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People have different social identities. Each identity is related to a characteristic of the person. Depending on the context, one identity dominates the other and guides our behaviour. We explore ‘parent’ as a new identity and how it effects our lives and well-being.
When I became a new mother I was in-between two worlds: I was finishing my master studies, graduating with honours, while working part-time in a customer service agency creating German speaking virtual bots. My classmates exchanged their student identity with their professional identity, morphing from student to professional. My transition was interrupted. I first became a mum. It took me ages to think with confidence ‘I’m a working mother’ as I brought my sick kid to work those days I had to attend a meeting.
A long time ago, 1979 to be exact, Henri Tajfel and John Turner published a paper on social identity. Their idea was that people know that they belong to a social group and attach certain emotions and value to this membership. Belonging to a social group satisfies the human need to belong and have an “in-group”, a group of people that you are part of. A collection of individuals you can refer to as “we”. Our social identities also satisfy our need for being different to others, our need to be unique. If there is an in-group, there is also an out-group. This group is “they” those that are different. (Part of these psychological processes were at play in the Stanford Prison Experiment: The environment activated certain behaviours and norms that are normal for specific social roles.)
You experience the same processes when you begin your workday: You activate your professional identity. This also means that you have multiple social identities. As a woman I know that one of my social identities is ‘woman’. I can feel positive or negative about being a woman and I can consider this identity to be important or not for me. But people don’t just have one identity, they have several ones. Every identity is derived from something they are, one of their characteristics or traits. For example, I’m a working mother with a PhD in computational social science, who grew up as an expat in Belgium and likes camping (to name only a few characteristics of me). This means I have at least the following identities:
Different social identities and how they co-exist.
You might notice some of these identities overlap. You can’t be a parent without being a father or a mother. Other social identities are independent. You don’t need to be an academic to be an expat or go camping. These identities are important because they define who we are. They are part of our self-concept. It’s like each identity is a specific version of you, like a piece of clothing that’s different for every identity you possess – mother, academic, camper etc.
These identities all exist at the same time in your head, but not all are activated at the same time. When an identity is activated, it’s like it is turned on and you behave according to the norms and values of people with that identity. So if your ‘mother’ social identity is activated, you behave according to the norms of a mother. When your ‘camper’ social identity is activated, you behave according to a camper. Of course, several identities cannot be activated at the same time (it’s actually a bit more complicated than that). Depending on the context, one identity is dominant (Terry & Hogg, 1996). If I’m at work, my professional identity is the dominant one, but that switches when I get a call from school. The context helps shape who we are and how we behave.
List the different identities you have had in your life.
What identities did you lose over time?
Which of your current identities you feel most positive about and which do you feel negative?
The main function of social identities is to satisfy human need to be different and belong at the same time. We want to belong and therefore want to be part of a social group. But we also want to be unique and hence differentiate ourselves from others, those with a different social identity. This creates the us vs them dynamic. We help those who are part of our social identity, trust them more, treat them better compared to those from other social identities. We see this with the mushrooming of online parenting communities like Single moms, Moms who work, City dads, Stay at home dads, Gay dads.. and the list goes on.
What happens to us when we lose a social identity
or gain a new one?
When we move from say being single to being a couple or becoming a parent, we are in a way abandoning an identity and taking on a new one. This means that the ones who we identified with before, those who were a part of our social circle, are suddenly, not part of our social circle or perhaps not the forefront. These people become ‘the others’.
Sometimes we go through the changes in social identity together, as a group e.g. new parents. This could be less daunting if the group is supportive and empathetic towards each other. But when someone goes through a life event that changes their identity and they go through it alone, their mental health can suffer.
Gaining a new identity can have a bitter taste
1. The life event forces you to abandon abruptly or over time your old social circles and with them your old social identities. Like with new parents who suddenly have neither the time or energy to go out for a drink. You are involuntary cutting yourself out from the lives of others.
2. The life event forces you to take on a new social identity you are not happy with e.g. parents who work group or a play date group. You know that you are part of this group, but do not feel comfortable with it. As a consequence, you don’t spend time and energy being part of this group, you feel negative about being identified with them, and you don’t seek their support. In short, you don’t spend time building relationships with others because you don’t want to be associated with them. You isolate yourself.
Feeling connected is positively related to mental health. If you feel connected, you have better mental health. This means that feeling disconnected has a negative impact on your mental health. Specifically, new mothers who abandon their old social identities, without taking on new ones, develop depressive symptoms after the birth of their baby. Those mothers who embrace motherhood experienced an increase in their mental health.
1. Decide which social groups are important for you, which ones you can lose.
Before you become a new parent, think about your social and professional life and the groups you belong to: Which ones do you want to stay a member in and what does it need from you to remain a member? Do you have to go out every week? Or do you have to send a message to a friend once in a while?
2. Design your new social identity as a parent
Before you become a new parent think about what areas of parenthood you are looking forward to. Build up a social identity related to being a parent that you feel comfortable with.
Haslam, C., Steffens, N. K., Branscombe, N. R., Haslam, S. A., Cruwys, T., Lam, B. C. P., Pachana, N. A., & Yang, J. (2019). The Importance of Social Groups for Retirement Adjustment: Evidence, Application, and Policy Implications of the Social Identity Model of Identity Change. Social Issues and Policy Review, 13(1), 93–124. https://doi.org/10.1111/sipr.12049
Seymour-Smith, M., Cruwys, T., Haslam, S. A., & Brodribb, W. (2017). Loss of group memberships predicts depression in postpartum mothers. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52(2), 201–210. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-016-1315-3
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 33–47). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(05)37005-5
Terry, D. J., & Hogg, M. A. (1996). Group Norms and the Attitude-Behavior Relationship: A Role for Group Identification. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(8), 776–793. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167296228002
Ysseldyk, R., McQuaid, R. J., McInnis, O. A., Anisman, H., & Matheson, K. (2018). The ties that bind: Ingroup ties are linked with diminished inflammatory immune responses and fewer mental health symptoms through less rumination. PLOS ONE, 13(4), e0195237. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195237
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