Motherhood is like a summer in the UAE. You think you know what's coming and that you are totally prepared, and then it hits. At which point you realise there was no way you could have prepared, because you had no real idea of what was coming.
In reality, rather than soaring temperatures and suffocating humidity, it's more like a tidal wave of newness - new emotions, new experiences, new responsibilities, new priorities, a new daily (and nightly) schedule, and so on, which all comes together to create a totally New You.
And while entering the glittering and esteemed echelons of mothers is a blessing and an honour that we are eternally grateful for, whichever way it comes to us, we would be lying if we didn't admit that it kind of knocks you off your feet. For a good long while.
Even months later, there you are, waiting for everything to click back into place, waiting for the morning when you wake up and you are back feeling 'normal' again, with everything having reverted back to how it was before, just with the added joy of raising a child - and it doesn't happen. Instead, it's like the tidal wave has retreated and left a completely different landscape. Marriages, friendships, career ambitions, body parts - it's still all yours and it's still familiar, but it just feels (and looks) a bit different. Often in an unexplainable way. A bit like wearing someone else's clothes. New You just doesn't sit right somehow.
You are not alone
The feeling is more common that you might think. A study funded by Nurofen for Children found that more than half of new mothers suffer a knock to their confidence in the first year of motherhood because they feel they have no idea what they are doing. Additionally, the study reported that 52% of mothers suffer from a loss of identity, while the same amount said that the trials of parenthood - sleepless nights, the feelings of being lost and lonely - outweighed the positive aspects of the first 12 months.
Dr Sarah Rasmi, a psychologist and professor at Dr Sarah Rasmi Wellness Centre here in Dubai, specialises in supporting parents and families. She says, "Many mothers say they don't feel connected to their past selves, which leaves them feeling like they don't know who they are any more. They often use the word 'lost'. But also the words 'confused' and 'mourning'. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do to prepare for parenthood because everyone's experience is different."
Dubai-based psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, Anna Yates, owner of Mind Solutions, agrees. "In our practice, we see many mothers coming who have gone through this type of identity loss after having a baby," she says. "Throughout the pregnancy, you are the focus of everyone's attention. Then you have the baby, and nobody wants to hear your story... they only ask about the baby and they want to coo over the baby, and nobody asks how you are really. You end up feeling like in everyone else's eyes you are not yourself any more, you are simply 'Mother of baby'. As time goes by and your previous life - work, hobbies, social life - fades further and further into the distance, you also can start losing sight of yourself."
If you have experienced this yourself, you will know this to be true. It's like you used to wear lots of hats - relaxed me, career me, wife, sister, daughter, friend, and so on. But then you put on the 'mother' hat, turn around for half a second and all the other hats have disappeared. You are left with just the one hat to wear.
Hypnotherapist Anna explains that for the subconscious mind, it's a huge shock when you are not prioritising your own needs any more. It throws all sorts of things into question and can have a huge impact on all areas of life - marriage, self-esteem, friendships, career. Dr Sarah says, "Mums will start asking themselves questions such as, 'Is this what I wanted? Is this what I want still? If not, what do I need to change?'"
Read more: Can mothers really 'have it all'?
I remember when my daughter, now aged 12, was a newborn and I was overwhelmed by a sudden need - almost a physical craving - to go back to studying. I suddenly regretted wasting my time messing around at university and not having a more stable career to fall back on. I felt I had let myself down and that now, with a baby, it was going to be 50 times harder to ever be able to achieve 'my potential' - not that I had any clue what that potential was, or what achieving it looked like.
I started researching courses and was coming up with mad-capped, totally ridiculous and impossible plans of spending my time between the UK and the UAE studying for a new career - with a newborn. My family and my now-ex-husband were very patient and humoured me. Looking back, I have no doubt they were talking quietly and urgently amongst themselves about whether I had lost my mind and what they were going to do about it.
The reality is that they were right. In a way, I had lost my mind. Because I had lost myself. My personality, my individuality, my identity, my sense of self, my dreams for the future and, as part of that process, temporarily my mind. I felt like when people looked at me, they no longer saw Louisa, they just saw the young, bewildered mum of Kaya.
That all changed when I went to a mothers' group and, amidst the crowds of happy, beaming, full-of-the-joys-of-motherhood women who were there, I found another shell-shocked face. She and I became steadfast pals (and we still are today). We met up every day with our newborns and ended up living down the road from each other. Our girls became best buddies and were raised more like sisters for the first four years of their lives until her family relocated from the UAE to Singapore.
That mother, who understood how I felt, was my lifeline back to normality. Talking to her was like looking in the mirror and, hey presto, I wasn't alone any more. I am not suggesting the journey was quick and easily solved, but I wasn't doing it alone. There was somebody else on my side of the fence. It gave me the opportunity to not only re-find myself, but also to be the mother I wanted to be.
Find your tribe
This memory highlights one of the main issues for mothers going through an identity crisis. The wall of seemingly-perfect mothers, who take it all in their stride and revel in their new role and life. When nobody else appears to feel lost, your own feelings can seem even more confusing and wrong. It can make you feel even more isolated and like the odd one out - like there is something wrong with you. Dr Sarah says, "Our self-esteem is based on who we compare ourselves to. If we only look at people we think are doing better than us, we feel badly about ourselves. Instead if we look at people who are facing the same issues and experiences, we feel less negatively about ourselves. I always say to my clients, 'You aren't the first and you certainly won't be the last'. It's hard for mums as they have been fed the story that it's supposed to be the best time of their lives. So when it's not, they wonder why and take it as a personal failure."
Anna says, "It's one of those social taboos that keeps people stuck in uncomfortable places within themselves - admitting that parenthood is maybe harder and, at times, less pleasant than you thought it would be. This doesn't just apply to people suffering from postnatal and prenatal depression, but to parents who are overjoyed at being parents and who love their new bundle fiercely. They too can find it overwhelming to the point of feeling totally submerged by it."
"It's one of those social taboos that keeps people stuck in uncomfortable places within themselves - admitting that parenthood is maybe harder and, at times, less pleasant than you thought it would be."
If you find yourself in this situation - feeling like your previous self and previous life is sinking into the quicksand of motherhood - take a moment to tell yourself this: it is totally normal to feel this way. For every mother who is reading this feeling like they don't know how to be themselves any more, there are millions of other mothers who have been through this and come out the other side a stronger, more authentic, more well-rounded version of their previous self. Hopefully just knowing that it is possible to love being a mum and still struggle with an identity crisis will be a life raft for you to cling on to. And if you find yourself clinging on to that life raft, don't be afraid to admit it to yourself, to speak it out loud to someone you trust and to do something about it. It doesn't make you any less of a mother, it makes you real. You may be the mother of a baby but, as a human, your happiness is important too.
Accept that you are in transition, that you are evolving into a new space, and that it's OK to feel uncomfortable with that change. Don't cling on to the image of your 'old self plus child' - the new version of you will be more grounded, wiser, more whole. Let go of that past sense of self without fear of falling into nothingness. Take a deep breath and trust in the knowledge that something better is coming your way.