New Mothers, Let’s Talk About Professional Identity Crisis
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Executive Summary

Parenthood — especially for women — changes you. After giving birth, the brain actually redesigns itself, trimming old connections and building new ones. If you’re someone who has constructed your adult identity around your career, these changes to how you operate can shake your foundations. Even more unnerving, though, is the sudden instinct some feel to actually want to engage in motherhood above all else. The collision of these two identities can lead to an identity crisis, anxiety, depression, and burnout. There are two mental “rethinks” that working mothers can use to figure out how to approach the complicated new world they find themselves in. First, rethink success. Redefine “success” as getting stuff done both in and out of the office — not just “grade A” work. Second, rethink yourself. Instead of feeling that your identity has been disrupted, think of it as having been expanded. You were once yourself — now you’re yourself, plus something else.

Parenthood changes you. The roles you used to play, the identities you used to claim — lawyer, dog lover, spin enthusiast — all come second to your new responsibilities. For some, this rearrangement of priorities can lead to a crisis of identity. This is especially true for women, who for both social and neurological reasons tend to feel the split demands of home and work most acutely. 

As a clinical psychologist focused on the mental health challenges of people in high-pressure careers, I often read articles and papers about how to get back to “feeling yourself” after becoming a parent. But there are no easy answers, no top 10 lists of tips and tricks that can bring instant comfort and clarity.

Rachel*, a longtime therapy client of mine, was a successful trader who had — as far as I could tell — never failed at anything in her life. So, she never anticipated that being a working mother would be something she couldn’t handle. Multitasking in a high-stress environment was basically her job description. How hard could it be to add on a few extra tasks at home?

But when Rachel returned to work after maternity leave, she felt like she was floating, distracted. She couldn’t perform to her own standards at the office and felt like she was dropping the ball at home, too. She had built her identity around her competence and intelligence. Now that all seemed to belong to someone else.

Recent research into the neurobiology of motherhood has provided some hints about why new mothers often find the return to work so challenging. After giving birth, multiple neurological and structural changes occur that can make it difficult for the new mother to exactly replicate her previous functioning. The brain actually redesigns itself, trimming old connections and building new ones. The result appears to be a brain optimized for “theory of mind” — the ability to understand what others might be thinking and perceiving.

These cognitive and perceptual superpowers helped keep our ancestors alive while living among woolly mammoths. They also give mothers that uncanny ability to analyze their new baby’s cries and guess exactly what the infant needs. But the brain doesn’t know about our modern work environment; those connections that got trimmed might have been the ones that you relied on to get your job done.

If you’re someone who has constructed your adult identity around your career, suffering from “mommy brain” can shake your foundations. Even more unnerving, though, is the sudden instinct some feel to actually want to engage in motherhood above all else. The collision of these two identities, these two seemingly incompatible ways of being — that’s the recipe for a good old identity crisis.

Losing your bearings like this isn’t just uncomfortable. It can lead to anxiety, depression, burnout, relationship issues, and even substance use. And for most of my clients who are working parents, the chaotic shift to remote work in the time of Covid-19 has made things even harder. The boundaries that they once could draw between the household and the office have been blurred, and the human relationships that once gave work meaning have been reduced to a matrix of disembodied, video-chatting heads. No wonder that so many of us feel so unlike ourselves.

Sorting out your identity can be a long and complicated endeavor, but there are two mental “rethinks” that I often use with my clients to help them figure out how to approach the complicated new world they find themselves in.

Rethink success. You used to aim for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. Now, you can give yourself a gold star just for survival. You’ll have to let a lot go and adjust your definition of success. I guarantee you’ll come out ahead if you give yourself credit for all your work on the home front. To do so, try redefining “success” as getting stuff done both in and out of the office.

Where success might once have meant closing a big client over steaks at a swanky place downtown, it now might mean whipping up breakfast for dinner (ignoring the mess all over the house) as you shout silly songs to your kids giggling in the other room. That client might take an extra day or two to sign, but in the meantime, you’ve been racking up the wins at home. You’re doing way better than you’re giving yourself credit for — frame those parenting victories as something to be celebrated.

Rethink yourself. Our identity goes through many changes through the course of our lives. Instead of feeling that your identity has been disrupted, think of it as having been expanded. You were once yourself — now you’re yourself, plus something else. There’s room to become more.

Parenthood is far from the first time your identity has undergone a shift. Taking on big personal projects like training for a triathlon can often shift our perceptions of ourselves. In that way, adding “parent” to your identity shouldn’t require you to abandon old parts of yourself, any more than adding “triathlete” or “great cook” or “photographer” should.

We’re often our own most vicious critic. Let go of some of the pressure you’re putting on yourself and treat yourself with the understanding and flexibility you’d grant to your best friend. Would you rip your friend for feeding their kids chicken nuggets two nights in a row because something came up at the office? You’d probably laugh about it with them, and then pass the ketchup.

Above all, realize that there are no easy answers, just the hard work in becoming a better (if more complicated) version of yourself. And after you help fight a worldwide pandemic by working from home, answering emails through a soupy brain fog while your toddler is screaming for mustard with their nuggets instead — you’ll get there.

*Name changed to protect identity

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