If I start by saying, "I was listening to Radio 4 this morning", instantly I will have influenced some of my readers to mentally switch off (perhaps even stop reading?) because they don't identify with listening to BBC Radio 4. There might also be some who think "ooooh, I like Radio 4!", who will then read on enthusiastically. There'll also be a fair few international readers who think, "What's Radio 4?" and feel alienated or intrigued by the Britishness of my statement.
Anyway, the person being interviewed was explaining, "Identities go wrong when people are using them when they are scared, puzzled, confused or threatened". The interviewee explained that in these situations, people will retreat into 'armour-plated' versions of their identities. By comparison, when they're doing well and are happy, they tend to be more relaxed and those identities are more flexible, with 'soft edges'. "Furthermore", said the interviewee, "there are two ways that identities go wrong. [The first] is that one identity takes over your whole life and you forget that you're a multiple-identity person. The other is that groups get together around these identities and try to dominate other groups"
The person speaking was Kwame Appiah. Nope, I'd never heard of them either so let's add some labels/identities.... They're a British-born, Ghanaian-American philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist. There's a good chance that if you liked what Kwame said, you're leaning towards identifying with one of those labels. If you disagreed with their statement, you'll be focusing on the 'other-ness' of their identities in comparison to your own. If you're unfamiliar with 'Kwame' as a first name, you're also possibly frustrated that I've been using a gender-neutral pronoun when discussing...him. Wikipedia also tell me his middle name is Anthony. This fact is irrelevant except that the familiarity of an 'English' name possibly has an impact on your sense of connection with Prof. Appiah.
So how do our 'identities' impact on our experiences as parents?
1. Becoming a 'Parent'
In the first few weeks and months after a baby is born, your brain rewires itself to become optimise for the role of being a parent. (The more time spent caring for the baby, the faster the rewiring takes place). It's a massive restructuring involving several brain 'systems', including your sense of identity. That's why the label "mother", "father" or "parent" feels pretty foreign when you are still pregnant or have a newborn. Similarly, 'baby-brain', endless discussions about poo, and struggling with punctuality are not what many professionals identify with before parenthood, but we soon adapt though choice or necessity. In essence we become more comfortable with our new identities and the behaviours that go with them.
2. Loosing Yourself
Kwame Appiah's statement that 'one identity can take over' is another way that identities can affect us. Many of us mums 'loose ourselves' in the first few months/years of our child(ren)'s lives, at the expense of our other identities, including our professional identities, friendships, hobbies, and not least, our identity as someone's partner. It doesn't last for ever though, and with time or motivation, the other identities start to muscle back into our lives.
3. Your Parenting Style as your Identity
Gina Ford? Attachment? Gentle? Tiger?
What style of parenting do you identify with?
What behaviours do you associate with that particular style?
For example, think about where you stand on breast vs bottle feeding, naps, the naughty step, reward charts, screen-time, giving your child chocolate biscuits or even the use of baby carriers. There is a good change you have opinions on some of these parenting behaviours, and I'll warrant that the reality of parenthood has forced you to become more flexible about sticking to your principles.
When you find your behaviour deviating away from the kind that you connect or identify with, you automatically activate the fear areas of your brain. You go on high-alert trying to work out the causes of the behaviour and how you can overcome it. For example, if you are a 'routines' kind of person and your baby starts waking erratically at night, you are going to worry. Conversely, if you are an 'attachment' parent and your baby stops waking for boob overnight, you are going to worry too! Invariably it is the fact that you don't connect with your child's behaviour that causes you as much stress as the change to your sleep/wake cycle does. If you respond by widening your sense of identity, the problematic behaviour often becomes less problematic and you will be in a better frame of mind to solve or cope with the issue.
4. When Others Challenge your Identity
And finally, the big one - the Mummy Wars! Or any child-rearing disagreement you happen to have with someone else (family members, friends with or without kids, strangers in the supermarket!). When we are feeling happy and relaxed, we are comfortable that other people have parenting practises and preferences different to our own. But when under pressure, we need to surround ourselves with like-minded people to avoid switching into Fight/Flight/Freeze mode.
A parent on my Facebook group posted about her annoyance that a family member was ignoring her baby. The family member had openly said he didn't like babies and children because he had no experience with them. However he said he planned to interact with the boy once he became an adult. In other words, because he was uncomfortable with his lack of experience and capabilities in interacting with a baby, the man had retreated into his identity of being "not a kid person". As a result, the baby's mum was suffered an affront to her own identity as someone who believes that babies are individuals and that to ignore someone in the room, even if they are only a few months old, is extremely rude.
In Defence of Identities
Identities and labelling are not all bad. Being able to form instant connections with others because we share something in common is a wonderful and positive effect of identities. Feeling part of a group (such as a forum or Facebook group) who share your identities can help you feel happy and relaxed. That means that you could then be better able to be flexible about the 'otherness' of those who do things differently from you! (Although this only works if the groups collectively doesn't feel threatened.) Most importantly though, when you tune into the notion of identities, you start to see them and their effects everywhere. And while you might not be able to control the behavioural consequences of these labels, understanding the role that our sense of identity plays in our and other's behaviour will increase your sense of control without having to try to control others.
Identities are Not Fixed
Don't like the labels you give yourself or your child(ren)? Not a problem. Remember that we all have multiple identities so chose to focus your attention on the labels you are proud of. You might also choose to reframe the others into something more positive. Here's a great example. If you are struggling to do that, give me a shout. Helping parents understand their and their kid's behaviour is what I do