A shifting sense of self: being a ‘mother’

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A narrative turning point occurs when experience replaces anticipation,

leading at times to a reordering of past events. The biological act of giving

birth means that in a very short space of time women shift from being

pregnant and anticipating motherhood to being mothers, with all the

responsibilities associated with a dependent child. Yet this biological

1 The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale has been designed in questionnaire format ‘as

a screening tool for the detection of postnatal depression’. It is administered in many parts

of the UK to mothers by health visitors at between six to eight weeks postnatally.

shift is not always mirrored by such a swift ontological shift. Beginning to

feel like a ‘mother’ is often a much slower process. Women can find it

difficult to reconcile the differing biological and social time-frames which

exist around mothering, and which may differ from professionally based

time-frames. The potent mix of cultural, social and moral knowledges

and practices which surround perceptions of motherhood, together with

the biological act of giving birth, do not in themselves lead women to feel

like mothers on the birth of a child. Indeed each woman needs time to

come to terms with and develop a social self as a mother; to jettison

previous expectations of an essential, instinctive self as mother. Yet to

those around her, family, friends and experts, as soon as her child is born,

a woman becomes a mother, this powerful new identity overriding all


Fear of a loss of control in relation to experiences of transition to

motherhood provides a recurrent theme running across and between

the narratives constructed by these women. As noted earlier, they had

all been working women and spoke of having control in their lives

and sometimes control over others at work. The unexpected experiences

of birth and the new responsibilities of the early weeks at home

all contributed to a sense of loss of control in their lives. This included

a loss of a recognisable self. At the time of the early postnatal interviews

most of the women were trying to come to terms with, to make

sense of, the changes in their lives. The following extracts reveal their


My role in life has changed . . . I mean I was saying this to [a friend] yesterday,

I don’t really know who I am yet . . . There isn’t anything in my life that I could say

is any sort of constant stability to . . . in reflection to what it was before. (Helen)

The change to my life I think is complete and absolute, there’s nothing left of my

life that resembles . . . I have [the baby] all the time and it doesn’t matter how

much you love your baby, if you’ve had a life it’s very difficult to give up all of it,

and I think I started to get really resentful because I was struggling to cope, just

generally day to day I just felt like she demanded all of my attention all the time.

I couldn’t do anything for myself. (Diana)

You realise what a totally different . . . you know, you’re in a different world at the

moment, you know . . . (Lillian)

I felt as if I didn’t have control over what was going to happen to me anymore.


Although she’s . . . I mean she’s never been a problem, but I’m certainly, as I say,

the last couple of weeks been thinking that there’s more to life sort of thing . . . the

last couple of weeks I’ve sort of felt that I can do more. (Faye)

This period of transition: ‘a different world at the moment’, which lacks

any ‘constant sort of stability’, is differently experienced by the women as

they each try to come to terms with becoming a mother. Lillian talks of

being ‘in a different world at the moment’, and Helen of not knowing who

she really is yet. It is interesting that Faye pre-empts her acknowledgement

that over the last couple of weeks she has felt that ‘there’s more to

life’ with the qualifying sentence ‘although she’s . . . I mean she’s never

been a problem’. Feeling able to cope, of regaining some control, provides

a turning point in terms of the narrating experiences of the early

weeks. However, actually having a sense of being a ‘mother’ is something

that for some is only much later experienced and acknowledged (see

chapt er 6). This is experi ence d as a ‘mot hering care er’ (Ribbe ns, 1998 )

advances and a social self as a mother is gradually developed through

practice. In the following extracts the women draw on different images of

motherhood, but they are not categories they can yet identify with:

I don’t really see myself as kind of an earth mother type . . . I still don’t really think

of me as a mother a lot of the time, you know I think of me as looking after [the

baby] . . . but in terms of my mothering skills, I’m not sure . . . I’m quite keen to

keep some sense of my pre-baby self. (Philippa)

I’m beginning to feel like a mother, but that’s only recent [baby eight weeks]

. . . but there are some bits of my life that I miss . . . it didn’t come naturally.


I’ve tried to maintain that sense of self, but I know there is this . . . that I will

always be perceived as a mother . . . but when I go out I try not to look mumsy and

I think that’s partly to do with how I feel about myself. (Felicity)

I’ve only just started saying ‘my child, my baby’. But I don’t know if I feel like a

mother. I don’t know what you’re meant to feel like. (Sarah)

I mean it’s like how do you define a mother? Yes, I’m doing all the practical things

of a mother. But it hasn’t actually sunk in . . . It’s like I’m living this part in a play

and in fact I’m going through all of the motions, but is it actually reality and is this

what motherhood is all about? You know, my mum’s a mother, but am

I?.. Although you probably ask anybody that knows me and they’d say oh gosh,

she’s like a duck to water and she’s very natural and relaxed with her and it just

seems like I can’t . . . you know I can’t have life without her. And that’s . . . is how

I do feel, but I wouldn’t say, no I wouldn’t say that I really feel like I’m a

mother . . . I was very ready to become a mother . . . but in fact I have lost control

of my life. (Helen)

In these extracts the doing ofmothering work, doing ‘practical things’ and

‘looking after’ are drawn upon, but are seen as distinct from being or

feeling like a mother. Some women at this time were struggling to hold on

to a sense of their pre-baby selves and their lives prior to the birth. Yet

whilst they struggled to make sense of this period of intense transition,

others around them saw them as mothers. In the extract above, Helen

talks of others’ perceptions of how she is coping as a new mother, ‘like a

duck to water’ and that ‘she’s very natural’. The difficulty, then, for Helen,

and other women whose experiences do not resonate with their own earlier

expectations is feeling able to reveal that they are struggling. Helen uses the

analogy of living a part in a play; the implication then is of pretence, of

‘going through all of the motions’ but not actually feeling, as she thinks she

should feel, like a mother. The complex interplay between essentialist and

ideological assumptions and social and cultural constructions of motherhood

are evident in these extracts. Narratives are produced within the

context of mothering being perceived as ‘natural’ and mothers being

guided by ‘instincts’. When these are not experienced, reflexive difficulties

may be experienced, for as Somers has noted, ‘struggles over narrations are

(thus) struggles over identity’ (Somers, 1994:631).

As noted in earlier chapters, selves exist and are interactionally constructed

in relation to others. For example, in Sheila’s extract below we

see her referring to herself as ‘Mummy’ when talking to her twin sons, but

also the implication that this new dimension of self would take time to

get used to. Other women experienced their new self as mother


I walked in I said, ‘All right, Mummy’s here.’ And I thought ‘oooh’, it

sounded so weird to be saying that. But yes, I do thoroughly enjoy being a

mum. (Sheila)

[on being asked if she feels like a mother] I suppose so, I don’t really feel any

different, you know . . . well I suppose . . . I don’t know really what a mother feels

like. I mean, I suppose so, but you know . . . I don’t really have time to sit there

thinking what I feel like. Yes, I suppose so. . . . You get on with your life and you

get on with the baby and you just do it. (Peggy)

[on being asked if she feels like a mother] Yes, it’s come really naturally to me,

which I wasn’t sure whether it would or not . . . but then I think that because we

planned it all and we knew what . . . that this was the right time. It wasn’t too early

and we were ready for it. (Faye)

Faye’s comment is interesting because she had earlier asserted that only

in the ‘last couple of weeks (she’d) been thinking that there’s more to life,

sort of thing’. The implication had been that she was now feeling more

able to cope and to get out, yet in the extract above she talks of mothering

coming ‘really naturally’, implying she had not experienced difficulties.

Diana recounts the range of emotions she has experienced since having

her baby:

A lot of people probably feel the same, but I couldn’t believe how invisible I

became after I had her [and later] I can’t believe how happy having a baby has

made me feel, even though it has made me extremely unhappy at times.

Clearly there are complexities and contradictions in the narratives we

produce, such is the condition of human life. Different accounts may be

produced for different audiences, and reworked and changed over time,

and in accordance with a shifting sense of self. Similarly, some individuals

may be more reflexively engaged beyond the intrinsic reflexivity that is a

component of all human life than others, for example, as Peggy says above

‘I don’t really have time to sit there thinking what I feel.’ Arguments about

reflexivity and its masculinist and gendered dimensions are explored

furth er in chapt er 7 .