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The motherhood identity crisis is difficult to get through.
Which makes sense. Identity is a tricky thing. Beliefs and values are two of the core concepts that we hook our identities onto throughout out lives. When we become pregnant or when we become mothers, this seemingly changes overnight.
I used to be a smoker. And a drinker.
And a depressive. An alcoholic. An anxious person.
I quit being those things six years ago.
But I didn’t stop smoking, drinking, wanting to die, or having a belly ache for years after that. Instead, I just stopped identifying with those characteristics as deep truths about who I was.
Not hooking our identities onto negative traits and actions is obvious a good thing. Literally nobody argues otherwise. If I’m not a smoker, I don’t have to smoke. I just choose to. If I’m not a depressive, I don’t have to be depressed. I don’t choose to, but maybe its more happenstance than identity.
“Let go of those old stories about who you are. That that bullies got you to believe. That you tricked yourself into believing”
The crowd goes wild
But we need to realize that even when we attach our personality to more positive or neutral traits, we suffer. This is because identifying with a trait—rather than just having one—makes us feel attached. When we are attached to something, a change or loss of that thing makes us suffer.
I want you to imagine two scenarios that will help you understand your motherhood identity crisis. Knowledge is potential power, so this could be the start of turning things around.
Imagine a little kid with an ice cream cone. He licks and blam, the whole scoop falls over onto the ground. While I’ve never seen this happen in real life, TV assures me that this is a common occurrence.
How does the boy react?
This is an example of attachment. The kid wanted the ice cream. He thought it was his. Then the world took it away and hurt his feelings.
As adults, we don’t tend to wail and scream over this kind of this. Oh well. It’s an ice cream cone. Whatever.
Now imagine a man. He’s a professional in his 40’s. He’s been working as an engineer at the same job for 7 years. One day he walks in and gets fired.
How does the man react?
Exactly the same as that little boy.
But the feeling is similar.
Upset. Robber. Wronged.
While many adults have let go of their attachment to items, they have not let go of what helps them define themselves. You are the kind of person who does this and believes this.
This is an example of attachment to the concept of the self.
Before motherhood, I was tough. Tough in a way I liked a lot. Independent. Ready to leave a boyfriend at the drop of a hat and make my way out into the world by myself because I don’t need your help thank you.
When I got pregnant, a lot of that softened. I wanted to have the support of my partner. I wanted to be taken care of. I wanted to stick it out through thick and thin, for the first time in my life.
A lot of women experience this.
In Engendering Motherhood: Identity and Self-Transformation in Women’s Lives, author Martha McMahon explores this reaction to our new roles. She reveals that motherhood is not just a gendered experience, but an engendering one. That means, in general, we are feminized by our experience as mothers.
For me, succumbing to and accepting the desire to be more feminine has allowed me to have a very harmonious relationship since my pregnancy.
But things didn’t have to be that way.
Instead, I could have been torn. I could have let an motherhood identity crisis. I could have fought the change, felt trapped in my relationship, and bogged down by my new role.
How did I avoid that?
The ice cream cone. The job. The roughness. They are all examples of attachment.
In the case of the job or the personality trait, they are attachments to the idea of the self.
But the self of a solid, stable self is illusory. While there are inborn personality differences, there’s nothing that guarantees a radical life change couldn’t shake that foundation.
Look at a picture of yourself 5 years ago. 10 years ago. 20 years ago. All those are the same person? Are they who you are now?
Of course not.
Acknowledging this will help you overcome the motherhood identity crisis. Allowing the concept of the self to loosen its grip on you means giving yourself permission to change.
To be someone different. To value new things.
That doesn’t mean you won’t have an identity.
If I tell that 40-year-old dude not to attach his ego to his job, I’m not saying stay unemployed. He’ll just start identifying to that in the long run anyway. He needs to fix the underlying problem of attaching his sense of self to his actions, beliefs, and roles.
I want you to think about your old traits, your old job, your own beliefs about what a woman should be the same way you think about an ice cream scoop that drops on the floor.
Well, that sucks. I guess I gotta clean this up. Maybe get a new one.
You can, of course, take a personality trait of yours and say, “Because I’m like this, I am destined to be mired in a motherhood identity crisis until my kids are 20.”
Or you can realize that personality traits are tools. And you can start letting go of some of these ticks by meditating on them.
