What do you like to do? What interests you? What makes you feel alive? How would you dress if you didn’t need to consider your exposure to playground sand, spit-up or paint? Mothers and Fathers, who are you and what does your post-baby identity have to do with parenthood?
Before we dive into what research says about parent identity, let me share a bit of my personal journey. For the past year, I have mediated on these questions. The precipice of my introspective journey began at an airport, nearly four years after becoming a mother. My husband and I were about to board an airplane to the Bahamas for our first overnight getaway since having children. I was excited (overjoyed!), but I felt odd wandering about the airport. I was able to order a coffee on a whim and could sit and read a book without distraction, but I felt out of place. I realized that my entire sense of self and significance revolved around my children and I was incomplete without them. Who was I now that I was a mother? What had happened to my independent, bright and ambitious self that I enjoyed prior to motherhood? Would I ever resemble her again?
Perhaps you have had a similar experience and asked the same questions. I wish I could offer the scientific answer to the above questions. Oh, how I crave the order and clarity of scientific thought! Unfortunately, every parent will answer questions of identity differently. Many new parents easily embrace their identity and have no problem leaving behind their past activities and interests because their new significance as a parent is abundantly fulfilling and interesting. Other parents enjoy many aspects of parenthood, but find that they lament their absence from past professional and personal endeavors. They love parenthood, but do not feel wholly fulfilled by it’s duties. Still, other parents feel completely out of place while fulfilling their role and long for the significance and identity that they enjoyed prior to parenthood, while still loving their children and wanting what is best for them.
The Intelligent Nest is not a universal nest. It is a safe haven for parents to examine the many options presented to them by the scientific and professional communities specializing in child development, parenting and education. Your nest need not look like your neighbors. Defining yourself and discovering your new identity post-baby is an individual journey, with numerous destinations. Though, The Intelligent Nest’s scientifically based motto, “happy parent = happy baby” can shed some light on your journey.
Research repeatedly points to the necessity of parents needing to find support, community and balance in parenthood. Involved parents can be just as unsuccessful in providing for their children’s most inherent needs as uninvolved parents, if the involved parent does not employ balance and seek refreshment from a support network. Research is also very clear that children who enjoy high-quality day-care environments are just as healthy and well-rounded as children raised by a parent in a stay-at-home environment.
Research is less supportive of parents who take on responsibilities, paid and unpaid, that demand more than eight hours of their day consistently. Children need personalized attention from their parents each day and working more than eight hours can impede opportunities and your ability (physically and emotionally) to care for and nurture your child. Eye-contact, meaningful conversation, physical touch and shared experiences with parents is an essential part of every child’s day. Determining priorities and setting appropriate limits is important for all parents when assessing their own ability to pursue other interests. I suggest that my clients aim to give their children 30 minutes to 1 hour of undivided attention each day (no smart phones, TV, dishes, folding laundry, laptops, etc…). This time can be broken up or offered all together. Keep in mind that just being in the same room or house does not count as quality time.
Keep in mind that a parent who stays at home with their child can have just as much difficulty offering a minimum amount of quality time with their child as one who works. Some parents who stay home may feel conflicted because they love spending time with their children, but so much of the day revolves around menial, physical work that is unstimulating (laundry, dishes, diapers, baths, cleaning, baking cupcakes, etc…). They don’t want to miss out on being a routine part of their child’s life, but loose their self to chores and menial tasks. Without a supportive network or outlet, this type of parent may offer quantity time to their child, as opposed to quality time. They can busy themselves with parenthood, but never fully embrace it.
On the opposite end of the parenting spectrum are parents who need to work or desires to work full-time. They can often lean too heavily on their support system to care for their child. This is an instance where “leaning in” is not advised. It is wonderful to find an amazing nanny, school or child-center, but if their ability to care for your child is overpowering your influence and presence, then it is not a healthy match. I have had parents tell me that their nanny, grandparent or school is a better influence than they on their child. Research rejects this perspective. Nothing trumps a stable and able parent. Schools, grandparents, neighbors and nannies are wonderful support persons, but you, Mom and Dad, are the main event. No matter how unskilled or unfit you feel as a parent, your effort and presence are of primary necessity and benefit to your child. No one can replace you, although they can support you.
Hopefully, you will find yourself between these two extremes, keeping in mind balance and the necessary use, but not abuse, of support systems. Consider the limits that parents experience when seeking to discover and enjoy their post-baby identity and determine a healthy balance for your family. If you are a new parent, do not make the mistake I made in waiting almost 4 years to finally venture out, sans children for more than a few hours. Do not ignore your own individuality and need to define your sense of self in your new role. It is also a mistake to cling to your pre-baby identity and proceed as you did before, while depending upon others to step-in and cover for you in your new parenting role.
Fellow Parent, your post-baby identity is not a lesser version of who use to be, instead if a fuller, more complete version of your self. Before children, your existence was focused inward. Now, as a parent, your existence is pointed outward. Instead of answering, “who am I?” and “what do I want in life?”, your introspective questions embody so much more depth. Instead, you can ask, “what is my significance as a mother or father?” or “who are we as a family?” or “what role do I play in my family?” and so much more. The pertinent questions are not limited to interests and skills. Instead, they are focused on how your interests and skills enhance you and, by extension, your family.
Perhaps choosing the shirt that paint can wash out of instead of the silky blouse is a beautiful opportunity instead of a disappointing limitation. Perhaps turning down a project at work or being passed over for a promotion because you wanted to be home in time to make and enjoy a family style dinner is blissful freedom instead of career suicide. Perhaps hiring a babysitter for a morning each week so that you can teach a painting class has less to do with your need to take a break and more to do with developing your family.
What a beautiful progression, moving past the limited focus on the self to the holistic prospective of seeing the self as a part of a whole. Research supports that all the pieces need care, support and balance for the whole family to function properly. No one piece can adsorb all the resources without hurting the other. When balance, support and care are given to all the pieces of a whole, something beautiful is created, something greater and more extraordinary than any one part, an amalgamation of lives past, lives present and lives yet to come.
Best of luck on your own journey. I’d love to hear about it!