Mourning Your Former Self
Before I had kids, I had a host of identities: writer, runner, friend, yogi, self-proclaimed pop culturist. That last one might have been the point of most pride. But when Maggie was born, my identity shifted overnight. Literally. When I arrived at the hospital just before midnight on July 26, 2013, the nurses in Labor and Delivery called me Rachel; by July 27, on the postpartum floor, I was Mom.
I had no complaints about this. I spent a year trying to get pregnant with my daughter, and eventually conceived via IVF, which was no small undertaking, so Mom was the title I'd been longing for. What I hadn't entirely expected was how much that title would dilute my other ones. I wasn't working out like I used to, and I couldn't find the time to string a sentence together on a page, let alone write-or even read-a book. I didn't have time (or didn't make time) for friends, and as for pop culture, well, I didn't stop watching TV-what else is there to do when you're pumping incessantly?-but I wasn't a wealth of useless entertainment knowledge anymore, either. (I'll let you decide if that's a good or bad thing.)
Being the mother to Maggie was my main purpose, most especially in those first few months, and at the time it was fine by me. And it's not unexpected that new parenthood, especially new motherhood, will be an all-consuming endeavor. That's why parental leave exists. But the extreme to which parenthood will change your sense of self is hard to grasp before you've been through it. As Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and New York City family therapist, explains, "The brain goes through all these changes when women are pregnant or postpartum-we call it 'pregnancy brain' or 'newborn stupidity'-but it's not stupid at all. It's the brain making sure the baby is first on the list, that the baby is the most fulfilling thing for now, because that is how the human race survives. We develop new aspects of ourselves that ever after are a part of who we are."
These changes to the brain, especially for mothers, are being increasingly recognized by scientists. Reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, coauthor of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, delivered a TED Talk in 2018 about the identity shift and brain changes that take place when a woman becomes a mother-a transition known as matrescence. That transition, she said, is a time when "body morphing and hormone shifting lead to an upheaval in how a person feels emotionally and how they fit in the world." Part of that upheaval? Mourning the person a woman was before parenthood, and then feeling guilty for the grieving. "Evolution has helped us out with this hormone called oxytocin. It's released around childbirth and also during skin-to-skin touch, so it rises even if you didn't give birth to the baby. Oxytocin helps a mother's brain zoom in, pulling her attention in, so that the baby is now at the center of her world. But at the same time, her mind is pushing away, because she remembers there are all these other parts to her identity-other relationships, her work, hobbies, a spiritual and intellectual life. . . . This is the emotional tug-of-war of matrescence." This push-pull is common, Sacks explained, but still largely not talked about.
Although I would never give up the life I have with my kids, it's true that as time has passed and they've grown up-and I'm not talking really grown up; I mean, like, grown up to be toddlers-there is something alluring about my old self. I get nostalgic for the person who took vacations to exotic countries or went out to dinner with friends at a moment's notice. "It's wonderful to embrace your identity as a parent, but there are so many facets of who you are as a human that it's important to nurture the other pieces of yourself that may have gotten washed away," Emma Bennett, an L.A. therapist who specializes in maternal mental health, tells me. "Because you're not one-dimensional, and you're more than a parent-you are a friend, you might be a romantic partner, you are a family member to other people. There are all these different pieces that fill up your sense of self-worth and purpose in addition to being a parent. So while it's certainly not detrimental to embrace your parental role, if you're not nourishing the other parts of yourself, that is detrimental to your overall well-being."
The Parental Happiness Gap
Studies have consistently shown that parents are less happy and report lower emotional well-being than their nonparent counterparts. The first such study was released in 1957, in a paper titled "Parenthood as Crisis" (the name says it all), which listed the same parental complaints I've heard from parents sixty years later: exhaustion, social isolation, never-ending chores, and guilt, to name a few. Similar research has been published in the decades since. A 2016 study found that of twenty-two developed nations, the parental "happiness gap"-the difference in happiness levels between those with and without kids, also called the "happiness penalty"-is greatest in American parents. The root of our extreme deficit, the researchers found, is a lack of family-friendly social policies like subsidized childcare or paid vacation leave. But researchers have also found that parents enjoy the act of parenting less than they do preparing food or exercising. Some researchers have likened the enjoyment parents get from hanging out with kids to the pleasure they get from hanging out with . . . strangers. Spending time with friends, spouses, acquaintances-virtually anyone they know outside of their children-is more enjoyable than spending time with their offspring. Even the words that parents use to describe their lifestyles paint a less-than-sunny picture. One dad told me that once he leaves for work, his wife is "stuck with both kids." A mom described her life with a toddler and a newborn as "this situation I'm in."
