When I was in college, I had a lot of friends who told me that what they really wanted to do in life was be a mom. Yes, they were getting degrees and they wanted to work, but really, their highest hope was to become a mother.
I nodded and affirmed them. I hoped that one day I would become a mom, too—but I never really knew how to respond to their longing for children. I’d never felt that; what I did feel was a desire to pursue other things—dreams of writing and teaching and speaking—and I wasn’t sure when having kids might fit into my life.
Perhaps that is part of the reason why, at first, becoming a mom was so difficult for me. I had gone on to teach and write and speak . . . and then I became a mom. Once she arrived, I loved my daughter fiercely and relentlessly. But I also felt that I had somehow misplaced my identity—my very self—in the process of becoming a mom, and, like a missing wallet, I felt waves of panic when I couldn’t find it, no matter how hard I looked.
I felt subsumed by motherhood. I couldn’t get my bearings; I couldn’t find my footing. Without the trappings of my former life, my identity was deeply shaken. When I didn’t have time to read and study, or when I didn’t have margin to talk with my husband for uninterrupted hours, I felt misplaced. When I didn’t have the emotional energy to meet with a friend for coffee and discuss our faith and our friendship, it was then that I felt that I was losing myself. Add to that the exhaustion I experienced, the raw responsibility I carried for another’s life, and the unrelenting needs that my daughter had, and I felt like I was drowning.
I remember looking at our living room one day: my daughter’s burp cloths and toys were scattered around the space, and a stack of papers was waiting on the coffee table for me to grade. Who was I? I knew, intellectually, that I could say that I was a mom, and I was a wife, and I was a teacher. But who was I now, really? Nothing felt the same. My life had been rearranged when my daughter was placed in my arms. Where was the Ann I knew before I became a mom?
Losing to Gain
In Matthew 16:25, Jesus tells his followers that in order to truly find your life, you have to lose it. This is a radical, upside-down statement, and it jars me every time I read it. Because what Jesus is saying here tosses my idea of identity very far out of the proverbial window.
What the Bible tells me is this: Losing my life for Christ’s sake is actually a good thing. It’s not something to be feared. And in truth, I hadn’t actually lost myself in my new role as a mom. Did it feel like it? Certainly. I felt confused and disoriented as a mother. But motherhood didn’t actually change my identity; it simply stripped me down to the marrow of my existence by altering the external circumstances of my life.
Was my deepest identity ever found in being a wife? No, but for years I had enjoyed the sense of identity I felt in our marriage, and when our marriage shifted into parenthood, I worried that the change in our relationship was a blow to my identity.
Similarly, was my deepest identity ever found in my job as an English instructor? No. But I liked the feeling of purpose and validity that my job offered me, and when I couldn’t give as much effort and energy to my work and my writing, I felt that part of my identity slip.
And was my deepest identity ever found in the friendships that I enjoyed with other women? No. But when I didn’t have time to connect with them and receive their love and affirmation, I felt that part of my identity falter.
Everything outside of me changed when I became a mom, and it made everything inside of me feel unsettled. But the truth that I came to learn was that the Ann I knew before I became a mom had never gotten lost. In fact, she was right where she always had been—hidden in the identity of God:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, ESV)
Ever since the day I believed in Christ as my Savior and King, my identity—my very life—has been hidden with him in God. That has never changed, no matter what job or role or responsibility I have carried, motherhood included.
A Daily Choice
I would like to say that I’ve “arrived” and that my identity always feels secure in Christ. But I’m not yet fully free of this desire to put my identity in other things. At times, I still find myself trying to cling to external accomplishments or human relationships as an anchor.
When I do that, the inevitability of disappointment is quick to reveal itself. When my husband has to study late, or when being a parent is testing my limits, or when friends don’t have time to hang out, I feel that fear rise up again. Who am I if I don’t always feel emotionally close to my husband? If I’m struggling as a parent? If my friends don’t pursue me relationally?
When I look to others to ground my identity, it will be shattered. Instead, I must make the choice to look to God. I must, as Scripture says, “Set [my mind] on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2, ESV). If I focus my heart on the Word of God and on the love of Christ—on those things that are above—I will be reminded of my true identity: I am Christ’s. I am his, and his alone, and my worth and identity are solely wrapped up in who I am in him. He calls me beloved, chosen, adopted, treasured.
When I look to Christ for my identity, I can love others without placing my worth in how they respond to me. I can do my work with joy and freedom, knowing that my value is not found in the outcome of my projects. And I can let go of the fear that I will be subsumed in my role as a mother, because all of me has already been wonderfully and completely subsumed in Christ—the safest and best place we can ever hope to be.