I want you to do loving kindness meditation. Pick a mantra like this:
May I be happy. May I be free. May I be comfortable, and at Peace.
I want you to offer that gift to yourself. And I want you to meditate really hard and offer that gift to yourself 20 years ago. 10 years ago. The day you found out you were pregnant. The days you felt like you lost your sense of self. The day 20 years from now when you feel the sting of losing your identity as a parent.
When you can give this kindness to yourself—past, present, and future—you will find that the grip of who you need to be will finally loose. You can let go of the motherhood identity crisis. And just be here, being a woman. Changed, sure—but you were always going to be.
Micro-commitments are a way to trick your brain into finally letting you become a better person.
Understanding how our children’s brains work benefits us greatly as parents.
You give your child love and leeway once you realize they have tantrums because they can’t control themselves. Because they’re dissipating emotional energy.
Instead of yelling, you help bring them back into equilibrium by providing calm and contact.
You stop being angry when you realize your 3-year-old has little self-control. Her brain just isn’t there yet. She keeps eating cookies even though you asked her not to because she can’t “choose” to stop.
Instead of yelling you set her up for success by moving the cookies out of reach.
When you realize that your baby is born with an evolutionary expectation for constant contact, you don’t feel victimized by your bad luck. You strap him on and go about your day.
Paying attention to what our children are wired for helps makes us more successful with them.
And we can do the same for ourselves through the use of micro-commitments.
Think of a time your child has been in a new situation. Maybe those froze up. Screamed. Acted out. Hid.
You know what is happening.
This is the fight-flight-or-freeze response.
Your baby is unsure of what is going on around him. His amygdala is activated—and his brain tries to keep him safe.
You step in to help reassure him that he is loved and safe. You bring him back into equilibrium so that he can start exploring.
This is what change is like for all of us. We experience this at interview or applying for jobs. When you go on a first date or meet a new friend, you feel anxious.
Our brains like the familiar. When we step into the unknown, our brains alert us to danger. It doesn’t matter what the new thing this is. The lizard part of our brain doesn’t distinguish between “good new” and “bad new.”
So it could be the date.
Or a playground.
Or it could be a new habit like meditation, exercising, or connecting rather than yelling.
Instead of jumping in headfirst, you look at your yoga mat and say “I’ll do this later.”
Instead of sitting down to meditate, you say, “I can’t quiet my mind,”
This is your brains keeping-you-safe response. It makes sense.
You can say thank you.
“Thank you, brain.”
Once you’ve thanked your brain for working hard to protect you, you need a way to overcome the status quo bias.
How can you keep your brain calm enough to let you make a move in the right direction?
Micro-commitments are tiny, insignificant steps you can take in the right direction. So small that your brain may not be alerted that you trying to change things at all.
If you want to start doing yoga, you make a rule to lay out a yoga mat in the morning.
If you want to start running, you make a rule to put on your running shoes.
If you want to stop yelling, you make a rule to take one breath before yelling.
There’s one major rule you have to observe if you are going to try these kinds of commitments though.
Give yourself permission to stop after your commitment is fulfilled.
Just lay out the yoga mat. Just take one breath.
For the first few days, you may even want to force yourself to stop there. Make sure your brain knows you really are not just trying to trick it. Because you will figure you out. And then you’ll be so mad at you that you won’t even start.
After you’ve really given yourself permission to go that far, you can start the work of going further.
Micro-commitments help you get moving in three big ways:
Whether you want to dedicate yourself to picking up the ukulele that’s been sitting in the corner and plucking one chord, or to spending more time outside so sitting on the porch for one minute, you can use micro-commitments to build yourself into the person you want to be.
Of all of the proposals I make about how to use your time as a mother, this one is going to sound the most insane and pie-in-the-sky: Get some time alone.
We are going to bend the definition of alone to make it a bit more reasonable.
Zander and I went to the park the other day. Quiet and breezy, he crawled around the plaza and explored the world. Grabbing onto the side of the fountain, he tries to pull himself up. He is learning to stand.
For my part, I stretch out on the ground and check on him every few minutes. He’s always in my peripheral vision.
But instead of scrolling through my feed, reading a book, or listening to a podcast, I am just there. Laying. Being alone, with my thoughts. No intrusion of other’s ideas.
