Mourning the Loss of Pre-Parenthood You

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I know this one is tough, but mourning and loss is part of our journey to becoming a parent. I know that’s generally not the story we like to tell ourselves or what we want to think about, especially if you’ve long awaited the arrival of that sweet, snuggly little baby or experienced pregnancy loss or infertility or had an otherwise difficult journey to parenthood. It might make sense that mourning has to do with a difficult birth journey. I’m glad you may have thought that — validation for my argument that our births are connected to our other experiences (however, that’s conversation for a different day). That is not the only type of mourning that’s at play here. Mourning and grief are all about loss. And loss comes in many different forms.

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross presented a model for grief. Commonly known as the five stages of grief: denial (and isolation), anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Over time, others have expanded on these stages. Grief presents itself in many ways aside from these stages, and there is certainly some noteworthy critique of Kubler-Ross’ original work. One of the tricky things about grief and mourning that most scholars will agree on is that it doesn’t present itself in linear stages (as the model seems to suggest), and no two people grieve in the same way. It’s important to note that ultimately change, in the many ways it comes to us, brings loss and can create feelings of grief.

Commonly recognized grief experiences:

● Shock: I feel numb.

● Denial: This isn’t happening.

● Isolation: No one understands; I just need to be alone.

● Anger: I hate everything and everyone (also expressed as rage, bitterness, or resentment).

● Bargaining: I’ll make a deal with you, fate/god/universe (“if only…” thinking dominants).

● Depression/Anxiety: I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this; I feel so overwhelmed.

● Acceptance: I understand that this is where I’m at and what I’m dealing with.

● Reconstruction: I can pick up the pieces and carry on.

Fifty years ago, we had a more narrow view of grief. Assuming it was reserved to the context of death. We know better now. We know that loss comes in many forms and that grieving and mourning can be a part of our story at various stages of our lives — not only in death. We can mourn the loss of friendships, careers, and even ideas. What we now understand is that mourning is actually a pretty normal part of living. Hard, but normal.

In parenthood sometimes we grieve invisible things that others may not see or recognize, which can add a complicated layer to our grieving. It may be infertility, pregnancy loss, the birth experience you didn’t have, struggles with your planned feeding decisions, a partner who returned to work too soon (or had no leave at all), no family able to support you postpartum, your maternity leave ending, and many more. I validate you if you’re grieving any of these (and plenty I didn’t mention). I see you in your grief. You are not alone.

What I hear parents talk about, and what the research points to, are three key areas of loss associated with the transition to parenthood:

  1. Loss of freedom (I can’t do what I want or need to do when or how I want.)
  2. Loss of self-identity (This baby has consumed me and I don’t recognize myself.)
  3. Loss of social/community (I’m isolated and alone.)

Feeling a high level of freedom is linked to happiness and life satisfaction. People who feel a strong sense of freedom (personal autonomy) are more likely to report higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness. Well, guess what new parents aren’t feeling? Freedom. Common descriptions of the first weeks (months) postpartum:

● “I feel trapped.”

● “I can’t go anywhere or do anything.”

● “I am so overwhelmed.”

In fact, that last one might be one of the most commonly uttered phrases from a new parent (but this conclusion is only anecdotal research). When we feel this way, we can start to get foggy. It’s hard to see the forest through the trees when we’re feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelm can also feel like a bit of psychological paralysis. Everything gets a bit narrow and we can hyperfocus on these key survival tasks (i.e., meet the baby’s needs). Wasn’t it just a second ago that I was an autonomous adult making serious decisions capable of complex thinking? Who am I and what’s happening to me?

Our babies are all consuming. Human babies are the most dependent of all mammalian babies. They take a significant amount, if not all, of our time and attention to survive. No, it won’t be like that forever, I promise. But it’s a lot, especially in those early days and weeks. Not recognizing yourself is a common feeling. It’s beyond feeling like you can’t engage in your normal activities. It’s also feeling like your thoughts are not your own. Can I think of anything other than the baby’s schedule, please? I’m a well-accomplished adult with lots of really great thoughts in this brain and they’re all blocked up with the color and consistency of my child’s last bowel movement.

