternativemama.com/blog/2012/12/21/lose-the-mommy-guilt-your-feelings-matter-too/#.UN5lv29JNZF

      My favorite lines from it:
      It’s so true that we can’t give what we don’t have. If you’ve always felt that your feelings weren’t accepted, you won’t be able to accept others’ feelings. If your needs aren’t being met, you can’t meet others’ needs.

      It’s an incredibly strange feeling to try to support someone emotionally and physically when you feel entirely drained and unsupported yourself. It sucks at you…and it can tear you apart.

      On the other hand, when you feel full and loved and that your needs are met, it’s easy to give to others, to want to give more, to go above and beyond to fulfill others’ needs.

      The mother who is accepted and loved and is secure in herself and knows her needs will be met will be able to meet her children’s needs and provide them the same security.

      This is not about “me time.” This is not about selfishness. This is not about a need to ‘escape’ the children. This is about accepting who you are and where you are, as your situation currently is. Maybe a little ‘me time’ is a part of the solution; maybe not. It’s more complicated than that.

  • I feel exactly the same way about my future kids. I have all the same fears and even make similar rules. When I tell people this, I get reactions like “wow you’re so selfish” or “oh that will change once you actually have a kid” or “if you’re not prepared to dedicate your life to your kids, you aren’t ready to have them”. Nobody actually tries to understand what I feel, or why.

    My cousin has a 3 year old and a 5 month old. She has a few photos of them on Facebook, but her profile picture is still of herself. She remains Melanie. And you know what? All I hear about from the rest of the women in the family (and even her best friends!) is how she is a bad mother and doesn’t spend enough time with her boys and how she’s selfish and doesn’t love them enough and how dare she… etc, etc.

    It’s almost as if you can’t win.

    The mom texting her husband or her friends while her kids play is a “neglecting her kids”. The mom who pays a babysitter every weekend for a date night or a massage or a shopping trip is “avoiding her responsibilities”. It’s super unfair.

    Yeah, motherhood will change you. But hopefully if you try hard enough, it won’t erase you.

  • I can relate. I felt that way before my son was born, well sort of. He was planned and tried for, but when I found out I was pregnant I had never been so scared in all my life. Everyon started telling me the exact same stuff, which only made my anxiety that much worse. When I went into labor I was more afraid of becoming a mom than the pain.

    I wish I could say it got better as soon as he was born, but it didnt. I loved him so much, but I felt very detached. After the first 6 weeks, it got better. Now he’s 17 months old and I’m totally the mom you’re describing, and I swear I have no idea when it happened. It’s very hard to describe what being a “mom” is to someone, its just something you have to feel to understand, and then it will hit you like a ton of bricks. It is very hard to loose yourself when you step through that wormhole into mommyhood. I did, I’ve just recently realized I need to get a life LOL. I went back to work when he was 11.5 months and its helped me to regain a part of myself, because I enjoy what I do. But we still do all of the things we did, withh some exceptions and trial and error. There are things that people told us we would never do again, and we do them almost every weekend, just with our son in tow. We went in with the thought of if its something that we love and enjoy, why can’t he be a part of it too? Why could we not share our love of the outdoors with him. The way we parent may not be like most, we didnt shelter him for 6 months and never take him outside or anything like that. We may not do everything like we used to, but enough to hold onto that part of ourselves that we had before he was born, only now its better because he’s there. You will find your way, at your own pace and in your own time. When it comes to being a parent, do whatever you need to be the best you can be, because this is one area you can only give 99%. It really is the best feeling in the world. My son is now 17 months old and he is the most amazing, wonderful, intelligent, well rounded (if I do say so myself) little person. We have encouraged other friends to become parents, who were hesitant about all of the things they would have to give up because of the stereotypical behavior of parents.

    My best advice from one mom to another is this: dont think about it to much, do what feels natural to you. There is no sense in overthinking this now, before you really know what kind of mom your going to be. All of the little things will fall into place like pieces of a puzzle once your little one is here. Just enjoy your pregnancy and worry about the rest later. 🙂

    • I have to agree – don’t over think it. With a growing belly, a little navel gazing is understandable – but having a baby doesn’t automatically erase your individuality.

      Speaking from my own experience, there will be times you feel happy and serene as a parent. There will be other times you feel overwhelmed and sleep deprived. Sometimes they happen only milliseconds apart from one another.