We are there for a bit over an hour and then I head home. I feel so at peace when I walk in. I pick up my copy of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. I say thank you for finally making clear to me what’s been missing in my life.
Albert Camus, my favorite philosopher, said: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”
Different figures throughout history have boasted the benefits of solitude, from Aristotle to Audrey Hepburn. They may say the practice boosts their creativity or mediates their sanity. East and West both agree that solitude is necessary for a well-lived life.
Modern science is, unsurprisingly, finding that this is the case.
When you spend time alone—not taking in the thoughts of other’s or meeting the expectations of your social group, you get a jumpstart to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest part of your nervous system. Lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and more relaxed muscles are all signs that your parasympathetic nervous system has been activated.
You also have time to reflect and flex your insight muscle. Taking yourself out of the social context allows you to see how you are being affected and how you are affecting in a way that you wouldn’t be able to when you’re in the thick of it. When your brain is in input processing mode, whether the input is books, podcasts, or friends, it can’t do the hard work of figuring out who you are and what you’re here for.
In a study done by the University of Virginia, researchers found that a quarter of women and two-thirds of men who were involved in the experiment would rather be subjected to an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.
We are losing our ability to be alone. We haven’t analyzed its value—or maybe, like the participants in the mentioned study, we’re afraid to spend time with our thoughts.
And if we are, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves scattered, stressed, and burnt out.
Not being with my phone, I’d heard that. I knew you weren’t supposed to have it on you all of the time. But I forgot that books are another new-fangled technology that intrude sometimes on my solitude. And while I love phones, podcasts, and books, they aren’t as essential to the well-being of a human as blocks of quiet reflection sprinkled throughout the day and week.
Set an example for your children. Spend some time alone. Be bored. Teach them how to sit with boredom by not providing constant entertainment and noise.
While the perfect arrangement may not exist when you’ve got one kid strapped to you or four running around, make true solitude a priority. Go to the park without the phone. Ask the partner for a half an hour walk by yourself on Sunday. Find a way to make radical decompression part of your daily, weekly, or monthly ritual.
Daylight savings has become more confusing since giving birth. For as long as I can remember, I’ve run on industrial time. 6 o’clock is 6 o’clock, even if they have moved it an hour.
With a baby, though, I run on horticultural time. We follow the sun and the stars. I’m not sure when 7 o’clock is, but I know when the sun comes up. Everything in my schedule has been suddenly moved forward an hour. I was an early riser at 6:15 a.m. but now I’m a normal riser at 7.
My partner’s work schedule has changed to accommodate this weird quirk of certain industrialized nations. As have all of our activities.
This transition is frustrating like they all are.
We transition several times a day from sleep to wake, from calm to calamity, from place to place. These can be very draining on our child and on us.
In High-Performance Habits, author Brendon Burchard details five things that effective people do better than the rest of us. He cites a ton of research on why these habits are so useful and gives you practical advice on how to implement them in your own life.
Of note today is habit number two. Burchard finds that extraordinary people generate energy.
Instead of letting their energy be leeched throughout the day, top performers find a way to create and retain as much as energy as possible.
In a revelation that will surprise no one, this means transitioning smoothly because people feel the most drained by adjusting. Things like:
sometimes ask more of us than we feel we can give.
What extremely effective people have learned is how to transition gracefully. Regardless of how smart, fast, and competent you are, your brain needs time to switch tasks. You need time to organize your thoughts, to release your feelings, to re-center.
Try to find spaces and ways during your day to help your brain and body understand that one part of your day has ended and another one starting.
Do this for yourself and your child. While it might look different for the two of you, it is something you both need.
If you can recharge yourself before your child, you’ll be able to parent from the place that you want to.
Here are a few ways to give yourself a break and generate energy before trying to get kiddo up to speed:
As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, “Whenever you organize a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy…Want to draw more? Put your pencils, pens, notebooks, and drawing tools on top of your desk, within easy reach. Want to exercise? Set out your workout clothes, shoes, gym bag, and water bottle ahead of time.”
By resetting the room to what you’ll need it for next, you are making you’re a transition easier for your future self, too.
You might take ten deep breaths (inhale through the nose for two seconds, hold for two seconds, exhale through the mouth for four seconds.) Or you might think, “I am going to sit here and meditate until I hear a whimper of frustration from my toddler.”