People even start referring to you as “so-and-so’s mom.” While I know many of us feel such a great sense of joy and pride when we hear the phrase “so-and-so’s mom,” there are also times where it reminds us of our lack of personal identity since becoming a parent. Feeling like you are missing and you are only a baby caretaker is tough. Super tough. Hello, I have a name. I’m a person, too.

Feeling overwhelmed and consumed with caregiving can be exacerbated when we’re also feeling isolated, alone, or even trapped. All of this points to a major soapbox issue for me: we need each other. We’re not meant to raise babies alone. When we have a baby in our modern age, we are far too often isolated from our people. From our community. From our village. That’s loss. So many mamas talk to me about feeling isolated. Ironically, many of them report heading to their local big box store as a means to interact with other people. Others talk about how they keep the television or a radio on all the time to give the illusion of presence of other people in their day-to-day life. After the helpful grandmothers, aunts, and others (if you were lucky enough to have them) leave and your partner returns to work, you’re likely home alone all day long. Isolation is scary and yucky. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you’re an introvert, you can still feel this loss of community. Even though your needs for people may differ from your more extroverted friends, you are still a social being who needs people.

These feelings are hard. They speak to a deep sense of loss, which can feel confusing and consuming, but it’s also normal. I believe it’s very important to allow space for this grief process. Using this framework and labeling this process as one of mourning, we are being more truthful about what’s happening. We’re honoring the experience instead of fighting it. Or worse, applying guilt and shame to it. Some self-talk that embraces the process might sound like, “It’s okay to be sad about…,” or “I really miss…,” or “This is different and that’s hard.” I talk more about this in chapter 15: Feeling Complicated. To summarize, the idea here isn’t to get rid of or stop these hard feelings, but to allow them to co-exist (perhaps even honor and welcome them) alongside other emotions. Suppressing these very real feelings often causes us more trouble and turmoil than allowing ourselves to feel them.

It’s okay to feel sad or upset about the pieces of you that don’t feel like you anymore and to grieve for who you were. In fact, failing to acknowledge this grieving (in its many forms) seems painful, doesn’t it? It’s helpful to note that you can engage in this grief process while simultaneously feeling joy in your new self and your new human. Our world has tried to convince us that to feel one thing means we can’t feel another. That’s bullshit! Mixed and paradoxical feelings are normal.

● Happy and in love with your child? Also, absolutely feeling like a deer in the headlights about your new life? That’s normal.

● Happy that your loved one who had suffered from a chronic illness for years is no longer in pain? Also, missing them and feeling a void? Normal.

Don’t try to talk yourself out of feeling whatever you’re feeling. Instead, make space to honor and validate the multiple realities and complexities that make up our beautiful messy lives. One of the simplest ways to do this is by using the word “and” instead of “but” when chatting with yourself. All too often we shut down our feelings (and worse, guilt and shame ourselves) for feeling down about something.

● This might sound something like this: “I’m really struggling with how little time I feel that I have to just be by myself and relax, BUT I know I have a happy healthy baby and that’s what I wanted, so I should feel happy.”

● Instead try saying, “I’m really mourning the loss of free time I have, and I love my baby.”

Changing how you frame your perspective allows space for both these truths to be equally valid. By allowing that idea space to be mourned, you’re helping yourself grieve. It’s okay to not be thrilled about all the changes and the process of becoming something new all the time. We know that grief is a non-linear process, that there’s no right way to grieve, and that there’s no timeline.

***This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Dear Mama, You Matter: Honest Talk about the Transition to Parenthood***

Perinatal mental health professional. Trying to create a better world by reminding parents how hard their work is and how much they matter.

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