BY ERIN SHEPARD, LCSW
In most American families, mothers are the primary bearers of the invisible mental load of the family. This invisible load refers to all the planning, organizing, and emotional tracking involved in keeping the family lifestyle operating.
As a mental health therapist and a specialist in perinatal mental health, I have a unique view of the struggle and strength of mothers. I learn from those confronted with the heartache of infertility, pregnancy, and infant loss, chronic mental health dysregulation and difficult partner relationships. I witness women rising to the occasion of motherhood despite their limitations and circumstances. They are the grievers, the givers, the caretakers, and the Uber drivers. They are the comforters, the keepers of time and schedules, the exhausted, and the purposeful. It’s no wonder that many mothers feel the weight of the world as they keep the balance of their families’ needs.
J.D. Salinger, in his short story A Girl I Knew, writes, “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see except standing there, leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”
Being the primary bearer of the invisible mental and emotional load in the family comes at a cost. The price is often women’s mental health. Women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime and three times more likely to suffer from depression.
What presents as feelings of overwhelm, agitation, rage, or the contrasting emotions of being numb, disconnected, or burned out, are the symptoms of emotional debt.
Here are a few ways mothers can build, or rebuild, their mental health reserves:
1-Take time to participate
So often a mother can feel like the exhausted backstage crew, working tirelessly. When it comes to the vacation, performances, dinner, or an afternoon at the pool, mothers so often sit on the sidelines, drained from the planning and organizing it took to get there.
Create a balance between what you plan and organize, and what you participate in. Be aware of how your relationship and your role as a caregiver overlap. This will look different for everyone. A caregiver packs lunch (the task), and a mother gives the hug and kisses as they walk out the door (the relationship). The caregiver gets the phone call from school when they are sick, but that initial response is the relationship. Pay attention to the moments that matter most to you. The key here is to you, not to everyone else. There will be aspects of your relationship that will be unique in fulfilling you. Pay attention to those things, be greedy, and get as much of them possible.
2-Complete the stress cycle
This coping method is often overlooked but is crucial in emotional regulation. In addition to the complexity of juggling the invisible load of life and relationships, there is a constant undertow in motherhood of emotional regulation, regardless of the season, whether it’s parenting young children, teenagers, or adult children. Often it can be described as moments of intense stimulation and stress that change momentarily into moments of letdown, boredom, or underwhelm.
Keeping up with this constantly emotionally changing climate is stressful. If we don’t allow our minds and bodies to release the stress when the moment has passed, we stay in a heightened state of being keyed up, wreaking havoc on our adrenal system and mental health. When we can acknowledge the stress has passed and then engage in calming self-talk, self-care behaviors, and/or mindfulness, we can complete the stress cycle and be ready for the next wave when it comes. Look for transitional moments to practice preventive stress management. Transitional moments are natural breaks in our day and routine. Morning drop-off is a transition to entering the office—as are mealtimes, naptimes, or the afternoon carpool. Our minds and bodies also let us know when we are having a transitional moment, a yawn, or, more commonly, the urge to check our phone; a few moments of unintentionally scrolling or mindlessly scanning the news. In these moments, pause and acknowledge it as transitional. Stretch, take a deep breath, get a drink, apply lotion or chapstick. A transitional moment is a simple task that refreshes you. The simpler the better.
3-Don’t be afraid to meet your own needs.
If you need permission, consider this an official invitation to have regular check-ins with your body and mind to assess your own needs. Thirsty? Cold? Need to use the bathroom? Feel stiff in your shoulders? So much can be taken care of when it’s a small problem vs. letting it go unmet until it’s a huge impairment. If you need to sit down and eat, allow yourself to. If you need a restful day, make room for it. A restful day might not mean a kid-free day at the spa or a full night’s rest, but it could mean choosing sweats and an afternoon movie at home instead of your regular tasks. Most tasks have a longer shelf life than stress and anxiety would have us believe, and can be done later in the day or the week vs. immediately.
By balancing needs, you also balance mental and physical sustainability. This increases your ability to manage and take on the undesirable or complicated tasks that seem to drag on and overwhelm you, especially when done from a place of depletion. Meeting your own needs might mean asking for support or keeping to yourself, depending on the circumstances.
Have a favorite musical playlist saved, have podcasts downloaded and ready, and know what comfy clothes help you feel relaxed. Having a go-to list of ways of nurturing yourself helps when you feel exhausted and aren’t sure what to do. Experiment and layer your methods, you may need to combine several of your comfort go-tos to sustain yourself through whatever is going on.
It’s been said “We lose ourselves a little when we become mothers, but that’s OK. Moms are awesome at finding lost things.” And it’s true; love, focus and sacrifice come at a cost. That cost should not be a complete depletion of everything. Children don’t need a perfect mom, they need a good enough mom that allows for mistakes, learning, growth and realization, and the acceptance that she is human.
Take care of yourself by taking time to participate in the life you work so hard for. Take time to complete the stress cycle and leave room to meet your own needs.
About our Contributor
“As a clinical therapist, being a part of another’s journey of healing and change is something I find a privilege as well as a great responsibility. I typically practice under a cognitive-behavioral umbrella and am complex trauma, and EMDR trained.”
Connect with Erin Shepard on Instagram at yarrowtherapy or visit her website Yarrowtherapy.com