As a parenting educator I am always monitoring and enquiring of parents what’s happening at the coalface of family life.
Time and time again I am hearing, seeing and sensing incredible stress and angst particularly of our mums. This is not to say that our dads don’t also feel stressed and anxious, however the sense of increasing overwhelm seems to be much more prevalent among mother figures.
In looking at research especially around evolutionary biology there are some distinct, ancient biological and social drivers that can help explain why mama stress can become particularly challenging (… just a disclaimer here that while this may be true for a significant number of women, it is not all!)
As we know, in traditional kinship communities gender roles were very specific. The mature men in these communities needed to focus on one major task at a time. For example their number one driver was to protect and defend those more vulnerable than themselves – so mammoth hunting was their top priority particularly if there was a threat.
If there was no threat, their second drive was to kill deer or any other prey to ensure the community’s survival (Today women can also ‘kill deer and provide’, yet many still seem to be doing more of the everyday housework!)
Anyways back to the ancient drivers of men – when neither of the aforementioned tasks needed to be done, the men needed to practice hunting and killing, so that is what they would do in their spare time (In many ways this time for practice has a strong linkage to sport). So a single focus was the norm (this may be why some men struggle to find the milk in the fridge). Given men needed to be able to hunt without getting lost they seem, however, to have maintained excellent spatial awareness and generally can reverse park more successfully than most women … of course, I am being a bit tongue in cheek here but bear with me!
The deep roots of multitasking & worrying
Traditionally women – our ‘carers and gatherers’ – took care of the sick, the elderly and all the young children in the collective world of shared parenting. They were also responsible for finding food other than the protein prey the men provided.
While searching for these delicacies, they also had to keep the children safe from snakes, spiders, crocodiles and any other potentially lethal creatures. They also had to keep an eye out for potentially lethal or poisonous plants. And they needed to assess changes in the environment so they could help the community identify areas that may be more sustainable as seasons changed.
They also had to maintain a sense of awareness around the pairing of young adults to ensure that bloodlines were maintained and to avoid inbreeding.
At the same time as all these things needed to be taken care of, women needed to weave, grind, find water and bring more babies into the world to ensure the survival of the community.
Is it any wonder that in recent months, the internet has exploded with talk of the ‘mental load’ which many women feel, as highlighted by a very astute cartoonist from France?
The roots of multitasking, worrying, planning and constantly assessing what is happening moment by moment to ensure the best outcomes of all those in the immediate vicinity run deep into our past.
Children in traditional communities did not have to attend school, learn to read or write or attend activities that were outside of the community. No cars, buses or trains needed to be accessed to move people around. There were no watches or time-measuring devices other than the movement of the sun. Things happened at a much slower pace and children were free to roam and play to their heart’s content as the whole community was responsible for the safety of all children. So much less stress for everyone!
In some Native American tribes women needed to leave the community when they were menstruating to a place called the Moon Lodge. All the other women took care of the children until they returned. Heck, imagine having a week off every month just to relax and catch up on your sleep!
Despite the fact that our everyday survival is not threatened by large prey, in today’s world there are so many more things for women to worry about. When this gets out of balance, we can tend to overthink and over-worry.
What a worrisome world
The massive amount of information at our fingertips has actually become unhelpful for many mums because many of the recommendations and suggestions of how to solve some of the challenges of parenting are at odds.
Then there are celebrities offering parenting advice who have no education in early childhood development and that just adds to the confusion. Then there are well-meaning family and friends also offering advice and the confusion grows! Of course, some articles can be helpful too – it isn’t all bad!
The influence of social media and the endless flow of filtered images of perfect-looking children, in often-perfect looking homes also adds to the pressure.
Perhaps we need to see more images of the new mum with rings under her eyes, baby vomit on her shirt, eyebrows that need some attention and a muffin top.
Some new mums can be shocked to find they don’t fall amazingly in love with their baby straight away – Nat Barr from “Sunrise” was one such mum.
Another powerful and painful story came from Brenda Janschek, a health and wellness coach.
“Perinatal anxiety and depression does not discriminate – it affects people across all communities regardless of age, income or geography, and the way people are affected is not black and white. And it got me bad.” — Brenda Janschek
Silencing mama’s inner (and outer) critics
Women are wired to strive to do what’s best for their children. I feel this healthy tendency has grown disproportionately with the added pressure and prevalence of social media.
The endless chatter in our mind can really run away from us – and the more stressed we are the more it tells us we aren’t good enough and that we are failing our children. Some mums have told me how they wake up in the middle of the night worrying because their children haven’t eaten broccoli!
Rampant negative thoughts can be so debilitating.
It seems our worst enemy as mums is ourselves. I recommend mums who are struggling with irrational guilt and regret to take some action. Please see someone who may help you make sense of the overwhelming self-criticism.
I did lots of therapy and self-development courses in order to stop me being so hard on myself! I also started doing meditation and I took Tai Chi classes and really found they helped. Yoga is a lifeline for many today and these activities are all wonderful in building more calming pathways in your busy brain!
