Whether we choose to MAKE A MAJOR CHANGE in our lives, like a career break, or have one thrust upon us, like divorce or our children leaving home, it can feel strange to stop identifying ourselves as a wife, mother or career woman, writes LAUREN HADDEN
Spring cleaning can turn up all sorts of interesting things – my recent bout revealed a forgotten, “difficult” pair of heels two inches higher than I usually attempt, four varieties of paprika, all out of date, and no less than three different editions of the same paperback classic (Vanity Fair, which I’ve been meaning to read for two decades). It also turned up a former identity. I’d been tackling boxes of papers and there, tucked away between pay slips and white goods manuals, were some of my old journals.
I was astonished at how much time I must have had to sit around moping and musing over who I was or – as is so crucial when you’re 19 – who I was becoming. In our teens we are lucky enough to have space to try out new versions of ourselves, which we can decide to keep or discard. We have time to ask that great, eternal question – who am I?
But then real life begins and we’re thrown onto the merry-go-round of busyness that’s called Being An Adult. Time to reflect is rare. Asking “who am I?” is a luxury we tell ourselves we can’t afford and also, perhaps, something we begin to shy away from as markers are put down, lines are drawn in the sand and we hunker down into the routine and security of jobs, marriages, motherhood.
The day your first child is born, you gain entry into a special club – you’re now a Mother, capital M; having a career brings you a network forged through endless meetings and events. And marriage makes you part of a very exclusive team of two. But what happens when some part of an identity we’ve carefully built up collapses? Losing membership to any one of these clubs, whether by choice or circumstance, can leave you feeling cast out, bereft, alone.
We are creatures of habit and routine – the shock of coming out of even a bad habit or a draining routine can be severe. For the first time in a long time you might find yourself asking, “If I’m not a wife/mother/career woman, then who am I?”
Author Anne Morrow Lindbergh recognised this problem back in the 1950s when questions about her place in the world led her to write Gift from the Sea. She wrote eloquently about what can happen when one or more of those labels falls away: “No longer fed by a feeling of indispensability or purposefulness, we are hungry, and not knowing what we are hungry for, we fill up the void with endless distractions, always at hand – unnecessary errands, compulsive duties, social niceties. And for the most part, to little purpose. Suddenly the spring is dry; the well is empty.”
At its worst, this can be a time when meaning vanishes. Your sense of purpose gone, it feels like no one needs you – you have been un-wifed, your clients have vanished, your children are surviving without you.
On a fundamental level, any kind of an ending makes us subliminally aware of a larger ending – the biggest one of all, in fact, the one we generally manage to ignore, at least as it relates directly to us. As psychologist Vincent Deary puts it in his recent book How We Are, “From the moment you were born, the end of your world was heading your way: inexorable, relentless, measured and patient … Heading for you here, now blithe and established in your intact and complete and forever world. The small world where you know the score, you know what’s up, what’s happening.”
My divorce hit me very hard. I cannot stand it that I still carry his name… But it’s my professional name that I work under as well as the surname of my son. I am left in the weird limbo of carrying the name of a tribe that I no longer want to belong to.
Losing a label you’ve had pinned like a shiny prefect’s badge to your blazer can be a small death. We all feel most comfortable when we think we know who we are. “My divorce hit me very hard,” says a friend, five years after the event. “I cannot stand it that I still carry his name. I want to rip it off like wallpaper that is nicotine-stained from the last inhabitants. But it’s my professional name that I work under as well as the surname of my son. I am left in the weird limbo of carrying the name of a tribe that I no longer want to belong to. I see now that it is all about belonging – after my marriage ended, I felt set adrift.”
Everyone wants a function, a role to play. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist to recognise that change is inevitable – as philosopher Heraclitus pointed out, change is the only thing in life we can be sure of. “I believe that true identity is found, paradoxically, when one loses oneself,” wrote Lindbergh. “One must lose one’s life to find it.”
Much of the trouble of these early, different days can come, or can appear to come, from other people. We present ourselves to the world in a certain way, and we can be lost for ways to explain our situations afresh to people who still see us as “the wife” or “the mother”. Another friend, who was landed unexpectedly with redundancy from a high-profile position, favoured “I’m considering my options” as a catch-all phrase to keep the questioners at bay. But though she was keeping up her weekly blow dry and greeted old clients she bumped into with the same demeanour, underneath all felt “odd and strange. I guess I had let myself be defined by what I did”. She says it took a long time to let go of her wardrobe of trouser suits, even though she didn’t need them anymore.
This is an opportunity to remake yourself again, and you can’t do that if you’re worrying about what other people are thinking about you.
