One of the scariest parts about the transition into motherhood (whether you birth, adopt, abduct…whatever) is when you realize you don’t exist anymore. I’m not talking metaphorically. I mean the person that is “you” doesn’t exist anymore. You’re at the park one day and instead of yelling your name someone yells “Natalie’s mom!” and you instinctively turn around. You are no longer just a person, you’re someone’s mother now.
What’s the Problem?
The problem is that this is effing terrifying.
You most likely worked very hard to become who you are. You spent years getting an education, you jumped through endless hoops to get a job that you love, you went on how many horrible dates to finally find your spouse…and now all of this gets erased just because you also want kids?
At first it really feels like it.
You take time off of work when you first become a mom. Thank goodness you do and well you should, but it begins the process of slowly making you feel identity-less. You are so focused on this tiny human that you both love more than life itself that you go days without spending more than 10 continuous minutes alone with your spouse. Between sleep-deprivation and mom brain you can barely remember the word for shoes (not to mention which one goes on which foot), so your hard-earned diplomas might as well have gone on a backpacking trip across Europe.
And so here you are, most likely attempting to reintegrate yourself into the work world that didn’t slow down or wait for you when you became a mom. Your hair is more “messy ponytail” than “power bun” and there is a non-zero population of Cheerios nesting in your bra. (You’ll find ’em later. Surprise snack!)
You have “gone native” into the wild world of motherhood. You have to. Kids are incredibly adorable, time-consuming, wonderful, little, life-altering demons that steal your soul, your sleep, your career, and your heart…in equal portion. It’s an insane process that you wouldn’t trade for the world, but it’s not to have that little voice in your head that still wants to have a “you” outside of being “so-and-so’s mom”.
The Joys of Societal Judgement
Sometimes it’s tempting to wonder if you should just throw in the towel and stop trying so hard to have your own identity. Lots of society screams at us that we should. Society loves to judge the crap out of a mom the second she even thinks about going back to work, whether it’s full time, part-time, out of the house, remote work while the baby sleeps, whatever it is that takes you away from doing nothing but diapers and Twinkle Twinkle all day every day makes you a horrible person.
Although, you should really also quit being such a slacker. You have it so easy, just lounging around with your kids all day. (Because chasing a toddler-nado or feeding a tiny human from your body is the epitome of relaxation…obviously.) Can’t you make some kind of a financial contribution to the family? Maybe make some time between trying out Pinterest recipes and going to PTA meetings? Geez, Karen.
So yes, society will judge you if you’re a working mom. Or a stay at home mom. Or a work at home mom. Basically, whatever decision you make, society is ready and waiting to judge the crap out of you.
This sucks, but it is also kind of a gift.
If everyone is going to judge you literally no matter what you do, then you are free to find whatever solution works for you…because if you’re getting judged regardless.
Why This Sucks
Now before I actually get to the “solution-oriented” part of this, I want to give you one more reason why what you’re trying to do (aka be the only thing preventing your tiny humans from accidentally murdering themselves and each other and being an actual human being yourself at the same time) is incredibly hard.
It has to do with intrinsic motivation.
Think of it like in terms of your kids. They probably have endless intrinsic motivation to play their favorite sport or game. They’d happily do it for hours with no incentives. On the other hand, kids rarely have intrinsic motivation to do homework or mundane household chores. That’s why you have to bribe/threaten/coerce/help them to do these things.
What does intrinsic motivation have to do with being a mom?
It explains why it’s so emotionally draining.
According to psychological research, intrinsic motivation comes from three key factors: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The more of each of these factors that are present for any given activity, the more you will feel intrinsically motivated to perform that activity. The less of these factors that are present, the more you’re going to need an external reason (incentives, compensation, bribery, potential punishments, etc.) to choose to do the task.
Why does this relate to why being a mom is so draining? Take a look:
- Autonomy: Autonomy is the feeling that you’re doing something by choice, not because you’re forced to do it. Let’s be real. Even though you chose to be a mom, no one wakes up every half hour to pace their bedroom by choice (unless a squalling infant demands it). No one talks in a doll’s voice for hours on end (unless a toddler demands it). Most of your mom tasks are done voluntarily (they’re not actually holding you at gunpoint), but they’re not truly a manifestation of your autonomy as a human being so much as your dedication to your kiddos.
- Competence: Woo brother, don’t get me started with this one. From even before you have your child, motherhood is a crash course in feeling like a failure. You’re craving caffeine? You must not care that much about your fetus. You’re in crazy labor pain? Better not get an epidural, because your first message to your baby would be sending chemicals into their bloodstream. Infant doesn’t immediately through the night? Horrible mom. Co-sleeping? Basically trying to murder your baby. Ferberizing? You monster. Letting them in your room? Say goodbye to your marriage. And that’s just the first week. I could go on and on. Motherhood is chocked full of so many societal expectations of perfection that every mom I’ve ever talked to constantly struggles with not feeling competent enough.
- Relatedness: Relatedness is defined by how much an activity ties you in to your network or chosen tribe. You may think that kids bring crazy amounts of relatedness because you’re around them 24/7, but until they turn 18 (or maybe 14 if you have a majestic, unicorn child) and are capable of an actual, reciprocal, mutual conversation, it’s actually quite the opposite. Having kids is one of the most isolating experiences an adult human can go through. You’re constantly with another person (aka your child), but it’s a demanding, all-consuming, and admittedly adorable human that prohibits most kinds of adult human interaction…just ask your spouse.