We’ve seen many women trolled online for sharing a less than perfect mummy moment! Others have told me that it is often safer to say nothing at playgroup or school pick up – because the opinions of others can be cruel and hurtful.
Hiding our emotional pain and discomfort is unhealthy for us as it can create a cycle of worry that impacts our sleep, which can then drain our adrenal system and compromise our immune system. Then we get sick more often and the struggle gets worse.
The fact there is so much opportunity to comment online now means aspects of the sisterhood have become nastier instead of being supportive. This saddens me deeply.
It seems you’re doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s having a C section delivery, breastfeeding, returning to work or co-sleeping – the sisterhood can create more angst and pain than you can ever imagine.
If we can accept that we are all different with different needs, wants and challenges, we may tame our need to judge others.
The digital landscape has increased the capacity for compare and despair among women in a highly sexualised world.
Being constantly bombarded by digitally altered images puts pressure on women to see themselves as ‘less than’ and in a way ‘unacceptable’ unless they look the same.
At this time of year – late spring in Australia – there are so many advertising campaigns about getting your beach body ready!
Heavens above, if you have given birth recently or multiple times and you have very little time to exercise because you have been busy surviving, it is hard not to feel ‘less than’ when these adverts keep smacking you in the face.
In many traditional cultures in the world being thin – which is celebrated enormously in the Western world – was not seen as a sign of beauty or being womanly. Slowly the pendulum is swinging back where we can embrace womanhood in all its wonderful forms.
In those traditional communities it was women who kept the social landscape happening by creating ceremonies, celebrations and gatherings.
We are wired to organise and in the digital world this can be a blessing and a curse. It’s easier to notice when you have been excluded from a social event and that can hurt beyond measure. Many mums tell me they find it hard not to put their phones down, “just in case I miss something” and this again is being driven by this biological drive of building social connectedness.
Yet another stressor that women can struggle with day by day … digital addiction is a very real challenge to many mums today!
The digital landscape in not all bad as many mums find they can reach out to others at times without leaving home. We can shop from our phones – great to do grocery shopping without juggling babies and toddlers! We can set up reminders so our busy brains can remember birthdays, appointments and important events.
As a grandmother I adore being able to see frequent pics and videos of our grandies online – and especially love TinyBeans – only those chosen by the family can access them!
There is also lots of online support for people who are struggling and who may have tipped into depression or anxiety disorders. A new website, mumspace, is just one such place to help women find help and support.
Some suggestions to soothe the mummy stress:
- Know there is no “perfect’ – that good enough – sometimes imperfect mothering can still raise healthy happy kids.
- All mums have days and moments that challenge them – yes some more than others.
- Learn to laugh more and recognise crying is a sign of strength.
- Find your supportive tribe – a sisterhood that has similar values to you – and support them and love them fiercely.
- Never be afraid to seek or ask for help.
- Some days your sense of survival may depend on chocolate and coffee – that’s OK.
- Challenge your thinking when you are attacking yourself – the ego mind chatter is not based on truth. Pause and ask – is this true?
- PAUSE before you send an SMS, tag, post or share any message – ask yourself – Could this message help, hinder, harm or hurt? If it may hurt another – please delete it.
- Take some time to nurture yourself – this is not selfish it is healthy and valuable.
- Avoid the news and have soothing playlists within easy access.
- Some days you will be late. That’s OK.
- Some days you may have a ‘shituation’ and will give up and not make it to playgroup. That’s OK.
- Some days you will stay in your PJs. That’s OK.
- Take up meditation, mindfulness, Tai Chi or yoga.
- Get some fresh air as often as possible.
- Turn your phone alerts off – trust me it will lower your stress.
- Aim for being an 80/20 mum – and some days will be the 20% – not your best effort – and that’s OK.
- Stop trying to get ahead as a mum – your kids are already wearing the next load of washing and your son has probably done a skiddy in his undies.
- Every stage of your child’s life will have gifts and challenges – that’s normal.
- No parenting book has ever been written about your child and every child is a unique one-off miracle.
- If you have a partner – work as a team if possible – negotiate to share the load, especially when sleep deprived.
- Practice random acts of kindness to your partner and kids – especially when you feel crappy.
- Some of your well-cooked dinners won’t be eaten by your kids – enjoy them yourself. It is not a sign you are a less-than mum!
- Some nights a good quality cereal or a toasted ham, cheese and tomato sandwich is acceptable for dinner.
- Smile more often at those you love.
- Remember the power of gratitude.
- Practise and model self-compassion. Tell your kids you need a quiet break – have a bath, do a relaxation or collapse on your bed for a rest – that’s OK.
- Work out a mantra that can shut off the inner critic – eg I have got this! It’s Ok – it’s just a 20% moment! Or burst into song “ What a wonderful world” “ Love is in the air” “I love you just the way you are.” ”It’s a beautiful day”
- Keep breathing deeply.
- Repeat often – “This too will pass”!
Maggie has a wonderful online course, Calming Our Children & Calming Our Homes which may interest you if you enjoyed this article. She also has a Mini Online Moonlight Retreat for Women to help women (especially mums) restore, reflect and release emotions.