As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my identities is being a mother to a rambunctious and precocious (almost) 2 year-old. Before I became a mother, I reveled in and focused on my other identities, including my career as a counselor. I challenged myself to excel and “be the best” in whatever I chose to do. Stress charged me, and I felt I did even better with the more I took on. In some ways, I felt limitless. I have dedicated most of my life to helping others, balancing the need to be challenged and “successful,” but at the same time wanting to fulfill an intrinsic need to be a change agent or an advocate for those who were in need.
When my husband and I decided to get married, I added yet another identity. Fortunately, I found a partner who equaled my passion to help the community and competition to be at the top of our game, both professionally and physically. Although “I” had become “we,” in some cases, we both respected and encouraged each other to maintain our own sense of independence. We chose to need each other.
However, when my son entered my world, there was a drastic shift. I took the idea of being a mother very seriously prior to considering the role. Of course, I did not really fully understand it until I was caught in the middle of the beautiful and amazing chaos of parenthood. To say that it “rocked my world” would be an understatement. As I write this now, I am still trying to make sense of it all, and I suspect that I will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
People would say that I was “selfless” to work with community agencies or not-for-profit organizations. But, I really wasn’t. I received some personal gain from helping others. It was intrinsic, and to put it simply, it made me feel good. I do not think I became truly “selfless” until I became a mother. The idea of “I” took a backseat quickly. All those years of putting “me” or “we” first became distant memories, but at the same time, “I” was still very familiar. I lived in a state of confusion for months after my son was born because of this internal conflict. This confusion has turned into fluctuating feelings of guilt, failure, success, bliss, contentedness, anxiety, exhaustion, empowerment, appreciation, pride, joy, frustration, respect and love.
As I attempt to juggle all my responsibilities and identities, I wonder how well I am doing with any of them. I know it is impossible to “be the best” at any one identity, but I cannot help but feel this compulsion to fulfill this goal. I participate in group supervision, and through this forum, I have become acutely aware of the differences between me and other counselors, especially if they are not a parent. Most of my colleagues in my doctorate program and in my supervision group are not parents. I often come out of the group sessions thinking I should do more professionally. Sometimes, I feel alone. I feel like people don’t understand me, what I am going through and what I am trying to achieve. As open and supportive as the field of counseling is supposed to be, as a counselor, I feel pressure. I feel like I am judged because I am not giving my all to the field of counseling. Because of this, in some ways, I am penalized. As most of us know, it is not uncommon in any work environment for our professional identity to change once people know we are parents or we have family obligations outside of work. Our dedication, passion and work ethic are put into question because we have a “life” outside of our job. This doesn’t seem fair, but at the same time, it is understandable. Because I am a mother, I do not want to work more than I have to because I want to spend time with my family. However, I still need and want to have a career.
As I listen to my peers talk about their publications, research, professional involvement, trainings, consultation opportunities and in general, impressive accomplishments, I can’t help but compare myself to them. Thoughts like, “I’m a slacker,” “I’m behind,” “I need to do more,” “I am not successful enough” and “I am letting them down,” flow through my head. But once I leave that space, and I think about my family and I see my son’s face, these thoughts fade away. And once again, I have a sense of clarity. I make the choice to spend quality time with my son, to be there for him, my husband, friends and other family…to be present. I am still a public servant and a competitor, but out of all my identities, my family takes priority now. At least I have one thing I can say with confidence I am doing right.
Grace Hipona is a counselor in the state of Virginia. She currently serves as a Mental Health Therapist for a clinic, a counselor for a private practice and is a doctoral candidate. She operates from a strength-based perspective.