Letting Go of Who You Used to Be

First trip back to Nike Campus after becoming a mom; Ryker, 3 months

(Disclaimer: This was written pre-pandemic as I chronicled my second pregnancy.)

When I was pregnant with my first, I was hellbent on "getting back to myself” as soon as possible. I estimated that my entire maternity leave would be a whopping two months. I planned to take the last two weeks of pregnancy and then six weeks after the baby was born. I told my students that I would probably be back teaching about a month after giving birth. I genuinely believed that this would be true.

I was a full-time yoga teacher traveling internationally for various teaching jobs. When I became pregnant, I had been signed with Nike as their Global Yoga Ambassador for five years. I had a residency out of a yoga studio in Singapore where I led my 200-hour Teacher Trainings every few months. I actually led two of those three-week trainings during my pregnancy. 12-hour days, 6 days a week in a hot yoga studio.

I was fiercely, insistently, blindly (idiotically?) determined to let this baby’s arrival change absolutely nothing.

I was so confident that I would quickly be back to myself that I scheduled one of my Teacher Trainings for when my baby would be 3.5 months old. I had no logistical plans as far as who would actually take care of the baby while I was working, nor did I have any idea what state my body and mind would be in so soon after giving birth.

Of course I intellectually understood that nothing would be the same once we had a baby. We would be three instead of two, we would be responsible for another life, we were bound to have more clutter. What I did not understand at all and would not have been able to hear even if someone was shouting it directly into my eardrums was that I, my very being and everything about me, would be forever changed.

I mean, how could it not? My body was growing an actual person. Somehow the magnitude of this never got through to me while I was going through it. Billions of women have grown babies, I thought. Sure, I was about to become a Mother, a role I had never had before. But I had had pets, and nurtured them; how different could it be?

My naiveté and denial were next level.

It was almost as if I looked at pregnancy and having a child to be a finite moment in time. It was something I would do, and then it would be done, and then I could go back to "being myself." And while I wasn’t wrong in looking at pregnancy itself as finite - of course it is - I underestimated its lasting effects. All of which were coinciding with normal changes we all experience as we get older. I had a mental block to all the change that was happening.

I could only understood conceptually that I was going to become a mother. I thought of it as something like obtaining a new degree. It was something that would be listed among my other identifying characteristics. I had gotten married a few years earlier and taken on the new identifier of Wife; I didn’t feel much different after that. I figured that becoming a Mother would be more or less the same.

When Ryker was a few weeks old, I called one of my best friends in tears. She had had her first child the previous year. I asked her, almost in anger but more out of desperate, stunned exhaustion, “Why didn’t you tell me that it was this hard?”

I’ll never forget her voice as she responded, “I DID! I DID tell you. But it just doesn’t make any sense until you’re in it.”

I understand now how it had been so easy for me to write off Stay At Home Moms or moms who decided not to go back to their careers. How ignorantly I had vowed that I would never lose myself in that way. When I was on the other side of motherhood, I had no concept of the endless and conflicting variables that you’re trying to balance as you try to make the best choices for yourself and your expanding family. I did not understand and therefore did not ascribe any value to the deeply significant work that is done at home with children. All I could think of was not losing myself to motherhood. I would not change. I would hurriedly get back to myself.

Nike Launch, Paris, 2014 (yes, that's an actual Blackberry)

Ryker was three months old when I resumed traveling for Nike. One of my first jobs was in Paris. It felt exciting and glamorous. I made sure to brag about it on Instagram. Look at me: I was a new mom who had it all. I played into that persona. I was really good at putting forward whatever image I wanted to portray, unaware of the negative impact it was having on my mental health. I did feel horrible in my postpartum body, but this was more my own internal issue. Most people were kind and complimentary, saying things like, “You JUST had a baby??”

Over the next year and a half I would travel from our home in London to Mexico City, Shanghai, Seoul, and Portland. I had a Nike photo shoot and app shoot in Los Angeles. We celebrated Ryker’s 1st birthday in Moscow.

Through it all, I was fighting to go back to how - and who - I was before I got pregnant. Fighting to get back to feeling like myself.

What I learned over time is that the only thing I was fighting was reality. I was refusing to accept the reality that everything had changed. That I had fundamentally changed.

It was terrifying to accept this. I knew who I had been. I had been that person for 34 years. I had achieved a career I was truly proud of, one that I could never have imagined when I was a little yogi seedling in Santa Monica, too afraid to even make eye contact with my favorite teacher.

Part of my success was rooted in what I looked like. I don't think that the biggest sportswear company in the world hires you for their media campaigns if they don’t think you meet at least basic standards of attractiveness. My students probably weren’t not motivated by what my body looked like. Of course I am not saying that all you need is to be attractive to be a yoga teacher. What I am saying is that for me, what I looked like was tied in with my work, my self-esteem, and my very identity.

So for my body to have been so transformed through pregnancy felt impossible to accept. My inner critic constantly nagged me about losing those last 10 pounds of baby weight. Over the years, I’ve gained more weight and then lost some and then gained more again - which is perfectly normal. But I have never been satisfied with my body since becoming a mother. For several years, I equated this rejection of my body with having lost myself to motherhood. I was deeply resentful. I am sure this mindset contributed to my long-lasting postpartum depression.

What I know now is that there is no going back to yourself. Yourself is existing in the now. It might take some time - maybe a lot of time - to get to know yourself as you are now, but the you of pre-motherhood is in the past. There is no going back.

For some of us, this may be a difficult, painful process. Many mothers feel there is a mourning of their old selves that happens alongside the joy of their new selves and their new baby.

It’s easy to talk about the more lighthearted changes we find ourselves navigating: no time for showering, forgetting all kinds of things (“mom brain”), always being late, having to pack so. much. stuff. anytime we leave the house. It’s important to be able to commiserate with a fellow mama about the impossible logistics of life with a newborn.

It’s not as easy to talk about the deeply conflicting feelings that come with entering motherhood. What it really means to our identity to now be a mother. What we have lost in our very selves that we didn’t quite know that we would lose and therefore didn’t really get to say goodbye to. The kind of stuff that feels too terrible to say out loud because, does it mean we don’t appreciate our children? But no, of course it doesn't. All the conflicting feelings can and do exist simultaneously. It’s the locking down of certain feelings, the ones that we fear we’ll be judged for, that makes it all the more painful and confusing.

It has taken the better part of the last five and a half years as a mother for me to accept that there is no going back, to get to know who I am presently, and to start liking myself as I am. I had to go through a dismantling of old beliefs, I had to step away from trying to project a certain life and persona, I had to process traumas, and I had to retrain my inner voice. None of it has been a linear or logical process and I had to fit it in when I could amidst my more immediate responsibility of caring for my son and our family. But with time, consistent intention, persistent effort, and a ton of grace, I have realized that I want to know the me that I am, that I want to to be the me that I am.

There is incredible freedom, relief, and ease in this work of self-acceptance.

Getting back to my old self was always going to be impossible. As a mother now, my day-to-day and the things I think about are simply different from how they were before. But actually, I feel more authentically me than I ever have. I am still, and always, a work in progress but I know myself better. I have more intrinsic self-value. And honestly? It's kind of hard not to when you know you are the literal embodiment of love, comfort, and safety to your children.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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