Shifting selves

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Interwoven in the accounts of engagement with those with authoritative

knowledge were both implicit and explicit references to the women’s

shifting sense of their selves. These story lines were discernible within all

the narratives collected. Transition to motherhood was experienced not

only as physical change, but also as involving changing perceptions.

These were experienced interactionally, in terms of how the women

saw their selves, and how others saw and responded to them. Factors

such as whether a pregnancy was planned, whether a woman feels

supported by a partner and/or family members and friends, whether a

woman feels positive about her changing physical shape, all contribute

to the overall experience and what is voiced and what is left unsaid.

Experiences which are perceived as negative may only be tentatively

voiced. For even in the antenatal period the risk of appearing too

negative may be construed as not preparing to become a ‘good’ mother.

Transition to motherhood, then, is regulated and monitored, within the

public sphere but experienced as a very private and personal transition,

which also requires self-surveillance and personal policing of a self

(Lawler, 20 0 0 ). In the following extract Felicity describes the s truggle

that this has presented for her:

It’s very difficult to sort them out into one coherent sentence . . . it’s an experience

that I’m glad I’ve had, but it’s an experience that I don’t want to

repeat . . . yes, it’s been very . . . very bizarre. It’s been a complete learning

curve as my husband says. All sorts of things that I didn’t expect to happen are

happening. To me, I don’t feel any different. OK, yes I’ve got this . . . but I’m

still me. You know, OK, I will hopefully some time in August have a healthy

child, but I’ll still be me . . . so it’s like this internal/external battle, and either

having to constantly reinforce your internal feelings to the outside world or just

giving up. And sometimes yes, sometimes I just sort of smile and go ‘yes’, yes I’ve

been guilty of that.

The perceived need to retain and still be ‘me’ for Felicity is clear from

the extract, but so too is the difficulty at times of achieving this.

The struggle to retain a sense of self, an identity that is not conflated

with being a mother or motherhood, is voiced by many of the women.

What they acknowledge in their narratives is that others now see them

just as pregnant women, that this becomes an overriding identity, but it

is not how they experience their selves. The implications of not being

seen as independent, working women, with some control over their

lives, indicate the ways in which motherhood is constructed, anticipated

and experienced in many Western societies. In the following extracts,

the participants reflexively explore their shifting sense of self:

I’ve stopped being me, people just see me as a pregnant woman and I don’t like

that, and I know it’s going to get worse, people will soon just see me as a

mother . . . I want my life back . . . I just feel I am not me anymore, I’m just a

pregnant woman now, I don’t exist anymore in some people’s eyes. I just carry

a baby. I don’t like that . . . I don’t like not being me . . . I am not me at the

moment. And you focus so heavily on ‘week 40’ your whole bloody life disappears

. . . (Abigail)

I know I’m not going to be me anymore . . . I’m not going to be an individual

anymore . . . my life’s totally changed the minute I found out I was having twins.


I think it’s all bound up with the fact that you . . . there’s something else going on

that you haven’t got any control over, that you are not the person that you were

anymore, and you know from now on you’re going to be a mother. (Felicity)

I think you have to fight more to keep your individuality . . . You know you have to

fight to be the person that you . . . rather than everybody’s preconception of what

a mother ought to be, or what a pregnant woman ought to be, or what you ought to

be doing. (Peggy)

At one point, I don’t know if this is because I was feeling emotional, I feel as

though like me and myself is sort of like taking a backstage at the minute. I find

that really sort of . . . I find that hard, you know sort of like, you know, mmmm,

and that’s quite . . . that’s not very nice . . . you know you lose a little bit of your

identity. (Lillian)

Oh God, it’s the end of my life as I know it, and I still feel that on bad days.


It was noted in chapter 1 that ‘the physical facts of menstruation,

conception, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause generate a series of

moral problems related to identity and self concept for women’, and in

these extra cts we can see aspects of this b eing play ed out (Alm ond, 1988 ).

The women construct their narratives in different ways and in relation to

their particular experiences of agency, dimensions of which will be both

different and similar for other women coming to motherhood for the first

time. Indeed, the need to actively ‘fight’ to retain a sense of individuality

reinforces the struggle that is involved in maintaining a sense of their

selves as they move ever closer to becoming mothers. The image of the

‘me and myself’ having taken ‘a backstage’ in Lillian’s narrative is very

powerful and resonates with many of the other women’s experiences of

transition to motherhood. Yet Lillian’s narrative also encapsulates the

contradictions experienced in the transition to motherhood, especially in

relation to the perceptions of others:

I mean, I don’t know if it’s me that’s imagining it, but like my father looks at me

differently. He can’t look at me as if it’s a little girl any more, I’m a mother, I’m

going to be a mother. And he’s . . . so that’s quite a nice . . . that’s a positive aspect

of him looking at me as an adult. And then some people look at you saying, you’re

a mother now, you haven’t got like your own sort of intelligence I suppose really.

