Trigger warning: this blog includes mention of suicide.
Who am I?
It’s only when you ask yourself this question you begin to realise what an inherently complex phenomenon identity is.
Your social identity can include things like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion and socioeconomic status. Some of these things may be more significant to you than others. And then there are the personal things that may include your job, your hobbies, your likes and dislikes, your morals, beliefs and values. Finally, there is your family identity; your place in the family you were born into and your inherited characteristics.
Over a lifetime your identity adapts, fluctuates and morphs as you transition through life stages, and different parts of your identity become foregrounded. Looking back at myself as a teenager I remember feeling completely without identity, a nobody. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be, and without the authority and validity of adulthood, I felt invisible. The day this changed was the day I found out I was pregnant at the age of 19. Motherhood for me was my career choice; it was my route to acceptance in society and finally having a valid identity. I was someone. I was someone’s mum.
Motherhood became so important to me that I made it my career for 15 years. Working with couples primarily expecting their first child, I saw the identity struggles that the transition to parenthood brought for many new parents. The thirty-something working women who had been raised in a generation that were told women should expect equality in their careers, salaries, relationships and then found themselves stuck at home with a small baby feeling like a housewife from the 1950s. And the men who truly believed their partners were their equals yet found themselves living with the pressure of being the patriarchal breadwinner supporting their family, but also expected to change the nappies when they got home from work. Without an adequate social system to support new parents, things are not going to get better, and it’s not hard to see why the birth rate is falling as many young people can’t contemplate the practical and financial hurdles of starting a family without the security that the older generations took for granted.
As a related part of my job I worked with women who had lost their babies through miscarriage or stillbirth. This particularly made me reflect on someone’s identity as a mother; that you become a mother from the moment a baby touches your womb. That identity can never be taken from you whether you have your child with you or not.
I thought about this again recently when I met a remarkable woman called Theresa Kirk. Theresa lost her only child, Emma, to suicide while she was studying at the University of Leeds. In one terrible moment, Theresa lost so much but she didn’t lose her identity as a mother. Needing to find a way to honour Emma’s life and to find a new way to parent, Theresa set up a student Breakfast Club as a way of supporting other young people who may be struggling. Every Saturday during term time, The Breakfast Club regularly welcomes over 100 students. Theresa and her husband cook for them and provide a hot, homecooked meal. There are also older volunteers on hand who listen and chat and provide the role of auntie or grandma or whoever the student is missing back home. One student reported that attending The Breakfast Club was like going home for the weekend. Theresa is able to continue her mothering role, and her genuine care for other people’s children is an example to all of us that our role as parent should not be limited to our own offspring. Building strong communities requires us to look beyond our immediate families and to take collective responsibility for the welfare of all young people.
Even though three of my four children have flown the nest, being a mother remains the core of my identity. As Leeds Sanctuary’s Wellbeing Practitioner and as a mother, I’m really looking forward to working with Theresa to provide a range of wellbeing services alongside The Breakfast Club. I can’t begin to imagine what Theresa has gone through losing Emma, but I do know that we will both do everything we can to stop any other parent from finding out.
If you’ve lost someone you cared about to suicide, you can contact Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service for support: Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service – Compassionate Support for people bereaved by suicide (leedssbs.org.uk)