Identifying the Sense of Self as a Parent

Mom and her toddler on a swing at a park

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If you feel like you lost yourself after you became a parent, you're not alone. Many parents struggle with the intense transition period that comes with welcoming a little one into the family. Parenting gives you multiple new responsibilities in physically and emotionally caring for your baby. It also changes almost every aspect of your life and your relationship with others, including your partner.

If you struggle with wondering if what you are feeling is normal, read on. The challenge of adjusting to your new life is very normal, and fortunately, accommodating your changing sense of self as a parent is also possible.

Finding Yourself Again

One of the most helpful things you should remember is that parenting changes. If you're parenting a newborn, for example, it might not always be possible to go to the gym every single day like you used to. But as your child gets older, you'll likely find yourself with a different schedule and some more time and energy. Until that happens, it is important to focus on small ways that you can incorporate activities that are important to you.

Finding ways to add back activities you find meaningful and pleasurable can help you feel like you have more control over your life as a parent. If you feel fulfilled outside your parenting life, you'll likely enjoy parenting more.

Make Time for Your Interests

"Don’t stop doing what you are passionate about," advises Dr. Jennifer Boozer, Family Practice Physician, Keck Medicine of USC. "Carve out a little bit of time for you." For example, if exercise is an important part of your life, consider joining a gym that has childcare available, streaming workout videos at home, or working out a schedule with a partner or provider that allows you uninterrupted gym time.

Focus on Yourself Outside of Parenthood

It's also incredibly important that as a parent, you don't depend on your child to be your only source of happiness and fulfillment. Research has found that having children does not necessarily increase happiness in parents' lives. That may not be what you want to hear right now, but the takeaway is that it is important to focus on building up your own sense of self. Don't expect that becoming a parent will automatically fulfill you or make you happy.

Parenting can certainly enhance your life, but how you feel about it at different stages of your child's life can change. For instance, you may find the newborn phase of parenting blissful, but struggle with the teenage years. Or, you may struggle with the toddler years but really enjoy parenting your children as they grow. Regardless of whether you enjoy parenting in any one stage, you always love your child and your relationship with them doesn't change in a defining way.

Having hobbies, interests, relationships, and activities that fulfill you outside of your children can help you maintain a sense of self that exists beyond your children.

Partner Relationship Changes

Jessica Zimmerman, relationship therapist and author of "Sex Without Stress," explains that having a baby can affect your sense of self in your partnership, too. In other words, your relationships can be affected.

"Some people feel like an adult for the first time and may struggle with feelings of confusion, inadequacy, or even resentment as they step into this new function in life," she says. "Where their previous existence may have had freedom, flexibility, and spontaneity, their new life has constraints. There are new responsibilities and new routines that have to be maintained. Couples may struggle to adjust to these demands, and they may have a hard time maintaining a sense of romantic and sexual connection in these roles."

Instead of fighting against feeling like you've lost yourself, Zimmerman advises embracing the fact that parenting changes you completely.

"Parenting is a magical door that you step through," she says. "You will still be connected to the person you were, and you may have many of the same interests and goals, but you will also have a constant awareness of your child and another person to consider, at least for the next 18 years. That’s as it should be. Rather than think about going back, think about how you want to move forward. Who are you interested in being from now on? What matters to you now? How will that show up in how you spend your time?"

To help you and your partner step more fully into your new roles, Zimmerman suggests making time to explore the roles and to expand them by being open to how your new selves might look, especially in the bedroom.

"Expand your idea of what sex is," she suggests. "Sex as you used to have it may be off the table for a while after birth. Reconnect through other types of sexual play and enjoy whatever you are able to share together. Pressure and expectation don’t help your sex life, so whatever you can do to make it playful and light will be a bonus."

When to Speak to a Professional

Quite frankly, practically every parent could benefit from speaking to a professional about their transition into parenthood. There are no drawbacks to speaking with a counselor or therapist and it can only serve to help strengthen your sense of self, identify any potential issues you may need additional help with, and provide you with tools and resources to be the best parent you can be.

Therapy is not only for when you need help; instead, it can help you strengthen yourself as you face challenging transitions in your life, like having a new baby.

Although it might be normal for parents to struggle for some time with the transition into taking care of another person, there are times when the behavior goes beyond the scope of normal transition. If you or your partner are struggling to perform activities of your daily life, you have lost interest in anything that used to interest you, or you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Sometimes, parents may mistake or overlook symptoms of postpartum depression as part of the normal emotions of adjusting to parenthood. You might have temporary feelings of negative emotions or feel "down," but you should know the difference between those normal emotions and symptoms of postpartum depression.

You should call your doctor immediately if you are experiencing symptoms such as:

  • Excessive sleeping or not being able to sleep, even when the baby is sleeping
  • Excessive weight gain or loss
  • Having visions of violent things happening to your baby
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby (call 911 if you fear for your safety or that of your baby, or you are exhibiting signs of postpartum psychosis)
  • Withdrawing from social activities you once enjoyed

Some parents may also find that seeking support through a structured program, such as a parenting course, can be helpful. One study found that parents who participated in parenting courses reported feeling a greater sense of self-efficacy and competence in their parenting.

That feeling of confidence in their own selves as parents is associated with many other positive emotions, such as satisfaction with parenting. Knowing you have skills to rely on when you are doubting yourself as a parent can be very helpful when you're struggling with your sense of self.

"Having a baby is an adjustment for both parents," Zimmerman adds. "It’s normal to have some sadness, fear, anxiety, and resentment as you acclimate to a new family. However, if you experience depression that is impacting your ability to function, if you’re having thoughts of harm toward yourself or your baby, or if you are overwhelmed by sadness or emotion, you should seek help."

"Either parent can suffer from postpartum depression, too, so don’t dismiss these symptoms if you aren’t the birthing partner. It’s better to get help and support as soon as you recognize that the transition is causing you real struggle."

Zimmerman also suggests considering a therapist if your relationship has deteriorated or if you’re having issues communicating and collaborating since having the baby. "Many couples benefit from couple therapy to help them navigate the substantial challenges of parenthood," she notes.

A Word From Verywell

Becoming a parent might make you feel like you have lost your sense of self, and in many ways, you have. There may even be some mourning associated with losing aspects of yourself and your life that were important to you before becoming a parent. But with the right guidance and support, you can expand your sense of self once you become a parent. Instead of completely losing all previous aspects of yourself, adjust who you are and your priorities.

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