A few of the women presented their transition to motherhood at times as

unproblematic and in positive terms:

I don’t know, because I have been well and everything, it’s not really changed me

and obviously my size, but it’s not been too much of a problem . . . .(feel) happy

with myself sort of thing. (Faye)

Seeing me as a potential mother rather than a professional – my image has

changed. To start with I rebelled against that but now I’m kind of quite looking

forward to it and happy with it. (Rebecca)

Talking about her experiences of pregnancy, and the pregnancy diary in

which she has noted down her changing feelings during pregnancy, Helen

comments that it’s

Better than I’d imagined it to be . . . I mean I love the look of pregnant women,

I think they look absolutely gorgeous . . . I have stayed very trim, I desperately

wanted to get big and fat. (Helen)

The potential struggles involved in making sense of a changing sense of

self, through experiences of transition to motherhood, are also discernible

in relation to control and changes in the body. Control, or loss of control,

emerged in relation to the women’s struggles to maintain a sense of their

selves. Struggles around attempts to maintain a sense of self (‘me’)

and the recognition of the difficulties in achieving this were centred on

embodied change, involving presentation of a changing self in a maternal

body. In the following extracts some of the participants talk of their

experiences of these changes:

I don’t like losing my body, not the shape of it, but just feeling . . . the having

something inside it, and not having control over it is odd to say the least. (Abigail)

I feel that from being the person in charge work-wise, to the person that is being

taken over by something else, or someone else is quite a lot to take in. It’s as if your

whole identity changes from here on. (Linda)

Yes, I didn’t like the idea of getting fatter. It’s fine now because it’s obvious that

I’m pregnant, but at the beginning I had real traumas because people didn’t know

I was pregnant. I take pride in my appearance and that was hard . . . I mean, my

perception of my body image and the clothes I wear which make a statement,

because I think the clothes you wear do make a statement, don’t you? So, having

to wear these peculiar floaty dresses which isn’t really me . . . (Rebecca)

These extracts reflect shared concerns with changing shape and the

implications of this for the women’s sense of self. The complexities and

contradictions in narrating personal experiences of change are also apparent

in extracts from Helen’s account. Helen talks about her changing

shape at an early stage of the interview:

I’ve had a very sort of positive reaction to, you know, my body and how I’ve been

growing and everything . . .

Helen later comments:

I have to say it’s been one of the most uncomfortable physical states that I’ve ever

been in and it’s so difficult to describe to anyone . . . I feel like my body has been

taken over by something else . . . it’s a bit like being an alien . . . people touch you,

touch your stomach, stare at you . . . you just feel that you’re sort of not human.

And towards the end of the interview she concludes:

as far as I am concerned it’s such an amazing thing of, you know, nature taking

control and, you know, producing this little . . . being.

These extracts once again demonstrate the inconsistencies in producing

accounts of personal change, and the ways in which we dip in and out of

culturally recognisable ways of describing pregnancy. They also raise

questions about how narratives are constructed for particular audiences.

For example, in the first extract, Helen appears to conform to what she

perceives to be appropriate ways of talking about pregnancy. As the

interview progresses and she becomes more comfortable with me as the

researcher, she voices her experiences in ways that could be perceived as

less acceptable – ‘being an alien’ and ‘not human’. Finally she reverts, as

the interview draws to a close, to more culturally recognisable ways of

talking positively about pregnancy, ‘producing this little . . . being’.

Constructions of motherhood will be dependent on multiple factors.

As no ted earlier in chapt er 3, constru ctions of mothe rhood and what

‘good’ mothers do change over time, in relation to social and economic

dem ands (Dunc an and E dwards, 1999). Amo ngst this gro up, many

women anticipated combining mothering work with previously held

jobs outside the home. This was seen as offering ‘a return to normal’, a

return to something familiar, in contrast with the uncertainty of pregnancy,

childbearing and motherhood. At work, where the women were

positioned as experts, they felt in control. A return to work, then, was seen

as a way of retaining/regaining a sense of a recognisable, practised and

familiar self. In the following extracts, constructions of motherhood are

variously played out in terms of responsibilities and right ways of doing

things. These are premised on gendered assumptions around caring. This

group of women are in a privileged position of having jobs, job satisfaction

and security, including the ability to choose. Of course, for many women

such choices do not exist. Notions of what life with a baby might be like

are rehearsed in these extracts. For those anticipating a return to work,

motherhood is constructed as not providing sufficient stimulation, and

being at home, full-time, as potentially boring. A return to the public

world of work is seen as offering the possibility of women regaining their

‘identity’, a sense of their pre-baby self and so being ‘me again’. Other

constructions attempt to reconcile ideas of what ‘good’ mothers should

do, ‘stay at home’, with the woman’s own needs, ‘you might go insane’.

