The lives of mothers: ‘I stopped thinking about myself. I’m paying a heavy price’

For many women, the identity shift that happens after becoming a mother can be a complex issue

Emma Doran with her three children, Tommy (6), Joe (8) and Ella (18) at their home in Rathfarnham, Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Emma Doran with her three children, Tommy (6), Joe (8) and Ella (18) at their home in Rathfarnham, Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton

 

Scrolling through the contact list on my phone, it’s hard not to notice how very few names saved actually include a surname. Generally it’s “Elaine, Matthew’s mum” or “Áine, Cillian’s mum”, and I feel confident enough that somewhere, on someone’s phone, I’m probably saved as “Jen, yer wan with all the kids”.

Defined subconsciously by motherhood perhaps, or possibly just saved that way for convenience, just like some of the dads. Though I notice there are far fewer dads saved on my phone to begin with, as most of the organising and correspondence to do with kids goes through mums.

Right from the beginning the language of motherhood defines us, making it truly difficult sometimes to be recognised as individuals in our own right. We’re either stay-at-home mums or working mums, yet how often have you heard dads described as working fathers? And rarely is the question asked “How do dads juggle it all?”

The transition to motherhood is huge. But it’s not just adjustment to circumstance, there’s a whole identity shift to contend with. A new book, The Motherhood Complex: The Story of Our Changing Selves, written by BBC science journalist Melissa Hogenboom, discusses the psychological, social and physiological changes that mothers experience as they embark on one of the most life-altering and sometimes conflicted journeys of all.

“I felt like I had these two competing selves and I was, like, ‘Why is this?’ I want to understand it better, and if I understand it better, it will help me understand why I’m feeling so conflicted,” Hogenboom says when I ask her why she chose to write a book about the very identity she says she doesn’t want to be consumed by.

“I wanted to be a mother. I love being a mother,” she says. “Regardless of what kind of mother we are, we’re constantly held up against these expectations, and I didn’t want to be, but I couldn’t stop that happening because motherhood is so entrenched in those ideals.”

The Motherhood Complex explores the ways in which motherhood changes us, from the early brain changes that take place in pregnancy to the motherhood penalty in the workplace and how the misplaced belief that we can have it all can prove utterly destructive.

“Our brain is being optimised in a way that will make us better at caregiving. It’s not giving us a deficit as is often portrayed by the media and in our day-to-day conversations,” Hogenboom says about the grey matter changes that take place within our brains in preparation for, and as a consequence of, parenthood. She dismisses the myth of “mum brain or pregnancy brain”. “If we’re more forgetful, it might be because we’re tired. It’s not because of ‘mum brain.’ ”

During her research, Hogenboom discovered that motherhood provides many health bonuses. “There are links with breastfeeding and a lower likelihood of breast cancer,” she says. “We’re literally harbouring our children’s DNA inside of us and our subsequent children will have that too.” Plus, “our brains are younger ... That’s research that’s very new. We don’t know why that happens but it just shows that evolution is working in a way that has primed us to become mothers.”

“It’s like we’re expected to become mothers even if we don’t necessarily want to be, and I think it’s a problem because of the expectations put on us. But motherhood is natural and normal and if you look at it – it’s no surprise that our body reacts accordingly.”

Different pressures

Societal expectations mean women feel different pressures to men when it comes to parenthood, says Hogenboom. “Even when women work full time, they do more of the childcare, the mental labour, the cognitive labour than men,” she says. In situations where responsibilities are split 50-50, “it’s the woman that’s doing the mental load or the worrying. Men don’t worry as much as women, and women often worry because apparently worrying about your children is an attribute of what is seen as ‘good, ideal mothers’.”

“In the UK and other individualist countries, especially North America, there is the expectation of putting work first.”

“There is the bias, the idea, that when you become a mother that you can never continue with those previous ambitions ... And yet stay-at-home mums are judged.”

This pressure has led women to secretly parent, says Hogenboom. “There’s evidence that shows women will say they’re ill, not their children, when they’re staying at home because signifying you’re a mother again kind of puts that status back into your employer’s eyes, and that’s why the pandemic partly was so damaging. We’re constantly visible as a parent. Children were popping up on screens for mums more than fathers. Obviously the higher earner’s career is going to be prioritised more, so [in families where the woman wasn’t the higher earner] the women were doing more home-schooling. And so you’re literally showing, day to day, that you cannot put in as many hours as men.”

