Maintaining Identity in Motherhood

Maintaining Identity in Motherhood

By Laura King

I was anxious from the moment I saw the “yes” on the pregnancy test. Actually, even prior. Having gone through a miscarriage where I experienced the elation of being pregnant, seeing the heartbeat on the ultrasound and then the subsequent devastating news that it would not be viable, I was cautious to manage my emotions and expectations. What I realize now looking back is that this was only the beginning of the emotional journey involved in bringing a life into this world.

Laura Ultrasound

20 week ultrasound of Hazel King.

From that positive pregnancy test forward, all things are new. Hormones are shifting and fluctuating faster than you can keep up with and pregnancy now has a tendency to consume most of your daily thoughts. Is this going to be a viable pregnancy? Am I getting the proper nutrition? Am I gaining too much or too little weight too soon? And then through the months the questions progress — how will the labor process be? Will it be as bad as some of the stories I’ve heard? Do I have to wait six weeks before resuming activity? The uncertainties grew as I considered one of the most significant fears: how I’d carve out space to maintain my goals and passions.

The questions that rattled around in my brain were often unceasing and the cause of many moments of angst. I found myself voicing my anxieties to my husband so much that he questioned whether I was really excited to be a mother. Of course I was excited, I was thrilled — but my expressions of fear were what needed addressing and when I distilled them down I recognized that many of them revolved around concern about loss of identity. I was terrified of losing myself in the process and needed to know that my fears were heard, affirmed and encouraged that together as a couple we would make strides to prevent that from happening.

Dr. James Clapp in Exercising Through Your Pregnancy advised, “This is an intense time for a woman [postpartum]. First, she never thought that she would feel this way about another human being, and she needs to adjust to that. Second, she’s recovering from birth. Third, everything is new, she wants to do the right thing, everybody gives her different advice, she’s up half the night and the rest of life is a blur. If you ask her what she needs, she’ll tell you — some personal time away from the baby and everyone else, which will allow her to relax and have time to think about things. This personal time is where exercise comes in, and it should be the focus of the exercise program for this time interval. The goals are clear: frequent exercise sessions that provide spaced personal time and relaxation — nothing more, nothing less. A change is necessary only if the woman does not achieve these goals or if a problem develops.”

Reading this excerpt helped me to communicate to my husband where my fears were stemming from and what I knew I would need and was so afraid of losing. I felt a little relief hearing a physician prescribe this protocol. You mean, I shouldn’t feel guilty for desiring time to myself too? Or being worried about the loss of it?

Laura and Ted King

I continued to help lead rides with Ted, this one at the Mill District in Healdsburg, CA, at 31 weeks.

I rode my bike over 4,300 miles during pregnancy until the day prior to giving birth and resumed riding six days postpartum. But when I tell that story, I am not advocating for that to be another’s story. Nor am I trying to boast in my efforts or aim to rush my body to be back too quickly. There were many things my body didn’t let me do and I was lucky to recover more quickly than expected. Rather, my message is around maintaining identity. What are your tools for managing and coping through such a life-changing event? What fills your cup? What are your hopes and dreams? For me, exercise was and is a very important tool. It helped mellow my emotions and anxieties. It provided community when pregnancy and postpartum can be a time of feeling isolated. When so much was out of my control, it was something I could control. Riding lets me dream about future goals and see progress towards them. These are integral spaces in my life that need to be maintained for me to be a good wife, mother and friend.

What does it look like for me to work towards maintaining identity? At the moment it involves having professional pursuits where I feel challenged intellectually and creatively. I organize my day so that I can set aside a window of time to exercise/sweat/move/train (depending on the day) and work toward my athletic goals. While my husband and I both have a list of cycling race events that we participate in together, we have set aside days where my performance can be prioritized. I began pumping milk as soon as possible so that I felt a sense of freedom and independence to be able to leave my daughter. Finally, it also looks like saying “no” at times so I can protect the time that I have worked hard to carve out for myself. I recognize that achieving any of these goals would prove much more difficult without a supportive partner.

Laura and Ted King ride bikes

Midway at our favorite bakery stop during a 50 mile ride at 29 weeks pregnant.