In addition to these complicated feelings about kids, a bulk of research has shown that marital satisfaction plummets the moment you have a child, and although friendships have been studied far less, it's clear that time carved out for friends declines in parenthood, too. Overall, it's a tough gig.
When Maggie was a baby, I once heard myself telling a pregnant friend that the moment I put my daughter in her crib at night was the best moment of my day. I was horrified and embarrassed and ashamed-I adore my children! I spend my time away from them watching videos of them on my phone! But during early motherhood especially, it really can feel like the goal is just to get to the next day. When kids are older they may be more self-sufficient, but by then plenty of parents spend so much of their weekends chauffeuring kids from soccer games to gymnastics tournaments to piano lessons that sending them off to school can't come soon enough. As one friend told me, "Monday morning is the new Friday night."
Of course, parenting is fulfilling. When I look back over the last couple of years, the moments that stand out all involve my kids-Maggie losing her first tooth, Will playing guitar on stage in front of a room full of strangers, the afternoon Matt and I took the kids sledding for the first time and they laughed for ninety minutes straight. In her book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, author Jennifer Senior writes that the parental happiness gap may not capture the whole story. "When researchers bother to ask questions of a more existential nature, they find that parents report greater feelings of meaning and reward-which to many parents is what the entire shebang is about," she explains. Melissa Milkie, a sociologist who studies time use among parents and its implications for health and well-being, breaks it down for me this way: "Parents feel like they actually matter a lot in society. They matter to these young children and as the children get older, they still matter. That's really important to well-being, and this sense of purpose is sort of built into parents' lives. So while it's not necessarily a day-to-day feeling-sometimes it really is just about getting through the day-parents are contributing to the development of these individual people as they grow, and that gives them a sense of meaning."
Parenthood, Milkie says, offers higher highs but also lower lows, which could occur if, for example, health problems arise with your children. "It's a richer life," she says. "It's a more complicated life that has the potential for more difficulty, but also more meaning."
I get it. It's a cliche to say my children are my proudest accomplishment, but it's also true. When I see them being kind or generous or empathetic, I feel a sense of pride that is different, and more satisfying, than the pride I feel about, say, seeing my byline in print. Still, in those moments when you're in the thick of the tedious parenting duties-when it's 8 p.m. and you're willing two children to sleep and answering that last call for one more sip of water or one more trip to the potty-it can feel like the job has become who you are, especially if you can't remember, or simply haven't had time to revisit, the other identities-the yogi, the chef, the runner, the reader, the good friend, the loving spouse-that make you you.
How Do Other Parents Get By?
In a very "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" sense, it seems that every parent I've talked to has issues with their leisure time-there's not enough of it, they don't use it in a good way, and so on-but the strains on their time are very different. The demands on a stay-at-home mom are different from those of an employed mom, and even among the employed, a mother's time looks different than a father's. And in those subsets, each parent has jury-rigged their own house of cards to make the logistics of raising children work.
It was one thing to see survey responses roll in, highlighting what every parent knows-Balance is hard! Kids are demanding!-but I decided it would be equally useful to see how different parents structure their days, and how their experiences illuminate the realities of modern parenting. Three parents-a working mom, a stay-at-home mom, and a working dad-walked me through a typical day.
Ashley, Working Mom
Six-year-old daughter; two-year-old son
Ashley lives in a suburb of Washington, DC, but she and her husband both work in the city, which means on most mornings, they're hustling to get the whole family out the door by 8 a.m. Since her kids are sleepers-"they would both naturally wake up at 8 most days"-Ashley and her husband are able to get up between 6:30 and 7 and have a few quiet minutes before waking up the kids. Ashley washes her face, brushes her teeth, and gets dressed (she showers at night), while her husband lets the dog out and makes the kids' breakfast. At 7:15, Ashley wakes up her children. She changes her son's diaper and gets him dressed while her daughter gets ready for school. "She dresses herself but it takes yelling at her about three times to stop screwing around in her room and get her clothes on," Ashley says. Around 7:30, the kids are in the kitchen for breakfast. "That's when I drink my coffee, because I'm not capable of doing anything other than getting them dressed and standing in a stupor until I've had a cup of coffee," Ashley says.
Once the family is out of the house, Ashley's husband takes their son to daycare while she takes their daughter to kindergarten. After an 8:10 drop-off, Ashley starts the thirty-five-minute commute into DC, where she works as a government lawyer. She's in the office until 4:30, with a forty-five-minute lunch period that she uses to eat but also to handle "life appointments," like scheduling doctor appointments for her kids. Though Ashley is in charge of most of these logistical tasks, she insists it's by choice. "We have a very equitable marriage in terms of the grunt work with the kids, but in terms of life management stuff, all of that is me,” Ashley says. “My husband repeatedly offers to take some of those things off my plate, but it’s just easier for me to keep it all in my head. I prefer it that way.”