In her book Hogenboom also addresses the idea of motherhood equating to happiness. “I think we’re conditioned to believe ‘Have a family, and have your house and that’s the key to happiness’. And then when the practicalities hurt, it’s stressful.

“We’re sleep deprived, we speak to our partners as adults less, we have less sex.” The idea that ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ has been resigned to the past, she adds.

“There’s this idealistic idea of what parenthood is … They come to you for cuddles and they’re sweet and you have lovely little conversations. Reality is tantrums, moaning and fussing and lots of small bits of sweetness in between.

“I guess that’s another reason I wrote the book. People don’t talk about the mundane reality of day-to-day parenting, or at least not in the circles I was in before I had children and so it just all came as a bit of a shock.

“I would add to that, it depends how you define happiness,” says Hogenboom. “I don’t always enjoy spending loads of time with my children all day long because it’s hard work, but obviously I love them, a huge amount. They give me a huge sense of meaning ... [But] we have a stressful day all day and we can’t wait for them to go to bed and then we look at photos of them on our phone and look at how cute they are. It’s a contradiction.”

Young motherhood

Emma Doran, a comedian, podcaster and mother of three, has been a mother for her entire adult life. Aged 18 she gave birth to her daughter Ella, just a few days before she sat her Leaving Cert.

“When I had my daughter I suppose there was a bit of a crisis of identity as I wasn’t getting the opportunity to go out with mates and I was very aware that all of my friends were on a very different path. All my friends were talking about the debs and the sixth-year holiday, and obviously I wasn’t talking about any of that stuff, but it definitely changed me ... It gave me a huge focus,” she says. It drove her to get through college and find a job and home for her child.

“There was a time when I didn’t really feel I had a connection to people. Unless people asked me about parenthood, I never really brought it up because I thought, These people aren’t interested in the fact that I was up last night for whatever reason.

“I went to a few mother-and-baby groups locally and I thought to myself, God these people are all completely different to me. These are women in their late 30s who are married and have a nice house, who in my mind, looking back at it, are completely sorted and know exactly who they are.

“It was only later on I copped that it doesn’t matter what age it happens to you, you are still in shock anyway.

“My family were completely supportive, but I think there was a little bit of guilt around the fact that I had gotten pregnant, so I maybe didn’t look after myself as much.” This changed as she got older, when she realised her “needs do actually have to be met”.

Doran says motherhood was a “huge boost” to her confidence. “I got through the Leaving. I got enough points, I was going to college in September. So at a very young age I knew that I was capable, and with support I could go after stuff.”

However, she was very aware that people viewed her differently and recalls an occasion where she attended a birthday party a few months after her daughter’s birth. “I got a drink. There was this group of girls in the corner. I knew that they were looking at me, whispering ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe she’s drinking and she’s just had a child’. In my head I’d made a huge effort to go out and try and be normal. I was really upset about that.”

Doran’s second child, Joe, was born 10 years later. “I knew that there was the potential for my sense of self to get lost because at that stage I was in a relationship. I had a lot more things to look after, because obviously, as well as your kids, you’ve to look after your relationship.

“When I was pregnant with Joe I made a conscious effort to connect with myself and who I wanted to be.” While pregnant Doran began doing sketches online and put her name down for her first stand-up comedy gig at an open mic, six weeks after his birth.

Adjusting to her new physical self after birth first time around was “very difficult”, she says. Although she returned to her previous size, she wasn’t prepared for the stretch marks that remained. “I spent a long time coming to terms with that. I didn’t admit it to friends because I felt like it was a shallow thing to be concerning myself with.”

“I feel if I hadn’t gone through motherhood I would have been slow to come to terms with my own body. I suppose I was fairly young when I had to just realise that my body is healthy and allows me to do all these great things and have a beautiful daughter. I think as a female in her early 20s, coming to that realisation, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Culture shock

“Your first priority is to start a family and have a baby,” says Neelam Saria about expectations of women in India. The owner of Neel’s Kitchen and mother of two says this is the case even if you have a successful career.

As is customary when living in the same town, Saria moved in with her husband Yash’s family following their marriage. Living with extended family offers the advantage not only of support but also childcare if a mother decides to return to work after having a baby. However, for mothers, “normally there is no pressure to go back to work”, as the family is the centre and priority of all, she says.

