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Identity Shifts in the PostPartum Period (A Self Guided Reflection Activity)

“My partner asks me what I need, and honestly I don’t even know.”

“I find it hard to even notice when I am hungry and feed myself.”

“Nobody understands how I feel right now, I’m surrounded by people and support but I still feel alone.”

“I feel like I’ve lost myself, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get her back.”

Do any of these statements resonate with you?

In preparing for your first baby, you may have been aware of potential feeding issues, lack of sleep, maybe even expected issues to arise with family, or with your partner. I want to talk about what NO ONE prepares you for after you have a baby: the feeling of a complete loss of self.

This was the biggest surprise to me in the Postpartum period. The grief, the confusion and the lack of knowledge about the huge psychological and identity shifts that happen when a child first arrives in your life.

In Molly Millwood’s book To Have and to Hold: Motherhood, Marriage and the Modern Dilemma, she references to research on what is called the “Identity Pie.” In this study the researchers polled heterosexual couples who were about to have a baby. Each partner was asked to each fill out a pie chart of their identity (maybe looking a little bit like the pie to the right). They then collected data on what the charts looked like 18 months after baby arrived. Not surprisingly, the primary parent (which in this study's case was always the mother) had a significantly different looking chart which included a HUGE parent slice, while their partner's "parent" slices were less than one third the size of the mother's...but that's a whole other blog post topic (keep an eye out for gender roles and socialization blog coming soon).

When I first read about this study I felt so validated. I reflected on how colourful and full my "pre-baby" chart was, and realized that I was grieving my old identity. In reflecting, I also realized that in those first few months PostPartum my pie chart just went full MOM. With NO other parts allowed.

After working in Perinatal Mental Health, I came to learn that this is a common experience for many birthing parents. The pie chart colours (or our old identity and the things that made!) just seem to disappear. This is the total loss of self that can be experienced by so many new parents. Newborn babies are so demanding, in new parenthood it can feel like parts of our self have been “stolen” and will never return. There is a strong sense of grief for a lot of new parents, and many mixed feelings.

You may remember or may still be experiencing some of these thoughts:

“Am I ever going to sleep again?”

“I miss my old life, I don’t know why I wanted this.”

“I can’t even find time to pee, how will I ever find time to do the things that make me happy?”

Now take this total loss of self, and couple it with societal messaging, and modelling of mothers or parents as "selfless". This pie chart above is a perfect picture of what it looks like to be "without a self." It can feel so hard and overwhelming to be able to move out of this state of being.

PostPartum healing not only involves the physical healing of your body and growth in your confidence as a parent, it also includes healing and growth in your own identity.

This process has been referenced to in Perinatal literature as matrescence.

It relates the physical, psychological and IDENTITY changes that happens post motherhood to the same drastic level of change that we experienced in adolescence. Just like when we were teens, we need to learn how to be in our new bodies, we need to discover and reform what our values are and how they have shifted, and we need to navigate all of the ways that the world and the people around us feel different, because we have changed on so many levels!

As a new parent, it is normal to not feel in touch with your own desires. It is normal to feel confused about who you are. It is normal to feel like an alien inside of your own body. Many of us felt this way as teenagers, and that was developmentally appropriate. So are the changes you are experiencing now!

Over time, hopefully baby becomes less demanding, and we develop comfort and confidence with the parent piece of our pie, and also learn to negotiate time and resources in a way that works for us. We can then begin the work on recreating and forging a new pie chart of our identity. One that integrates ALL of the parts of us, one that aligns with our values, and one that allows us to cherish and love our role as a parent, but also the other parts of our identity that are also pretty cool.

Your pie will definitely look different than before. Some things may not feel important to you anymore, some things may feel more critical than ever to protect. The wonderful part is you get to choose.

Lets do an Activity!

If you're feeling super fun and adventurous grab some coloured pens/markers/crayons and some paper to assist in your reflection

Step 1) Spend some time reflecting on your old self before baby:

Draw out or reflect on what you think your Identity Pie Chart looked like in all of it's colourful glory!

Step 2) Take a moment to reflect:

What is it like to look back on the old parts of yourself, are there some pieces you really miss? Some you want to bring back? Some you don’t? Jot down any thoughts you have.

Step 3) Think about your early transition to parenthood:

Did your pie chart shift to "full parent" like many others in the first few months?

If you have, when did you start to feel like you were connecting to other parts of yourself outside of being a parent?

What about the early days made this really difficult?

What messages (internal and external) made me feel like I wasn't supposed to be sad, or missing my old parts? (ex: "enjoy every moment! “They won’t be this small forever!” “You wanted this so badly, you can’t be sad.” “You are supposed to want this, you are fulfilling your duty as a woman!”)

Step 4) Draw a picture of where you think your Pie Chart is at right now in your life.

Draw and write out your reflections on the following:

What parts of your self have you rediscovered?

What parts are you proud of for preserving, or reintegrating?

Looking back at your old Pie Chart, are there parts that were large, that are smaller now, or maybe not even included in this new Pie Chart? What is it like for you to notice that?

Step 5) Reflect on the journey forward:

Are there parts that are missing that you really want to work on/build?

Are there parts that you feel anxious about building?

Here are just some of the parts that I often see people struggling to reconnect (or just connect) with:

  • Work/life balance

  • Parts of me that are Sexual

  • What it means to be a person in my gender roles and how that is playing out now that I am a parent

  • Reconnecting with and learning to live in my new body after giving birth

  • Balancing friendships

*hint hint: this is where therapeutic support with a perinatal therapist can possibly assist you.

Some of my favourite work as a Perinatal Psychotherapist is working with clients as they discover and rediscover their self, develop new relationships with their bodies, and make decisions about what kind of a parent, partner and human being they want to be. Therapy can be a beautiful and safe space for reflecting, growing and re-engaging with the parts of us that we feel like we’ve lost in the rocky journeys of new parenthood.

I offer virtual Psychotherapy throughout Ontario to clients as a Registered Psychotherapist.

If you are interested in journeying with me in your therapy work you can book a session here. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Take care and always be gentle with yourself,

Michelle Green MA, RP, CCC, CC-PMH


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