Many clients arrive at our first meeting with the same concern: they have lost touch with their professional identity and are only able to view themselves as partners or mothers. Thoughts such as ‘I can’t do those things anymore’, ‘I don’t recognise my old self’, and ‘I’m not the person I used to be’ are regularly voiced. For some women, the loss of identity is compounded by not having felt fully themselves in their professional life. If your previous working identity has felt ‘fake’, then it is even harder to work out how you might wish to express yourself professionally in the future. Other women recognise that their former working identity doesn’t fit with the life they now want to lead and are unclear how to create the new self.
According to findings from Dr Lynne Millward Purvis, women – particularly working women – undergo three ‘identity shifts’ when they become mothers. Before giving birth, we begin to feel increasingly invisible and undervalued as we prepare to go on maternity leave. After giving birth, we are forced to acquire a ‘mother identity’, which causes our goalposts to move. And if we return to work, we find we need to redouble our efforts as we seek to revalidate ourselves, both as employees and as mothers. (Dr Lynne Millward Purvis, The Transition to Motherhood in an Organizational Context). Those of us who take an extended career break miss this opportunity to revalidate ourselves as professionals and as mothers within the familiar context of our former role.
Often the loss of the professional identity is expressed as a loss of confidence. Indeed, recent research of 2000 women by the Association of Accounting Technicians (The Times, April 17, 2013
) has indicated that women on maternity leave lose confidence after eleven months absence from the workplace. So is it really surprising that women who take an extended break will lose their confidence? (See post Where’s my confidence gone?
for ideas on how to regain confidence).
My own experience of identity and confidence loss occurred when I arrived in my office after my honeymoon, to learn that my position had been made redundant. Suddenly, I found myself with no professional identity, an unfamiliar surname and living in a new home that didn’t feel like mine. It took me some months to find myself again and re-create my new, married, professional identity.
The process for regaining or re-crafting your professional identity involves reconnecting with your real interests and your values and articulating your skills and experience (even from long ago). It is ultimately a rewarding experience as the emergence of a new professional identity is inextricably accompanied by a growing self-confidence. Remember that you have already successfully changed identity at other points in your life (eg when you first started work or when took your break) even though that might have felt daunting at the time. You will be able to do it again if you allow yourself time to adjust.
Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners