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My 'Inner Mommy War' and the 5 Things It Taught Me About Identity

When I became a mother, my four most dreaded words became "What do you do?" Prior to motherhood, I had a professional identity, an easy way to present myself. Now as a mother, I find no easy way to present this new identity and what I do.
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Twenty years ago on a crisp, sunny day, a little girl and her parents were about to enter Zurich zoo. At the gate, a couple of students approached the family and asked if they could speak to the little girl for some research they were conducting.

The parents, professors themselves, agreed.

The researchers showed the girl this picture:


"What do you see?" they asked her.

"Oh mama look, it's the Easter Bunny!" the 7-year-old squealed with delight.

If you are now looking at the picture again to see if you can find this rabbit, you are not alone. Most of us who see the image before reading the script probably perceive a duck.

We are not the exception. In fact, the majority of people who see this picture any time throughout the year see a duck. The students outside the zoo -- Peter and Susanne Brugger - discovered this two decades ago on a Sunday in October.

However, when they asked the little girl and 264 other people this question on Easter Sunday (when bunnies are more likely to be front-of-mind), the vast majority saw a rabbit.

Oddly, what we see says nothing about us. Our environment and the thoughts that are front-of-mind for us may influence what we see, but there is nothing inherent that separates the duck people from the rabbit people.

Many studies have tried to understand why we might see one or the other but the only conclusive thing is that none of us can see a rabbit and a duck at the same time. We simply aren't wired to absorb two conflicting things simultaneously. The picture can exist as both, but our perception can only grasp one.

Yet, when we are told that the picture is both, we are able to see that this is true.

You're probably wondering what this has to do with motherhood. The truth is, it has much to do with the internal struggles many mothers -- first time or otherwise -- face.

When I came across this study, I couldn't help wondering if we lived in figurative duck-rabbit world.

My first blog post talked about "having it all" as a stay-at-home mom because I was lucky enough to have the option to choose that path. Yet on many occasions, despite generally being satisfied with my life and the choices I have made, I could not help but wonder if I was losing a part of myself.

When I had a baby girl, I traded in the ambitious, high-achieving business professional for a domesticated baby-yoga going stay-at-home mom. That's when my inner "mommy-war" started, when my identity conflict began to take shape.

When I became a mother, my four most dreaded words became "What do you do?" Prior to motherhood, I had a professional identity, an easy way to present myself.

Now as a mother, I find no easy way to present this new identity and what I do. Whatever answer I give, I feel that I am either misrepresenting facts -- clinging on to shreds of my past -- or selling myself short, as if being "just" a mother is not enough.

I've spent the better part of this past year and a half as a first time mom trying to understand and make sense of the identity conflict many of us face when we are confronted with the choices and tradeoffs of motherhood and work.

I've spoken to many moms -- both working and stay at home. I've read about other mothers' experiences. I've observed my thoughts and behaviors in many different situations. I've even looked up scientific research on this issue and discussed it with a former professor of mine who specializes in identity conflict. I've truly tried to make sense of these conflicting feelings.

Over a year later, and with the impending arrival of my second daughter, the question looms larger than ever before in front of me.

The truth:

I have not yet found the silver bullet or the answer to our identity conflict as mothers -- our own inner mommy war. What I have found, however, is HOPE.

Indeed, whatever choice we make as mothers, we will always face some kind of conflict in our identity and some sense of guilt. The hope comes when I realize that even with all this conflict and guilt, we are slowly finding the way to what is right for each of us by understanding one thing:

The "right" way does not have a single definition -- it does not have single form.

With that in mind, these are the five most valuable insights I have gathered about dealing with our identity issues as mothers, whether we have decided to work or stay at home:

  • Embrace the additional dimensions of your identity. Prior to motherhood, your identity used to be mostly just about you. Now, it's intricately intertwined with someone else's too. You are no longer the doctor, the banker, the teacher, etc... you are also the wife, the mother, and all the associated identities that come with those responsibilities. You can look at it as losing part of who you were -- which will inevitably lead to feelings of regret and nostalgia -- or, you can look at yourself as a bigger person, a richer woman, someone who can be many different things to many different people in a wide array of situations at different times. You can embrace it.

  • Focus on the permanent things. Your subjective identity is the one based on things that can change like your job, your social status, your environment and your peers. You can switch it on or off, you can walk away from it, or you can change it because it's not permanent or at the core of your being. Your objective identity, on the other hand, is what lasts a lifetime. Your identity as a woman and a mother are generally much more permanent and harder to change. They are also, more often than not, the things worth fighting for. So on those days when you miss the parts of your identity that are not as prominent anymore, or when you question your decision to keep a part of your old identity alive, remember that the permanent and important parts of your identity will always be there whatever decisions you make in life. That can help put things in perspective.
  • Filter out the noise. Oftentimes, your surroundings and other people help shape your identity, and that gives rise to conflict. Too many opinions about what the right choice is, too many ideas that define what success or happiness look like, and simply too much information can all make you question who you are and the choices you have made. If your identity can be shaped from the inside out rather than the outside in, however, much of the source of conflict dissipates. Yes, you may miss your old self and how you were perceived, but when you filter out the noise judging your decisions, you realize you are still that same person but with more dimensions added and different identities shining brighter in different stages of your life.
  • Aim to make a life, not just a living. It's funny how much of ourselves we define based on what we do. When asked in a social setting "what do you do?" we generally think of work: "I am a nurse" or "I am a lawyer" and oftentimes feel illegitimate when saying, "I am a mother," or worse, feel guilty for not saying it. We seem to forget that there is a huge difference between what we do to make a living and what we do to make life, that there is a difference between doing and being. So whether we choose to work or stay at home, focusing on the parts of our identity that will stay with us through all of life's situations -- how kind we are, how patient, how focused, how hard working, etc. -- can help us deal with the times when we feel judged for our choices. After all, whether you are the only working mother in your office or the only stay at home mom amongst your peers, we are all vying for the same ultimate things in life -- and those things are a function of who and how we are, not what we "do".
  • Enjoy every season. As hard as it is to imagine that the snow covered ground will one day be springing with flowers, we still know it's true. Our lives are similar. Everything has its season, and while this season motherhood may be your most salient identity, it does not mean that the professional part of who you are -- the rabbit -- is declining or lost. It may simply be overshadowed by the duck because someone needs that part of you more. So yes, at times it is distressing that it's hard for people to recognize women as both successful professionals and mothers at the same time, but it gives me hope that at least when we are primed to think of ourselves this way, most of us, with some effort, can.