Written by: Emily McRae, Health Psychologist, PGDipHealthPsych, MSc
“God could not be everywhere and therefore he created mothers”
Motherhood, for all its joy, is certainly a tough gig. I often refer to motherhood as a ‘delicate dance’ as we navigate and ‘dance through’ the many, and varied, roles that come with this esteemed ‘title’.
Fulfilling the ‘role’ of mum invariably means that we need to perform many different ‘duties’, and often simultaneously. We are doctors when we need to diagnose and treat our babies, for example, if we suspect they have ‘reflux’ or ‘colic’. We are nurses as we sit up all night settling our children with high fevers. We are sleep experts as we learn to train our children to sleep. We are nutritionists as we try to find the perfect diet for our little people. We are police-officers as we teach our children to ‘obey’ and follow rules. We are psychologists as we teach our children empathy and how to navigate their feelings. We are teachers as we teach our children about the world, and answer countless questions of “why, mum?”. And, of course, at the core of all of this, our role inevitably includes nurturing, loving, and caring for our children to keep them safe, loved and cared for.
And this is just the ‘role’ of being a mother.
When we enter motherhood, our other life roles don’t just “stop” or disappear. For many, we still have the role of ‘wife’ or ‘partner’. We still have the role of ‘daughter’, ‘friend’, ‘sister’ and so on. And, of course, there is our ‘paid work’. Somehow we are meant to fulfil all of the aspects of being a mum, while still keeping up with these other life roles and demands.
The question then becomes, how? How does one manage being a mum, manage personal life roles, get back to paid employment and somehow manage to find some “me” time? For far too many, the conflict and in fact the actual reality of juggling these multiple demands is a real source of angst.
What needs to also be mentioned here are the expectations we often have within these roles. Mediocre is not an option. We must be perfect. And why wouldn’t we have these expectations? When we engage in social media, all those perfect happy parents and their perfect happy children seem to be thriving. The images portrayed are of their ‘angels sleeping’, or their ‘great eaters’ enjoying their home-grown vegetables and there is not a tantrum in sight. Did we also spot a meticulously tidy house? These images also portray a seamless transition between life roles, and that it all comes so easily.
When we are exposed to and consumed by, such images, this creates an internal disconnect between what we see as good parenting and our experienced reality. We look up from our screens, and see chaos; our kids aren’t eating the dinner we spent hours cooking, their 2-hour nap became 20minutes and the house is a pigsty. Our reality is so far from what we are seeing online it isn’t funny. Sadly, this often gets interpreted as a sign that we are inherently ‘failing’ in our roles and does very little to promote good mental wellbeing.
Then there are also the practical implications of our multiple life roles. How do we literally find the time to do everything? Especially if we are striving for ‘perfection’. When does one role end, and the other start? It can often feel like we are racing between one event, drama, issue to another, all without taking a breath. For those parents with multiple children, jobs to manage, and other life events occurring it can feel absolutely overwhelming to begin to consider how we can fit everything in. Unfortunately, the parts that we end up ‘forgetting’ or putting little time and energy into, are ourselves and our relationships.
When I see patients I often get them to explain to me their life stressors (things that are causing them a lot of worry). I draw a ‘stress gauge’ and start adding in the stressors as we go.
Imagine this stress gauge - and it starts at zero. First, they may tell me about the stress associated with their kids (for some, this could take them straight to 100!!), but let’s say it takes them up to ‘20’... then they add in their financial stress - which puts them at 40...then their work stress - taking them to 60, relationship stress - up to 70, managing the home - up to 80, and so on…
What this exercise does is show people how easily their stress ‘baseline’ sits at a high level. Why this is important is that it tells us why we are constantly feeling ‘on edge’ and why so often when we experience daily problems or issues, even really manageable ones, we are more likely to overreact. Ever notice some days you can cope when your baby doesn’t sleep, yet on others, it feels like the worst thing ever? When we are in a high ‘stress state’ we are less likely to find practical solutions to our daily problems and life juggles. We are less likely to see a way out.
