I felt like that, too. I was head over heels in love with my daughters, but that didn’t protect me. I had been so determined to be the best mother I could be that I dedicated myself to the job beyond reason and became exhausted and depleted in the process. I wondered if perhaps I was a bad mother. But actually, I am surprised nearly all mothers don’t suffer like this. Here’s why it’s not our fault.
- Motherhood is tough
This is the hardest job I have ever had. Heaven and hell at the same time. Frequent interruptions, lack of control over the agenda, constantly switching tasks, too much to do, emotional outbursts, no holidays — all when while I’m sleep-deprived.
- No previous training
What kind of employer would expect you to do everything from day one with no training, especially when someone else’s life and well-being depends on you?
- The village it takes to raise a child looks more like a ghost town
Most of us raise our children almost on our own these days. In traditional societies it really was the whole village that got involved. I also made the mistake of not reaching out for support until I was completely spent.
- We put ourselves last
Self-care? What is that? I didn’t keep sight of my own needs — they slipped out of my awareness. Self-sacrifice was the name of the game. But this is a recipe for becoming overwhelmed. We have to put our oxygen mask on first before we can be of any use to our children. What do you need right now?
- Our brains have a negativity bias
As a psychologist, I knew this, but forgot to apply it to motherhood. Because it was more important for our survival in caveman days to notice the lion that wants to eat us for lunch and let the positive slip by, we are wired to notice the risks.Now that we are safe, our brain still notices possible problems more easily than what is going right, and so we worry and get stuck there. And we miss the good stuff, like our baby’s smiles and how good the sun feels on our backs. We have to choose to turn toward these moments to notice them and let them balance the scales. Mindfulness helped me start doing this again.
- We judge ourselves
I had wildly unrealistic expectations of myself and was hard on myself when I didn’t deliver. Hindsight brought me this awareness, but back when I needed kindness from myself, my inner critic kept telling me to soldier on. Stopping to pause and deliberately cultivate this kind relationship with myself was a skill I learned to practice daily and it has gradually changed my life.
- No off switch
It’s great to care deeply about our children. We must. But for me, caring translated into no off switch and everything else you read here. Turning the love I felt for my children toward myself soothed my weary heart and started to fill it back up again as a much-needed resource for the marathon of motherhood.
- We lose other parts of ourselves
Motherhood is all-consuming. There are parts of who we were before we had children that get lost. I voluntarily stopped work and embraced motherhood wholeheartedly. Partway down the track I felt like I had lost who I was professionally, financially, romantically, as a friend and just me. I felt like I had less value in society’s eyes because I only contributed within my own family. It took time to get back a fuller sense of myself.Making time for things other than motherhood seems unrealistic at some stages, but getting support to be with your partner and friends, do things you love, and be something other than a mom is restorative.
- We’re depleted
Over time, mothers become physically, emotionally and mentally drained of nutrients, strength and vitality. Psychologist Rick Hanson coined the phrase “depleted mother syndrome” and emphasizes how important it is to regain the strength we need to be there for ourselves and to manage our care-giving role.
- We get stuck in the negative spiral
All of this adds up to almost-inevitable exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, and poor health. There is a positive spiral of well-being, but we have to take the first step, for our sake as well as our children. Children need warm, affectionate and engaged parents. How can we possibly sustain that over the marathon of motherhood unless we also look after ourselves?
- We have forgotten how to be still
We have to turn away from the busyness of the world for a while. Our culture glorifies busyness, but we must make a different choice. What is more important — your well-being or your to-do list? For me, this is a daily choice and it takes determination not to slip back into the frenetic “doing” so I can leave room for “being” and “connecting.” There will always be things not finished.
Don’t do it alone. When I relaxed enough to realize how exhausted I was, I reached out for help, crawled back into the driver’s seat of my own well-being, and made more time for mindfulness, kindness and rest. It got easier. The fun came back, a bit at a time. Now the waves don’t knock me over. There may be churning waters on the surface, but underneath is a calm that I can access more easily now.