Business coach Mary Fenwick, who has been through both divorce and widowhood and come out the other side, says “anyone who says divorce does not have a stigma has not been through it. I definitely felt shame, sadness and a strong sense of failure, but getting myself back was worth it.” Getting yourself back – how to do it? This is an opportunity to remake yourself again, and you can’t do that if you’re worrying about what other people are thinking about you. So first, ditch the new labels you or other people are trying to attach to you (“divorcee”, “redundant”, “empty nester”) and start asking that “who am I?” question of yourself in a more gentle and curious way.
What you’re about to do while you ask that question is begin cultivating some resilience, a useful little trait summed up in anarcho-punk outfit Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit Tubthumping: “I get knocked down / But I get up again”. Resilience begins by literally getting up – getting out of the house and going for a walk. Go for a long one, and then go again the next day. This sounds so simple as to be unhelpful but research – and the many examples of walking philosophers and writers – shows we think differently when we walk. In fact, according to psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of The Brain’s Way of Healing (Allen Lane, £20), when we put one foot in front of the other, we are busy forming new connections in our brains. A treadmill at the gym isn’t what you’re looking for here – go outside to take routes you haven’t taken before.
Once you’ve got out there, it’s time to form one new habit. This could be a big step like joining a yoga class for the first time or something tiny, such as changing where you have your lunch. Form new routines that aren’t linked to your lost version of yourself. You’re looking for manageable changes that will make the bigger change an easier transition. The key is to remind yourself that you are not defined by one role. As Fenwick says, “you might also be a daughter, a sister, a friend, a member of a choir, a voter, a cyclist or a volunteer somewhere, and now is a great time to try something new, however small.”
The last practical suggestion comes from EM Forster, who famously said “only connect” (writers often hit the nail on the head when everyone else is looking the other way). When life takes an entirely different direction you need to consciously, deliberately make contact with people. When you leave a job, for example, some of your colleagues will stay in touch but it can be galling to see how quickly the clients you thought needed you so much can just forget about you. As a divorcee, or out of a relationship, you will inevitably lose some of the friends you had as a couple – as one connection is broken, others fall away. And when your children leave home you not only see less of them, but might also lose ties you made through their friends’ parents. So grab any hands that are offered to you – remember that those new habits and routines you’re adopting are an opportunity to meet new people, or reconnect with old friends.
Being alone doesn’t mean spending time solo-shopping, or swiping listlessly at your iPad. It means turning off your phone, embracing solitude, learning to sit with those uncomfortable feelings you’re having. Scary, but vital. Start getting to know yourself again.
We humans are meaning-seekers, so when we are floundering and unmoored, practical steps like these can be an immensely useful way to bring ourselves slowly back to shore. But this is also a time when you can take the opportunity to allow yourself to feel at sea for a while, and while you’re there, to rediscover parts of your identity that might have been submerged or forgotten about under those labels you’d so happily stuck to your forehead. As Lindbergh so wisely put it, that “when the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place. We must re-learn how to be alone.” She wrote that in 1955 and there’s even more noise on offer now. Being alone doesn’t mean spending time solo-shopping, or swiping listlessly at your iPad. It means turning off your phone, embracing solitude, learning to sit with those uncomfortable feelings you’re having. Scary, but vital. Start getting to know yourself again. Begin with ten minutes of quiet contemplation and build from there.
Former charity founder and private secretary to Tony Blair, Kate Gross spoke powerfully about this sense of rediscovery in her book Late Fragments. For her, it happened when advanced colon cancer meant she was forced to give up a busy life. She said that one of her greatest consolations was rediscovering her “hinterland”, the inner world that she had fed with books and play when she was young but had neglected as she went to work at Downing Street, gave birth to twins, got married.
She urges us to find our way back there before it’s too late – to think about what mattered to us when we were ten, in those days before we cared so much about what others thought about us or about our place in the scheme of things. “I have found my voice,” she wrote joyfully before she died, “and with my voice an intellectual and spiritual hinterland which had been lost for too long between the answering of emails and the wiping of
“Anyone who insists that one label defines you is not worth worrying about anyway,” says Fenwick. One of my teenage jottings in my old notebooks comes to mind. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,” I’d scrawled, delighted to have discovered Walt Whitman and poetry that spoke to my confusion. “I am large. I contain multitudes.” We all do. None of us is just a wife, nor defined by our career, nor merely a mother. We contain multitudes. Turns out my confused teenage self – thanks to good old Walt – had it right all along.
Lauren Hadden is deputy editor at Psychologies Magazine
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our March issue, out Saturday March 5.
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