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Experiencing mothering stress and burnout? Psychologist gives advice on steps to take

Idealistic images of motherhood on social media causes mums to feel insecure and isolated, writes Niamh Delmar.

Niamh Delmar Psychologist and mental health educator

FOR SOME MOTHERS, the transition to motherhood is smooth and joyful. These women calmly adapt to their new role, breastfeed with ease, bond deeply and respond to their child’s developmental hurdles in healthy ways. They can choose whether to stay at home or work in paid employment.

Some have a network of support surrounding them with grandparents fighting over whose turn it is to mind their kids, and family and friends swooping in to entertain.

Others have the luxury of childminders, cleaners, days at the spa and still hold onto a body that looks good in lycra. More and more women are taking care of themselves and this is to be applauded, not resented.

However, for many, mothering does not come naturally and the various phases of parenting pose crisis to be haphazardly handled resulting in a stressed and burnt out Mum. Such mothers can’t take stress leave, sick leave or annual leave.

Mothering stress is not even recognised. There is no Labour Court to air grievances if she is being bullied or exploited. There is nobody to replace them, and there is no completion date. Many mothers end up eventually surrendering to their GP or sitting in front of me or other professionals breaking down.

Masks worn at toddler groups 

There are mothers on prescribed medication, self medicating with wine or solpadeine, while others may comfort eat or severely restrict their diet. Anger issues, panic attacks and depressive episodes are among presentations that I see annihilating the image of the fairytale supermum that society, the media and indeed women, have created. What transpires behind closed doors can be at odds with the masks worn at mother and toddler groups or at school drop offs. Mothers are struggling.

Mothers who come to me stressed often describe the pressures of social media, with comparisons resulting in insecurities and feelings of inadequacies.

Postings of idealistic images of motherhood, celebrities in bikinis a few weeks after birth and the emphasis on joyful experiences can deter mums from seeking support for the downside of mothering. Women experiencing postnatal depression, stress or other challenges feel too embarrassed to reach out and admit that they are not coping.

shutterstock_472129582 Source: Fizkes via Shutterstock

Mums report becoming overly dependent on social media when they feel isolated but, as with reading women’s magazines, the distinction between reality and social media needs to be kept in mind. While social media could be a source of support, boundaries and restrictions are needed.

There are mothers who have unrealistic expectations of themselves and their children. Social expectations impact on mothering stress with social media, celebrities, parenting books and courses and other mums feeding these.

‘Mummy martyrs may crash eventually’

There is a more intensive style of parenting now. Play dates, parties and sleepovers are part of most childrens’ lives as their socialising is full on. School work, activities and sports all involve more input and time. Introversion and extraversion also affect stress tolerance levels. More introverted mothers need much more headspace, quiet and time alone which makes parenting challenging.

Many women in therapy with me talk about feeling conflicted in their roles. Some describe not being suited to being a stay at home Mum while others struggle with working in paid employment and parenting. Women can’t always choose what is their best fit and forcing a round peg into a square hole creates distress and unhappiness.

It is important women reflect on what suits them and explore all options. Some women I have worked with negotiated revised working conditions such as a four-day week or working one or two days from home. Others reviewed finances and arranged for paid help or contracted with family and friends to give a dig out for a set period of time.

With burnout, something has got to give, and the priority is that it is not the mother.

shutterstock_523739068 Source: Tatyana Dzemileva via Shutterstock

Women need to pause and assess what is working and what is not. It is hard to assess when you are spinning on the merry-go-round. There are mothers who have the finances to employ help with cleaning or childcare but don’t as they feel they should do this themselves. Mummy martyrs plough ahead doing it all but may crash eventually.

Another factor that leads to burnout is the child. Mums don’t like to admit this as they feel guilty talking negatively about their child. However some children are placid, affectionate and easy-going while others are feisty, demanding and challenging. One hour with the latter is draining and wears the battery down. A child with learning , behavioural or physical disabilities require more time, attention and resources. Such Mums also need to use support and respite from family, friends and related organisations and charities.

Advice 

If you are experiencing mothering stress and burnout, there are a few steps you can take. For a start, admit it to yourself and those close to you. You are one of many who are struggling and you are only human. Lower your standards and have realistic expectations of yourself and your children.

Take some time out to assess your schedule, routine and lifestyle. Reflect on what your ideal arrangement would be and explore all options to achieve it. Take a look at your relationship and the division of child related and household tasks. Write or type it up and reassign tasks and self-care hours.

Research time and time again produces positive outcomes with movement. Walking, running, swimming and yoga and other forms of exercise benefit mental and physical well-being and boost dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with motivation, focus and enjoying things.

shutterstock_524519419 Source: Jacob Lund via Shutterstock

Expression also helps ease accumulative effects of stress. Talk to a friend on the phone, chat to your partner, schedule some healthy interactions. Open up to empathetic people. Mothers do not need the “get on with it “ or “in my day “ approach.

Talk to your GP and explain that you are not coping and need help. If possible, meet with an accredited and qualified clinical or counselling psychologist or counsellor. Give yourself permission to take time out.

Adequate sleep and a healthy diet are the obvious, well repeated pieces of advice that we hear so often. Sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture so taking turns with a partner if possible, getting someone over to let you nap or bed earlier is vital.

Finally, practise mothering. If it hasn’t come easy for you, you are not alone. Accept the way you are and focus on your positive traits as a Mum. Focus on what areas you do well at. There is no destination so just aim to be good enough. Keep trying and aim to be better next time. Be open with your kids, discuss any mess ups and talk about what you all need. Create lovely memories. Be gentle with yourself.

Niamh Delmar is a counselling psychologist and a mental health educator. She provides cognitive behavioural therapy and specialises in women’s issues and anxiety. She is registered with the psychological society of Ireland and holds a master’s degree in counselling psychology from Trinity College Dublin.

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About the author:

Niamh Delmar  / Psychologist and mental health educator

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