As a New Mom, I Lost My Identity—My Hair Brought Me Back

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As I was preparing for the birth of my first child, I read dozens of books that laid out all the precise ways in which I needed to be financially, emotionally, and physically prepared to bring a life into the world – and then raise it well. But what none of the experts in those books ever mentioned was just how much of my internal sense of self would disappear behind the sometimes suffocating veneer of new motherhood. In becoming a mom, I’d gained a role—but I also felt like I’d lost my identity.

As a new mother, my body parts stretched unbelievable distances in unbelievable directions while, proportionally, my time shrank. The things that I gave so willingly to my new little person were well beyond diapers and milk and late night rocking. As it turned out, linear, boundaried time ceased to exist at all, and was replaced by round-the-clock demands to soothe cries of an empty belly or cranky spirit. My brain-space was consumed with trying to anticipate his next wail, his next need. My heart swelled with pride as a new mother, but just as often it sank with guilt as I mourned the loss of my personal space and freedom.

It’s such a cliche but in my case it was true: I looked haggard. Gone were my cute outfits that hugged my size six figure. Suddenly, I lived in the same few pairs of dark blue sweatpants paired with decade-old, oversized t-shirts to hide my postpartum weight gain. If there was a mouse living in my hair, I wouldn’t have known because it was permanently stuck in a bun on top of my head. What I’d once wear only in the privacy of my living room became what I wore to the grocery store and beyond, and, at some point, I realized that I had stopped caring.

The biggest blow was when my hair began to fall out in a thinning halo around my puffy face. Yes, this is common in new moms thanks to the post-pregnancy drop in hormones. But when it happened to me, I was floored. My once shiny and healthy hair —  which I liked to wear in coiled ropes at the base of my neck — was also falling prey to motherhood. I was being swallowed whole.

Like many women, I have a history with my hair that is intimately bound in emotions and self-expression. After a particularly nasty breakup in college, I cut off a foot of my hair and it was transformative. Something about chopping off my own hair felt primal and powerful, like me taking control over myself, and it helped me start the process of moving on to the next chapter of my life.

So, in a desperate attempt to reclaim at least one part of my body – to set a boundary that said this is mine and I refuse to share it – I made an appointment to get a haircut. As the salon receptionist booked my appointment, I wondered if this would be enough to make me feel alive again.

The old me would have immediately deep dived into Cosmo and Vogue to see what trending colors and lengths would make me fall in love with me again. But in my new-mom fog, I couldn’t bother; I was too tired from another sleepless night of crying along with my baby because neither of us could figure out how to make colic go away. I haphazardly scrolled through Pinterest for “shoulder length hair + brunette” but gave up after five minutes, defeated by my own overwhelm, by my own feeling of frumpiness.

When the day of the appointment rolled around, I threw on my last clean shirt (or, rather, “clean,” as it still had a coffee stain on it) and left my 6-month-old with my husband. A woman named Monica greeted me and invited me to sit in her black leather chair. She wrapped me in a plastic apron, tilted my head back into the sink and started massaging shampoo into my scalp. Something about the warm water and the sweet scent of shampoo stirred something in me. Without meaning to, I started to cry.

I was aware that as she washed, Monica was taking several embarrassingly large clumps of hair with her. I began to explain that I was a new mom and that my hair was falling out, and before I knew it my shoulders were slumped and heaving as I took in deep sobbing breaths. Every aspect of my life was colored by this new experience of being a mom, I told Monica. Nothing was just for me anymore. Not my body, my time. And as much as I loved my child, it was incredibly disorienting to balance the potency of a new life with the feeling of losing myself along the way. I remember telling Monica that I missed sleep and hot food, I missed talking to my husband about things that didn’t involve logistics — like buying more diapers or making another appointment to the pediatrician. Turns out she was a mom, too, and completely understood everything.

So, how did my haircut turn out? It was a lob with long bangs and, with it, I could see a tiny spark of the old me coming through. It was low-maintenance (that was key) and would look cute worn down, but was also long enough to be tied back in a loose knot to keep it out of my baby’s curious hands during nursing. Monica showed me how to part it so that I could hide the worst of the balding areas around my face.

But this haircut was never really about how I looked. OK, maybe a little bit. In resembling myself, l felt a little more like myself. I was again an entity. This inspired me to make other incremental changes. I started trying to put on mascara every morning. I dusted off my yoga mat and started stretching every afternoon. Baby steps toward reclaiming my physical self.

More than that, though, this was about me coming to terms with having to sacrifice so much of myself to parenthood. I realized I couldn’t — and shouldn’t — let the heavy weight of motherhood take over every aspect of my life. In that sense, getting a haircut wasn’t just an errand. Carving out the time to be treated and fussed over was bliss, and I’m reminded to do that when I can. And, feeling as overwhelmed and invisible as I did at that time, tending to my hair — the piece of me that was still all mine — offered a jolt to my self-esteem. It was a reminder of my independence and selfhood.

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Sarah Cottrell is a Maine-based freelance journalist and lifestyle writer. Her work has been featured on VICE Tonic, New York Magazine, Washington Post, and has been included in seven anthologies including the New York Times bestselling series, I Still Just Want to Pee Alone.