Now, visualize yourself transitioning smoothly. You help your children wrap up this portion of the day. You are successfully accomplishing the next thing on your list. You and baby are both contended, smiling, doing what needs to get done.
Once you feel rejuvenated and ready to roll, then you can help transition your child.
When children don’t transition well, they often end up in the red zone (having a tantrum) or the blue zone (shutting down). If we can keep them in the green zone, the go-zone, the ready to grow, contribute, and explore zone, then their days will get easier. This is a habit they can bring with them into adulthood.
There are a few things you can do before transitions to help make them smoother, and some you can do when the change actually occurs.
You don’t have to detail each five-minute increment. X will happen, followed by Y. Think where the transition points are. That’s what they need to be aware of, not which toys they’re going to play with.
Mastering transitions will make your days significantly easier. Tweak any of these ideas to meet the specific needs of your family. Zander doesn’t need nightly prep—at 9 months old, he relies much more heavily on our routine. Some children actually do worse with a warning, seeing them as an opportunity to stop enjoying themselves right away and start complaining—in which case, maybe a quick sweep off the feet would do better.
Be aware of where sensitivities lie and hone your transition routine. With enough practice and forethought, going from one activity to the other over time will only become a problem when no one has had enough sleep.
We have a bad habit in our society of saying that societies standards are the problem. In fact, society is what keeps all of our most base desires in check. While the many certainly influence us, the small cultures that we’re a part of have the biggest pull.
We absorb our larger culture and our more particular culture. Whether we say pop or soda. Whether we take our shoes off at the door. Whether 80s music is classic or trash. Whether screaming at your kid is normal or looked down upon.
As humans, we respond largely to the incentives right in from of us. Like lions on the savannah, our ancestors had an urgent need to figure out what was going to bring them pain or gratification now, not in a month and certainly not in 20 years. We lived, for most of our evolutionary past, in an “immediate return environment.” This means a lot of our brain’s coding pressures us to favor the present over the future.
This is why people smoke when they know it will kill them, don’t save when they know it puts them in a bad position, and scream at their kids even when they know it is damaging.
Somehow, though, our ancestors did manage to save. Large scale civilization isn’t possible without some savings. But if our hardware told us not to think about tomorrow, how did we?
One of the few things that we understand clearly in the past, present, and future is our relationships. The prisoner’s dilemma shows the importance of the tit-for-tat function that we use when interacting with other people. Working with others produces the best outcomes for humans. This is why we like other people and need to be liked by them.
If we do defect—if we do bad things that people don’t like in social situations, we will no longer have a social situation. Social rejection, ostracism, and exclusion are tools used by our primate relatives. They mean stress and, if taken to their extreme, death.
So, we developed social emotions to help us override our desire for instant gratification. If you let me have of your food this time and I don’t give you mine next time, that might be the end of our exchanges.
If, instead of just keeping my food for myself, I can see that giving you food will benefit me in the future then I’ll want to share with you.
To give long-term choices the boost of instant gratification, we developed a host of pleasant emotions that we get when we’re pro-social. Dr. David DeSteno goes over the three big emotions in his book, Emotional Success.
Gratitude: This emotion makes you feel pleasant when someone does a nice thing for you. Emotionally salient things are easier to remember, so you’ll be able to keep their favor in mind in the future.
Pride: This is the feeling you get from contributing in a meaningful way. We feel good when others acknowledge our work.
Compassion: This helps you feel connected to others, motivating you to make their lives better.
We also developed an emotion to feel bad when we do something that hurts others: guilt. It stops us from repeating behavior that is likely to get us punished from the group in the future.
Looked at from an evolutionary psychology point of view, we never do things in the future for ourselves. If there aren’t others around, we are dead. There is no reason to plan for the future.
That’s why you can’t stick to your habits. That’s why you don’t yell when friends are around but do when you’re alone.
That’s why finding a tribe of people who believe in the same parenting ideas as you is so important. When you don’t have anyone around to value the future for, you live in an accountability vacuum. That is something that we just weren’t designed for.
You need people around to get you to accomplish your long-term goals. While you may be able to persevere in the short run, you’ll never get to where you’re going alone.