      Two things happened to me early in marriage (and parenthood) that really changed my perspective. Once, I criticized my husband’s tie and asked him to change it because it was a reflection on my style. He started laughing, thinking I was joking. Sadly, I wasn’t. Thankfully, I can see now that his tie has nothing to do with me. And I can laugh.

      When my three year old daughter came home from daycare, saying “Look! It’s my little butt” while smooshing her forearm to her upper arm and pointing to the cleavage at her elbow, I freaked out. I was ready to call the daycare and find out which little miscreant was leading my precious child astray. My husband must have seen that wild look in my eye, and promptly said to our child “No, that’s your elbow”, and he redirected her attention to something else.

      I can laugh about those things now, because I didn’t indulge in over-thinking them, even though I could have. Not everything has to be a big deal in parenting and relationships.

      Laugh a lot. And enjoy the journey. You will still be “you” on the other side, only better —

  • I’m a mom of a 6-year-old. I’m a single parent, I date, I have a full-time job as an English and history teacher, I moved to Africa with my kid a year and a half ago, I am part of a book club and read tons of books, I travel with my kid when I have time. It means I have a kid who’s bilingual, loves to travel, loves food from all over the world, loves sports and music just like me, is as well-rounded as I am, and has developed compassion for those who have less than him. It’s not selfish, it’s setting an example for your children through your own actions, and that to me is damn good parenting.

  • I was so happy to find this post! I feel a lot of the same fears about motherhood. And actually, my long-term boyfriend just left me because he fears losing himself in fatherhood. Long, long story. It’s hard to face the life changes that parenthood brings. Change is inevitable. I have made plenty of unreasonable “rules” just like you spoke of. What helps calm me down though is to make reasonable ones too. You can still travel and read and do things you love. Teaching your children those things are what makes parenthood wonderful. So you stay yourself, just in a different way, as a guide for your child. At least, this is what I hope motherhood will be like. Obviously it won’t always go as planned but having these fears and plans will enable you to be the kind of mom you want to be.

  • Here’s an interesting study that might explain why parents idolize parenthood:

    http://healthland.time.com/2011/03/04/why-having-kids-is-foolish/

  • I can’t really speak to what you’ve written, as I am not a mom yet. But I just wanted to say that my best friend had a baby two months ago and she reads novels on her Kindle. I am encouraged to see that she still finds time for the things she loves even in the midst of caring for a newborn.

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  • You’re article helped me not feel alone and I would really love an update of how you’re doing now. Have you written or can you write a follow-up now that your son or daughter is here? Thank you 🙂

  • Ditto so many of the above! I have felt so alone for not wanting to be “just mommy” after my kiddo gets here. I like who I am as a person and obviously I want to add “mom” to it but not erase everything else! Thanks for putting this out there, it really helped.

  • Mary Jo, this is an old article for you but was still so relevant for me. I love the way you explained where your head was at the time, and the comments here were mostly awesome. I’m a mom of two boys, 8 and almost 11, and had the exact same feelings before they were born. And the same overwhelming love of them once they arrived. I did lose myself for a bit, but I caught on and tried to balance things out. I still work, I still read, and I still try to find time with my friends (although that’s a little harder with a pilot husband). When I do those things I feel like “me,” and I’m able to give more to my boys — playing sports with them, dancing around, joking, laughing, helping with projects or homework, and being a shoulder to lean on. We’ve also involved them in some things we love, so we can do them as a family (fishing, boating, skiing, running, biking). But even now it takes awareness for me to make sure I’m not losing myself (especially in a house full of men), or doing too little to recharge. Checking in every now and then is a great idea. Sounds like you were on the right track – hope you’re enjoying motherhood!

  • Thank you so much for writing this. As someone who is on the precipice of conception, I have the same thoughts and experiences on motherhood, and I so very much value my freedom, identity, and who I am to others, not just my small circle of family and loved ones. The thought of becoming consumed by ‘mommyhood’ makes me want to physically vomit, and my back goes up when I see women fall over this cliff into this blended identity, no longer her own self.

    I think it will always be a struggle and a hard balance to ensure that I don’t lose myself – and of course I know that the things I value now, may no longer pull me to feel the same way after I have children, but the thought of losing those things makes me want to delay motherhood and just keep living my life which I love.

    Anyway, thanks for putting out your thoughts – it makes me feel better to know I am not alone in this. Would love an update on how things are going since you gave birth.

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