Cheryl Richardson: The Mommy Identity Crisis

Monique is a smart, spirited mother of two small girls who's in the middle of an identity crisis. She wrote to me with a mixture of guilt and hopefulness. "Ever since I had children, I've felt like I lost me. I enjoy motherhood, don't get me wrong. But at the same time, I miss the spontaneous, ambitious, fairly intelligent woman I used to be. I'm afraid I'll never get her back."


Monique's coaching request echoed the voices of so many mothers I've worked with over the years. Although they love raising their children, they somehow feel a nagging sense of loss. It's as if a vital organ has gone missing, leaving them detached from who they really are. I agreed to help Monique set out to find her lost self.


It was clear she'd fallen prey to the common misconception that her identify was tied to what she did. "If I could just figure out what I love to do and do it, I know I'd feel like myself again," she told me. But wait. Before we could focus on what she loved to do, we needed to get a better sense of who she was. So I asked. "I'm a dedicated mother and wife," she responded. "I'm also a good friend to the women in my life, and a great daughter to my mom and dad." Important roles, I agreed. But they were just that: roles. I challenged her to drill down deeper. I wanted to get a picture of who she was, separate from these responsibilities. Monique didn't have much of an answer. "The truth is, I don't know who I am anymore," she said. "That's the problem."


A guiding principle of coaching is to focus on the "who" first, trusting that the "what" will follow. For example, if you're dissatisfied with your line of work, researching different careers (the "what") would be premature. You'd be better off exploring your personal interests and desires -- the "who." Monique needed to reconnect with her core self before focusing on doing. Since she had a hard time connecting with the "who," I asked her to interview a couple of friends to get their take on the qualities of character that made her unique.


During our next session, Monique shared her notes. "It was interesting to hear how other people see me," she explained. "My friends mentioned that I'm good at weighing important decisions. They also said they admire how I don't rush; I take things slow. I'm sensitive, they said, and one commented on my creative side. It's funny, though," she continued. "While I appreciated the feedback, I noticed that some of these qualities represent the things that drive me crazy about myself." I immediately wanted to hear more. "Sometimes I think I'm too sensitive. And since my pace is slower, I feel rushed all the time. It's like I can't get things done efficiently. And while I don't make snap judgments, I tend to see myself as having a hard time making decisions. I hate that about myself."


As Monique talked about other qualities she uncovered, several things came to light. First, she was incredibly hard on herself (a common trait among moms). Second, the qualities she described as hating were actually beautiful traits that I found attractive and compelling. The more she talked, the more I understood why she was suffering an identity crisis: The very things that made Monique special and engaging were the ones she judged and kept under wraps. They'd been forced underground by the structured demands of motherhood and managing a busy household. In sacrificing her own needs for the sake of the family, she had lost herself in the process.


But that wasn't all. It seemed that Monique judged these qualities harshly because they didn't measure up to the people around her -- friends and family who possessed opposite traits. "My husband knows how to set a goal and get things done on schedule. And one of my closest friends is a clear-cut, black-and-white thinker who always seems to make smart decisions. Next to them, I often feel so inadequate. I try to be more like them, but I just can't." I wasn't surprised. Trying to disown your inherent qualities is like trying to disown your own skin. It just won't work.


Monique was getting to the root of her identity crisis. She needed to allow her natural qualities full expression so she could appreciate them as gifts. Now that we had learned more about the "who," it was time to use this information to envision the "what." The plan was simple. I wanted her to start with three qualities -- sensitive, creative, and even spontaneous (a trait she'd identified in herself) -- and come up with ways to honor them in everyday life.


The next time we talked, she had some great ideas. "I used to love making jewelry with my mom, so I've scheduled one afternoon a week to visit with her to work on a creative project just for the joy of it. I've also dedicated a journal to keep track of the beauty and inspiration I find in nature. I have a tendency to notice things that others miss, and I want to get it down on paper using photographs and words. Finally, I've asked my husband to watch the kids one night a week so I can do whatever I feel like doing. No agenda. No plans. Just pure spontaneous adventure." Listening to the excitement in Monique's voice told me that part of her was waking up. "You know, I can see why I've felt so lost," she told me. "I have been missing from my life."


Monique was on her way to feeling the joy that comes from expressing her true self. "From now on," she said, "I'll put up an internal stop sign when I catch myself minimizing the qualities and traits that are really my gifts." The main challenge? Keeping up the momentum. Most moms need ongoing support to make their needs a top priority. To help her stay on track, I decided to use the wisdom that brought us together in the first place. "Take out the e-mail you originally sent to me, the one in which you so poignantly expressed the needs of your soul," I suggested. "Tape it into the front of your journal, and read it every day." In the end, there is nothing like desire to fuel our resolve.


Need Cheryl's Coaching?
Each issue, our life coach helps a Body+Soul reader work on life challenges like career change, relationships, and procrastination. Write to Cheryl, describing your situation, at Cheryl@bodyandsoulmag.com. Cheryl Richardson is a life coach, speaker, and best-selling author of four books, including The Unmistakable Touch of Grace. Visit her at cherylrichardson.com.

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