Neelam Saria with children, Sunay (10) and Samay (6), at home in Kilternan, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Neelam Saria with children, Sunay (10) and Samay (6), at home in Kilternan, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The huge family support is something she missed hugely when she gave birth to both her children in Ireland. “For an Indian mom, it’s very important to have help,” she says. “So it was very different for me. The whole culture was, to be honest.”

In India the period of 40 days post birth is one of bed rest and bonding for the new mum and baby. Saria found the expectation that new mothers in Ireland return to normal life so soon after birth very strange.

“When I became a mother, my whole interest and everything inclined to the new person who was in my world now. I stopped thinking about myself, which is wrong, I think. I feel that I’m paying a very heavy price for that.”

Saria returned to work in financial services when her first child, Sunay, was one, but found the long hours challenging. After the birth of her second son, Samay, the demands became unmanageable and, with the support of husband Yash, she decided to stay at home.

“I was very happy to leave my job because of the circumstances but now I am ready to go back. But I’m not in the same position I would have been. I’ll have to start right from scratch now. It just crushes my own self-being, my own self-esteem.

“Since I stopped working my social contacts became less and less. I paid a really big price in terms of social contact and my career. That’s what I feel, but that can’t be exchangeable with motherhood.

“Most of my friends were in work,” says Saria. “We used to go out occasionally on Friday. There used to be a company social scene. And, being a foreigner, I didn’t have many of my own personal social contacts.” Saria, who was an accountant in India, saw her job as an essential part of her identity and is determined to reclaim it.

Biological clock

Health journalist and mother of one June Shannon “grew up in a big family. I wanted to be a mum from a young age.

She got married when she was 36 but was trying for a baby before that. When six months passed and she wasn’t yet pregnant, she sought the advice of her GP, because of her age.

She was diagnosed with unexplained infertility and told the next route was IVF. The couple had five cycles. “With the first cycle I got pregnant and miscarried at 10 weeks,” she says. Three further cycles either ended in miscarriage or didn’t work, and the couple ran out of money.

Shannon’s mother died in 2012 and left her some money in her will, which the couple decided to use to pay for a fifth and final cycle. Because of Shannon’s age (she was 43) she was advised to use a donor egg. This cycle was successful and daughter Clodagh was born when Shannon was 44.

June Shannon and her daughter, Clodagh
June Shannon and her daughter, Clodagh

“I always wanted to be a mother. I never even contemplated the fact that I wouldn’t be a mother. I never got my head around that if this all fails, what would I do.

“We spent €21,000 to get Clodagh over the years, and that’s why we didn’t buy a house. Your life is on hold for that period of time. All your money, all your energy goes into IVF.

“When you have that urge to be a parent and it doesn’t work or you have to struggle to get there, it’s very lonely. There’s so much stigma attached to it. People don’t speak about it. You feel a failure as a woman because you can’t do what you think everyone else seems to be able to do so easily.”

“It is definitely interlinked, womanhood and fertility and reproduction in society,” says Shannon. “I’ve had comments made to me from people, some of them knew I was going through IVF, some didn’t, and people didn’t meant to be cruel, but they said things to me like ‘Oh, you don’t understand, you’re not a mother.’

“For a while it was hard to even identify as a mother because I thought it would never happen. It took me a full year to even realise that it was real. I think I settled into the motherhood role easily enough. I think being an older mother helps that.

“I don’t think my sense of self changed very much.”

She even embraced the physical changes. “For years infertility meant that I watched other pregnant women’s bodies, my close friends, sisters, and wished it could happen to me. So when it did and my body changed and my bump grew, I was simply grateful.

“I was worried a little bit about the bonding because she was a donor egg, with my husband’s sperm. We had counselling beforehand. I was worried I wouldn’t bond with her. I always remember when I signed the form to go for the donor egg programme, I had to sign my name on this form, and as I signed it I had this overwhelming sadness that I was drawing a line under having my own biological child, because it wouldn’t be my eggs. And that was a sadness, but it passed.” But, Shannon adds “the minute she was put in my arms, I was her mother.”

Shannon never considered giving up her job when she became a mother and that during the pandemic her work identity and motherhood identity merged.

“I’m quite conscious, when you’re an older mum as well, you need to keep on top of your profession, salary and wages,” she says. Being an older mother can be challenging when it comes to energy levels, she adds. But perhaps a confidence that comes with being an older mother is the one that removes the pressure to secretly parent.

“I like being mum, I still love that word. I love that it’s attributed to me and I love my job. I have a professional persona as a medical journalist, but I know that in a lot of the stuff that I do, I talk about her a lot.”