A New Mother’s Identity Crisis

Julie Zhuo
Nov 4, 2015 · 7 min read

Four months after I had my first baby, I sunk into a real low.

I know what you’re thinking. . After all, there’s a lot of literature on this sort of thing. Plenty of new mothers feel overwhelmed. You have a small creature that wants to party in the cot at 4am. You have hormones that might as well function as a Jekyll-Hyde potion.

I know this because I read countless articles and books about this sort of thing while I was pregnant. I am the compulsive planner who Quoras things like “what does childbirth feel like?” and “why are babies so helpless?” I find comfort in knowing what to expect, even when what to expect isn’t pleasant. Because at least you know that other people have walked the same path before. At least you’re not alone.

This approach served me well through the metallic tang of pregnancy and the imagine-the-worst-stomachache-you-ever-had-times-twenty sensation of labor. I got through it, and I counted my blessings.

And the first few months after the baby came, I was on top of the world. It was like one of those movie scenes where, in a moment of serious threat, the main character suddenly discovers his love interest is actually an undercover secret agent/superhero and watches in disbelief as she takes control of the situation and kicks some serious ass. In this case, the secret agent was my body, and while my bewildered mind struggled to process what was going on, my body knew what to do. It dealt with sleep debt. It mastered diapers and cradle holds. It delivered and nourished a brand new person. Holy shit! If I’m capable of , what I do?

Though I went through my fair share of emotional rollercoastering, by and large I remember those first two months as golden, when I returned to being a beginner. I was home, my husband was home, my parents were home. Four sets of hands and a neverending well of love, day in and day out. If that isn’t the holy grail for a new mother, I don’t know what is.

And my baby! She was a tiny champ in all the ways a newborn could be. Ferocious eater. Winning sleeper. More adorable than a pile of baby pandas cuddling with a pile of baby koalas (objectively, of course).

So by the time I went back to work, I thought I was prepared. What excuse did I have not to be? It’s one thing to be overworked, undersupported, running on three hours of sleep per night and worried about the care your child is going to get in your absence. That is the unfortunate reality for so many working mothers, and in reading about their stories in forum post after forum post, my heart flew out to those women. Of course it would be hard in those circumstances. Of course they would feel depressed and overwhelmed. That made perfect sense.

But to have all the advantages I’ve had, to consider myself a cheerful rational person, to be the mother of a baby who, for heaven’s sake, slept entirely through the night at four months! There is no excuse for anything other than gratitude.

There is no excuse for even an ounce of lowness.

And yet. How can I explain the way I felt, anxiety like a wild river coursing through my veins, rendering me distracted and distraught? I was there in person but disconnected from the daily moments, like the scene in front of me with its idyll and peace was a snow globe I could peer into but not be a part of. Sleep came uneasily at night, and during the day I went from conversation to conversation with the singular goal of trying not to break down. I failed at least three or four times a week. For a two-month span, every single 1:1 with my manager ended in tears.

What was I so anxious about? What was I crying for? Here is a sampling of thoughts that ran ragged loops in my mind during that time:

  • a mother? How could be a mother? I don’t like a mother. That must make me a bad mother.
  • I’ve been away from the office for a while and it seems like people have gotten used to me being gone. If that’s the case, am I really contributing anything now that I’m back? Do other people think I’m contributing anything? How should I interpret what X said to me earlier?
  • If I’m no longer a valuable contributor, why am I still doing what I’m doing? Maybe I should pursue a different career entirely, like make YouTube videos at home.
  • Oh my god, what would I even make YouTube videos about? Every single idea I have is terrible.
  • What if my ideas are all terrible now? Maybe that’s why I’m struggling so much.
  • Why am I even so stressed about work? Do I think work is more important than my baby? My head should be filled with thoughts about my baby. I must be a bad mother.
  • Something’s wrong with my brain. I’m positive I’m thinking slower than I used to. It took me a really long time to process that chart earlier. Oh my god, my brain must be deteriorating. I’m actually becoming stupider.
  • What if I’m just a shell of my former self? What if it never gets better? What am I going to do with the rest of my life?
  • Why is every thought I have so self-centered? They’re all about me, me, me. Why can’t I think about anything else? I’m definitely a bad mother.

It reads like a bad parody, but these were thoughts that swirled through my head with the strength of category 5 winds. I couldn’t understand them, couldn’t rationalize my way out of them. I was frightened of them. When I tried to put words to the feelings, all I could think to say was that something about my identity had cracked and shattered, and I no longer knew who I was anymore.

. What a self-absorbed, ridiculous notion. What a silly thing to be worked up over. And yet. It was nothing I could control.

I was a torrent of raw emotions crashing at the slightest trigger: a kind word or deed, a question about my future plans, a personal admittance that I was now a mother. On my ninth anniversary at work, an a capella group surprised me with a congratulatory song, and I emptied an entire tissue box. At a leadership retreat, envisioning the next three years brought a lump to my throat. And talking about myself was so hard I often felt like a frustrated toddler for whom the right words have not yet come.

Someone jigsaw puzzling herself back together cannot see the future. Everything comes into question. There is only muddled grey confusion and a vicious lack of confidence. There is only a tunnel with no promise of an end.

The worst of it lasted two months.

Then, slowly, slowly, the curtains started to lift.

How? Why?

Who really understands the inner workings of our mysterious minds? Perhaps my hormones finally found the right concoction. Perhaps my smiling six-month-old recognizing who I was lifted me out of my anxiety. Perhaps I simply got used to the new normal.

If you ask me, it was the three pieces of advice given to me by three wonderful women:

  • Karen Ericksen, who told me . I realized that six months to adjust to a new being in my life was not very long in the grand scheme of things, and I didn’t need to put so much pressure on myself to get my shit together. In order to celebrate the everyday successes, I started a note called “Little Wins” where I jotted down tiny, everyday victories and read through them to ground myself when I felt the sky blackening.
  • Caryn Marooney, who told me . At her advice, I started doing a 10-minute workout in the mornings. I started reading a chapter of a book every day. I got a subscription to Luminosity and played through the daily puzzle games to try and do something about my “deteriorating brain.” These activities pulled me out of my anxious thoughts and gave me something different to focus on.
  • Stacy McCarthy, who told me Despite the familiar lump in my throat, I closed my eyes and tried to picture what it was I truly cared about. The exercise helped me rediscover and clarify my values— cherishing my time with family, continuing to develop new skills, making a meaningful contribution to the world, and growing in kindness — which became the starting point for many rich and honest discussions with Stacy about how to live those values.

A few weeks ago, my baby turned one while wearing a goofy grin covered with chocolate-banana cake. Her identity is still evolving, but so far she is imperious, she is restless, she is happy. She makes me appreciate the wonders of the world.

These days, I am at ease. The days are golden once again. I know who I am, and I am a mother. But I was also the person I was before that. The future is an open window, curtains fluttering.

I don’t know if the low I felt was something I should have expected, but perhaps in writing this, I may help another mother’s expectations.

Should I find myself in the middle of this tunnel again, at least I now know this: I got through it.

I count my blessings.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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