To all mothers to be and new mothers, I want to emphasize that you don’t have to lose yourself through this beautiful, yet challenging and life altering process. In fact, it’s paramount that you prioritize your needs, your hopes, your dreams. As I embarked on this new path, I looked towards mothers I admire who may not be doing it all perfectly, but made efforts to hold on to their identities in motherhood. Here are some of their stories, the worries and anxieties they faced and the tools they conquered them with—each one is different but the theme is similar. Do not lose sight of YOU.

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Riding with local friend and racer, Rachel Cohen, during my pregnancy. Community means so much to me.

Stay at home mom: 18 months, 4, 6 years old. MOPS leader.

I experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness. I no longer had the ability to do whatever I wanted when I wanted, nor did I have many friends who had children as I was a young new parent. I found myself longing to go to the grocery store just to fill up my day. I was bored; I did not feel fulfilled. It was hard to find my worth in being just a mom after years of working hard and filling up every second of my day with marathon training or my job. Thankfully, we bought a fixer upper house around this time and it brought me something to do. I loved my baby very much and never felt negative feelings for her at all, but I will say I yearned to get away to refuel myself. I have found that as a mother, I recharge through alone time. It's hard to be touched and needed all day long, and for me, it was absolutely necessary that I pull myself out of that situation in order to take care of my own mental health--for the sake of my husband and my children. I also found consistency and a schedule to be my saving grace. As a type A personality, I thrive when I know what to expect, and I found that my baby did, too.

Get up, shower, get dressed, take care of yourself. Even if you have to bring the baby in the bathroom with you in a bouncer while you shower, it's important to take care of you. Don't give everything to everyone else and neglect yourself. If you do that, you are actually starving your child of your real potential.

I found running to be my outlet with my first child. Whether that be taking my jogging stroller and baby with me, or waiting for the opportunity to go out alone, it really helped me to get my blood flowing, get outside, and exercise because I wanted to take care of my body. Not only that, but I found it helped my mood. I was less angry, and more patient throughout the day. It took me 3 kids to realize I needed some sort of exercise on a daily basis because it makes me a better human to my kids. I feel like I can do more than I normally would without feeling intense stress. Although I mostly exclusively breastfed and was a stay at home mom, I decided to pump daily and try to store up as much milk as I could so that I could feel completely at ease to leave my child. I never wanted to feel held back from doing something because I did not have the means.

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Riding with local friend, racer and mom, Kim Coleman. Kim was a great example to me of juggling multiple identities as a mother.

Mother of two: 4 & 6 years old, Race Promoter

I tried to deny the existence of anxiety after my son was born but yes it was pretty strong and persistent. Insecurities that were pretty easily managed before having kids became bigger problems in the context of extreme sleep deprivation. After about a year I did some therapy where we broke down some of the rules I'd constructed for myself-- even just learning to ask myself, "what evidence supports this thing you believe to be giving you anxiety". More often than not there was no evidence. I am very good at staying busy so not to be anxious but I learned that sometimes being still at a "typically productive" time of day is an important part of finding balance. When my kids were small, sleep deprivation exacerbated everything. Now that they are older, there are new things that challenge me: so much talking or togetherness or multitasking. As a parent/ child duo/trio you face something, figure out how to move through it, and then a new challenge arises. I am pretty sure this cycle will continue into adulthood.

I think when becoming a mother you gain a huge, new identity that is pretty good at dominating your everything for a while but your other identities didn't go anywhere and you will be able to bring them back. At first it comes in tiny bits, maybe an hour out with a friend or a chapter of a book. Eventually a weekend away or coolly managing to bring your child to a bike race and execute both identities at the same time. My favorite podcast as a new mother was "The Longest Shortest Time", the name speaks true.

One thing new parents often don't talk about is their physical relationship. The doctor will tell you, six weeks and you're good to go! Some couples might think that's fine while others (or one person) isn't there yet. Your body might not feel like your old body or the definition of intimacy may have to change at first, and it's okay to ask for help from a professional. Breastfeeding suppresses ovulation for a long time (up to a year+ for a lot of women) so the biological drive is lacking. This all feels overwhelming and confusing and can be difficult to discuss with your partner let alone a friend or the doctor. It too is an identity that will come back.