Ideally, you would have a large group of people who all held each other equally accountable for following specific, desirable norms. You can start trying to build that, but in the meanwhile, make do with what you have.
I have one partner to hold me accountable for my writing.
I have one partner to hold me accountable for my exercising.
I will add more partners as I need more help developing different skills.
Eventually, some things will become part of your identity and you need less help. Eating healthy is part of who I am and I don’t need help being me.
Other things can be automated—that’s how I save. Still, other means of accountability can be outsourced through technology like the app Stickk.
Whatever it is, recognize that not accomplishing your long-term goals isn’t a failure of character. It’s a failure that happens to anyone who doesn’t have a community who share their values—and that is something you can take control of.
Try to spend more time around the people who act like you wish you did. Who parents the way you wish you did? Give them a call today and ask to set up a lunch together.
Sleep is the foundation of your wellness. Without the appropriate amount of solid sleep, you are not healthy. Appropriate meaning at least 7.5 hours. Any less, you’re kidding yourself.
When I was younger, I used to say and to some extent believe that “Sleep is for p***ies.” I prided myself on being able to function pretty well on 3-5 hours of sleep a night. I still went to work and school. I had a physical labor job as a farm worker and a mental labor job as a proofreader for a newspaper. I was getting As at college. Who needed sleep?
I was also, of course, a raging alcoholic who drank 10 cups of coffee a day and suffered from severe anxiety and moderate depression, sometimes unable to leave the house and always unable to stomach myself.
But what I was doing was working. And if there was a problem, sleep wasn’t it.
I always thought one day I would read something about psychology in one of my books and something in my head would click and I would be better.
Now I recognize that mental health has much more to do with physical health than I was ever willing to admit.
Parents of young children, and particularly infants, are always focused on the question: How do I get my kid to sleep? There’s an entire industry around getting babies to sleep at the right times or more often or in the right place.
From the No Cry Sleep Solution to the Extinction Method, parents are certain that if they can get their babies to sleep on a certain schedule, then their health will return. Their instincts are pointing them in the right direction but not at the right person.
Don’t worry about how to get your children to sleep. Worry about how to get enough sleep yourself, and the rest will follow.
Eight hours in bed does not mean eight hours of sleep and you know it.
When you want to make sure you accomplish something, you need to make time in your schedule. For sleep, you need to be realistic about how much you actually get in an hour. This waxes and wanes with different developmental stages, but you have a rough idea what that means.
If you have a child under 18 months old, you should be blocking off at least 10 hours to get 8 hours of sleep. This number can go up to 12 if there is a sleep regression, teething, night terrors, or if you’re dealing with two or three children.
The cost of not sleeping cannot be overstated. You’re more likely to get cancer. You’re more likely to get Alzheimer’s. To scream at your children, to lose your sex drive, to suffer from depression. You’re more likely to get into a car accident and to forget what you went into the fridge for. You’ll look older, you’ll gain weight.
You might think you’re losing time by dedicating 12 hours a day to sleeping, but you’re wrong. You’re gaining time. Each hour is much more effective.
Especially important is to get into bed early. Because of circadian rhythms, each hour you spend in bed before midnight is worth two after midnight.
If you aren’t sleeping, it is because you don’t prioritize it. You are capable of figuring out how much time you need to feel well-rested and be at your best. If you decide to prioritize other things over your sleep–watching TV, late night conversations–that is your choice, not your child’s fault.
If you are sleeping, so will your kid. While babies will still wake up, they’ll be put to sleep quickly. They won’t be woken up by you stumbling around the house.
Older children won’t be so intrigued by what is going on in the living room that they pretend to sleep but sneak up to the door to see what’s happening.
As the lights will be off since everyone is sleeping, the whole house will have improvements in their circadian rhythms.
Your sleep is your children’s sleep. You are giving them information about what to do at night and you are teaching them how to value sleep.
Whether room sharing or bed sharing, co-sleeping is the biological norm for humans. Our babies expect to be with and near us at all time. Though it may be convenient, we are not only parents during the daytime. We are parents at night, too.
Baby and mama net more hours of solid rest when they co-sleep. While this sleep is lighter, cosleeping families report enjoying better sleep for the whole family.
I highly suggest safe co-sleeping, but whatever you choose to do, realize that your baby or child doesn’t have a sleep problem. You do.