Others construct motherhood in terms of a job to be done ‘properly’:

You can see these people who are so focused on [the] child . . . there’s nothing

wrong with that but it’s not me. I’ve struggled losing my identity as it is and I can’t

go . . . I can’t go forever just being someone else, I’ve got to be me again. (Abigail)

I am one of these people that their self, identity, is locked into what they do . . . in

terms of my own self, I would like to do something. (Felicity)

I mean in an ideal world I wouldn’t go back to work, I mean I’ve always . . . before

I got married I always said that I felt that a mother should stay at home but I think

as you . . . I mean this is another sort of an ideal . . . an ideal that’s changed over

the years. I mean, I love my job and I really enjoy the stimulation and I think

ideally I would go back to work part-time if that were possible – and they’ve said it

is but . . . I’ve said that I’ll go back full-time and do my best and if that doesn’t

work then . . . (Kathryn)

I’ve sort of started thinking about childcare as well when I go back to

work . . . [Partner] thinks I’ll be bored, not bored [with baby], but bored with

being stuck at home. (Clare)

I will do definitely [return to work], but only part-time, because I think you should

put in . . . I mean, what’s the point in having the baby unless you’re going to look

after it . . . [but] yes, definitely, otherwise you might go insane. (Sarah)

I didn’t particularly want my children to go to a childminder’s or a creˆche or

something . . . doing it this way [temping on a part-time basis] hopefully we’ll be

able to do it between ourselves and I’ll still have my identity as well. (Sheila)

Others are undecided whether they will return to work, or they see fulltime

mothering as their new job:

Because we decided we would either have children or I would apply for promotion

and that would have been a big change because I would have been in a very, much

more important job and being looked up to as a more important person, and

I decided not to go for that. I decided to go for motherhood which also I think if

you do it properly you’re respected and looked up to and trusted more, I think, in a

way. Because you’re not the young, frivolous person that I was before anyway, but

because you’re a mother, you have to be a responsible person, or should be.


It really depends how bored I get. I’ve kept my job open so I can go back . . . I keep

saying if it’s awful I’m going to get a full-time nanny and go straight back to work.


I may actually adore it and think I’d love to be a full-time mother and I’ll find that

completely satisfying, but at the moment I can’t really imagine myself feeling like

that. (Philippa)

The nuances and subtleties of cultural messages imbue these women’s

narratives, as clearly gendered notions of responsibility, caring and childrearing

shape the accounts. Ideologies of intensive mothering are both

drawn upon and resisted but their dominance and power remains resolute,

shaping both engagement and resistance.

Anticipating being a mother/motherhood

All the narratives discussed in this chapter are constructed in the context

of women anticipating having a baby and becoming a mother. In the

following section women look ahead and envisage themselves as mothers,

doing mothering. Once again, as in discussions around the birth, the

ability to ‘cope’ is linked to the process being ‘natural’, which for the

women means that they should be able to cope. Yet their accounts remain

tentative; words such as ‘worried’ and ‘frightened’ are interwoven into the


. . . and she [a friend] was ever so worried about not being able to cope. But I

think once it comes it all goes . . . it is natural . . . uhm, I was . . . frightened . . . -

will I be able to cope? (Angela)

It all seemed so easy nine months ago . . . as if it was something that would just

come naturally and now that I’m very aware it might not and I’m a bit worried that

I won’t cope. (Diana)

But I think maybe when the baby comes I’ll . . . it will be very natural to

me . . . I would say that my personal views on motherhood are, you know, very

positive and yes, uplifting. (Helen)

. . . and I think how on earth am I going to get everything done. Yes, I mean that

does worry me, because as I said before, because I like things so well ordered. You

can’t control a baby, you can’t say, stop crying now. (Kathryn)

Terrified . . . the responsibility, doing things right, just looking after a whole

human being . . . but then again it’s . . . well, everybody else can do it and I’d

rather just do it by instinct. (Sheila)

Lots of changes . . . I think we both worry about . . . well, not worry but it’s going

to be very different having a baby there . . . you know we’ve been together for

nearly ten years, just us, and then there’s going to be a little person as well. (Faye)

There’s this idea that as a mother you will love your child, and as a child you will

love your mother and that’s not necessarily the case . . . It would just be nice if we

get on and we both survived, I think. (Felicity)

These extracts are clearly grounded in powerful cultural messages about

‘right’ and ‘good’ ways to mother. They are also shaped by the

moral context in which mothering occurs, and reinforced by ‘texts,

images, interpersonal interactions, codes and laws’ (Garcia Coll et al.,

1998:1). Individual concerns about the ability to ‘cope’ are voiced tentatively

within the context of the assumption that mothering is dependent

on ‘instincts’ and being ‘natural’. Anticipating mothering involves uncertainty

and at the same time anticipatory narratives are constructed within

the context of essentialist ideas that mothering is ‘natural’. The women’s

concerns, then, about not being able to cope, suggest that failure to get it

right will have implications for both their sense of self and the ways in

which they are perceived by others. It was noted in an earlier chapter that

whether women have children or remain childless they are defined in

relation to motherhood as the identity of woman and mother are so

often confla ted (Romi to, 1997 ). Part of what we se e in these ext racts

are the women struggling on the brink of becoming mothers to retain a

sense of self, whilst negotiating the cultural contours of womanhood.