So yes, motherhood is completely free of any of the three factors that make a human feel fulfilled by an activity. No wonder we feel so hollow all the time.
Side Note: If you wonder why we actually do find motherhood so fulfilling anyway, it’s because there is a secret fourth factor that was added to the intrinsic motivation literature years after this initial model was conceived. This fourth factor is purpose. Motherhood has this one in abundance. Devoting our lives to these tiny weirdos that we love so much it’s hard to breathe sometimes is one of the clearest, most obvious, and most natural feeling of purpose a person can encounter in life. This is why we do the diaper changes, the doll voices, the midnight wakeups, and everything in between: because our little critters give our life a new sense of purpose like we’ve never felt before.
Despite the intrinsic motivation created by purpose (that sneaky fourth factor), it isn’t surprising (or shameful in any way) for us to crave some kind of validation of ourselves as humans outside of the role of mom. In fact, it’s completely normal! You are a human. You should have something that makes you feel proud and motivated just as yourself, not as so-and-so’s mom.
Now you just have to figure out how that works.
How to Handle It
So, now that we’ve established that you’re going to get judged whether or not you choose to do work other than what you do for your kids and we’ve talked about why moms can feel the internal need for some form of validation or achievement outside of being a mom, let’s actually answer our initial question.
I’m a mom….do I get to have other goals?
That’s the short answer. The long answer is that you do actually need goals outside of being a mom. Your kids need to see you model being passionate about something, working your tail off to accomplish a goal, getting knocked on your bum more than once but never giving up, and they need to eventually see you succeeding at something. Having your kids see you excel at something is a large part of what will make them want to excel at something. So, yes, you do actually need to have goals other than being a mom.
How do you balance between being a mom and doing other things without your kids suffering from your split focus?
The Inspirational Answer
My favorite metaphor here comes from a commencement speech given by Bryan Dyson, then CEO of Coca Cola. He used the common metaphor of juggling multiple balls at once, but with a twist.
This is how you find your balance between your mom duties and your other goals.
Some days your kids might really need your attention. One could be sick, another may need homework help before a big test, one could have a doctor’s appointment…on these it’s okay to let some of the work balls bounce so you can focus on your kids. It won’t make you less of an employee, entrepreneur, or human being.
Other days you may have a big meeting, a client deadline, a long-awaited product launch, or some other important milestone for one of your non-kid goals. On these days it’s perfectly acceptable to let your kiddos have an extra half hour of screen time. They’ll bounce. It doesn’t make you any less of a mom.
The trick is to find a balance. You’ll know if your kids are falling too much into the back seat of your attention. You’ll feel it if you’re not getting the external human time (I hate the phrase “me time”) to give you the intrinsic motivation to get through the day.
Just make small adjustments, have a lot of compassion for yourself, and (if anyone judges you) never hesitate to tell society at large exactly where they can stick their opinions. You are trying to find the best life for yourself and your kids. No one can tell you what that looks like but you.
The Practical Answer
If you’re at all familiar with me of my work, you’ll know that I face a majority of my problems with a color-coded spreadsheet or worksheet. (Sorry, it’s how I cope with the complete and utter chaos of real life.)
When trying to balance all the completely mandatory, urgent demands on my time with my “non-mom goals” (which are usually not urgent in the slightest, yet are incredibly important to my long-term sanity and success in life outside of motherhood) I use what is called an Eisenhower matrix.
An Eisenhower matrix is a trick I learned from business and management psychology. (It’s similar to performing an ABCD analylsis.) Overall, it’s a way of debugging your to do list so you can see what order you should be doing things in, what can be put off or delegated, and what is a “glass ball” that cannot be dropped.
Basically it works like this…
If you sort all your tasks, to dos, and daily action items into one of the four quadrants, you can see what’s really important (your “essential tasks”), what’s not worth your time (the “to delegate” pile in the bottom left), and then you can create a balance between the urgent stuff that’s not really that important (your “daily whirlwind”, usually made up of cutting sandwiches for lunchboxes, changing diapers, and driving kids to and from various extracurriculars) and your non-mom goals (the “growth maximizers”) that will benefit your sanity and identity in the long term.
Usually, I try to ensure that I get at least one “growth maximizer” done each day. This is my sanity, my identity protection mechanism, the way I reassure myself that I am still Liz instead of just succumbing to being so-and-so’s mom. It doesn’t take long (because I don’t really have that much time to spend and frankly I enjoy spending most of my time with my kiddos), but it helps me not feel that soul-sucking void of wondering if I do actually have an identity beyond motherhood.
Free Eisenhower Matrix
What’s important, what’s not, and what should you give to someone else to worry about?
You are allowed to have goals outside of parenting. In fact, it would be detrimental to your kids if you didn’t. Parenting is hard, often emotionally-draining work and you need something to fuel your soul.
Find a daily balance between focusing on your kids and focusing on the things that give you validation and motivation as a non-parent human. Make small adjustments, practice self-compassion (aka treat yourself with the kindness you would show towards one of your kids), and don’t listen to anyone who dares to judge you for your choices.
Liz Bayardelle, PhD
Liz is the mom of three human(ish) kids, three furkids, three businesses, and eight blogs. She also has a PhD in Business Psychology, several published books on parenting psychology, and a serious Chick-fil-a addiction. Hobbies include color coding anything that will hold still, reading textbooks for fun, swearing at her herd of dustbunnies, and nodding off mid-sentence at the dinner table.