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Riding while pregnant with two women who exemplify mom-watts to me (both on the bike and in their professional lives): Lindsay Warner and Kim Coleman.

Mother of two, 4 & 18 months, Scientist & Professor

I was really nervous about maintaining my own identity once I became a mom. I was most of the way through my Ph.D. when I got pregnant, and I had a lot of other academics warn me about how having a child would damage my productivity so early in my career, so those messages got to me. I also was running a lot at the time and I was afraid of losing the time and energy that I spent pushing myself physically. I was lucky that I enrolled in a program geared towards early career female scientists, and I was paired with this amazing professor who had an incredible career, two kids and a husband, and she was also a multiple-time Boston marathoner. She gave me some really great advice: set your goals, and then be satisfied with 90%. I've really tried to cultivate this idea that I don't have to give things up just because I'm a mom and whatever I can do towards my goals is good enough. Go, do that 10%. Do 15% tomorrow. Keep showing up. That approach helps me feel like I'm still a productive scientist, I'm still an athlete, I'm still myself, I just also have this new dimension too - motherhood.

I’ve taken some pretty explicit steps to maintain my own identity in motherhood, and they really involve support and buy-in from my husband. I really need things to feel equitable between the two of us in terms of leisure time, parenting time, training time, and professional aspirations. Regular conversations about how we're both doing in those different areas of our life is an important foundation. We both have the same cycling coach who helps us balance our training time. We also now split the year in terms of competition; dividing it that way has allowed me to carve that space out for me and protect it. Having a job that I'm really excited about helps immensely. I get to go to work every day and be "Dr” and “Professor” and when I see that placard on my office door and I can remind myself, "Right. I am a scientist, too."

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Community is everything.

Mother of twins, 22 years old, Real Estate Professional, Race Promoter

I remember looking at my daughter very early on wondering why or how on earth I thought I could be a mom. It was surreal. I leaned on my mom a lot for some emotional support. Her no BS attitude has always been a strange comfort - like "of course you can do it, that's ridiculous" She's never doubted the ability of her kids.

I think it's important to schedule "me" time and communicate that clearly with your support network. This is time to socialize with friends, exercise, get your hair cut, whatever it may be. I made sure that I didn't get completely "sucked in" to everything baby/kid related. I also did try to include them in my hopes/dreams/passions, trying to lead by example. Hikes/runs/rides included them (twins) regularly, and taking one of them to the office too was important. They needed to be adaptable too.

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Even Vermont winter couldn't stop the ride miles while pregnant!

Mother of two, 10 and 12 years, President of Parents Association

Pregnancy and motherhood were an emotional rollercoaster on many levels. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to create a loving, interesting community for our children. I worried about how I would use my time after the kids leave the house. I wonder if all the experience and time I put into my professional life before having children will be mute and will I need to start from scratch again to feel fulfilled and be taken seriously in a new field. In pregnancy I worried that I wasn't attractive to my husband and the possibility of it staying that way after the baby was born. I was anxious about bonding with my baby, feeding her adequately and training her appropriately.

In order to keep my dreams/hopes & passions alive it meant I had to become a better communicator and break down some of the many walls I had up about asking for help. By allowing myself to ask or accept help meant that I could then express my needs and that was a huge step towards maintaining or achieving my own goals. It was incredibly important to me to have time alone during the day a few times a week to use as I wished. Regular date nights were also important to feel seen by my husband and to spend time together the way we had before the pregnancy or baby. A semblance of our “old life” was a sign to me that my identity was remaining intact.

Friendships and exercise were the glue that held me together and provided me with an outlet during the hardest of times. Friends reminded me on the regular that I was not alone, they too had challenges. They reminded me that there isn’t just one way to raise a child. My husband never discounted my worries or told me I was unreasonable. Getting out and moving my body was so important for my mental, emotional and physical well being.


Laura King is cycling industry professional, co-director of Rooted Vermont, brand ambassador and bike racer, and now mother. Her passion is to encourage more women to ride bikes. Follow her adventures on Instagram.