But, there is a way out; there are simple ways that we can make the ‘motherhood dance’ manageable, and, importantly, fulfilling and fun.
First, you need to acknowledge what it means to ‘be a mum’. I think too often we undervalue the importance of this role; and exactly what it entails. When we minimise it, we fail to see where we might need help and support. We fail to be kind to ourselves when we find it draining and challenging. If the role is minimised, and we feel drained, we are less likely to show ourselves kindness or compassion and accept that feeling overwhelmed is inevitable (as compared to the acceptance of such emotions if we started a challenging paid job!).
Second, we need to manage our expectations and stop striving for perfection. Whilst it can seem admirable to want to be the perfect mum, I think we need to realise this is unachievable. It is inevitable that we will make ‘mistakes’ along the way; there is no one right way of doing this job. To do this, we need to stop the parental comparisons. Although it is human to compare ourselves to others - at times it can be really unhelpful. Realise that the images you see on social media, are not accurate portrayals of reality. In fact, they are far from it. We all do it, we only show the ‘good bits’ of our lives, so make sure you realise others are doing the same. Consider your social media: do you feel good and uplifted when you go online? If not, consider who you follow. Only follow people who make you feel good. If you find that you feel more of a failure after a quick scroll on Instagram, my advice would be to get rid of it. Behaviours and activities that we engage in should always be health-promoting. In addition, stop inferring that someone else’s success invariably means your failure. If someone is having a parenting “win” - that is great. But it does not mean you are failing.
Third, keep in perspective what failing really looks like. I hear far too often mums saying they are ‘failing’. Failing is a child that goes without the basic needs. A child without love, nurture, and care. If your children are loved, nurtured, and cared for - you are always winning.
Fourth, prioritise what you really need to get done. Each week, consider what needs to be done (as compared to want). Make a list of your priorities, and examine each one. Rate it from 1-10 on a scale of importance. When considering the importance of a task, ask yourself - will this make a difference to our wellbeing? Is this important that this is done to get through the week? In a years’ time, will this task really matter? Only schedule in activities/tasks that are of vital importance. Remember, making time for yourself and your own mental health needs should always score a 10.
Fifth, make a workable and flexible routine once you have established your priorities. With your partner, or caregivers, look at the week and establish a routine that works for everyone. Realising that it is okay and important to ask for help. You are not a machine, you do not need to do it all. You do not need to be a “super-mum”, you do not need to be perfect. Be realistic about your week… and make sure you schedule down time. With a prioritised list, get rid of the “should-dos” and only schedule in the “must-dos”.
Sixth, always remember it is about quality over quantity. Too often as parents we think we need to be present for our babies and children at all times. We don’t. However, when we are engaged with our children it needs to be quality and meaningful engagement. Be mindful in these moments. Children would always prefer to have their parents around less but more meaningfully, then a mum who is technically always there, but always half-so. Remember this when making your weekly routine - you do not need to always be physically present. But when you do schedule in family time, put away your phone and other distractions. Having this meaningful engagement makes you far less likely to experience the dreaded ‘mum-guilt’ when you need to engage in other, non-child related, tasks.
Finally, take time to enjoy the dance. When we have our noses to the ground, striving for perfection and racing from one thing to the other, we forget to have fun. We forget to live. We forget to enjoy. We lose sight of what is important. Once we let go of our expectations, realise we cannot (and shouldn't!) do it all, this becomes a lot easier.
Always remember - “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life” -Buddha
About the Author
Emily is a Health Psychologist (NZ Registered) with a decade of experience in psychology. Emily runs a health and wellness website - thewellhub.co - where she provides online support to enhance psychological wellness. Emily also assesses and supports patients prior to surgery at a private hospital in New Zealand. Emily is a mother to three young children - Archie (5) and twins - Eli & Sienna (3) and lives in Auckland, New Zealand.