The Third Shift

Part 2: How we can help Mothers Psychologically, Socially and Politically

Posted Nov 09, 2020

In the first of three posts, I described the term “Third Shift” as it applies to mothers during the pandemic. Over 72 percent of mothers are employed today, full-time or part-time. During the pandemic, women have lost their jobs or been furloughed more often than men. For mothers who are still working, they add a second shift of housework and caring for children and elderly relatives and then supervise their children’s education along with rescheduling the whole family’s schedule—education, work, doctor’s appointments, and childcare—due to changes in the community infection rate, at a moment’s notice. A study by McKinsey found that at least 25 percent of mothers are considering quitting their jobs due to the enormous pressures of the pandemic. In this post, I describe how mothers can find some relief.

Maternal self-care is often an afterthought in articles about families, children, and mental health needs. Yet we know from years of research that the mental health of children is directly related to that of their parents, especially mothers, who are usually the primary caregiver. As the pandemic continues, we have seen an explosion of psychological problems in both mothers and their children. Helping mothers should be a primary concern if we want to improve mental health for the family.

Healing Through Self-Compassion

Most of the mothers I see in treatment start too many sentences with, I feel so guilty because. Then fill in the blank. This is exacerbated for those mothers working from home because the usual work-home boundaries have been blurred. Most of us carry around an endless list of motherhood “shoulds,” usually about parenting but also about high standards of a clean home, good nutrition, and so on. These “shoulds” will doom us to feelings of failure if not challenged. Previously I have written: "There will be no blame here."

To reduce the enormous amount of guilt and self-blame, we must start with self-compassion; we need to extend the same sense of kindness that we have for our friends and family to ourselves. This is especially true now when the demands are so intense. Self-compassion is a combination of kindness, mindfulness, and a sense of universality. A self-compassionate attitude has been shown to be associated with more favorable long-term outcomes, as it relates to eating, exercising, and overall health. The self-compassionate approach involves accepting that some errors are part of the human condition (universality), that each of us deserves understanding (self-kindness), and that we do not need to be plunged into guilt and shame but develop a greater awareness of our surroundings. (Mindfulness.)

Healing Through Connection

The counterpoint to guilt and isolation is connection. The novelist Paolo Coelho wrote, “Human beings can withstand a week without water, two weeks without food, many years of homelessness, but not loneliness.” Mothers today are too often isolated, leading to vulnerability, intense worry, and rumination. Yet we know that a worry shared loses much of its power. Therefore one important need for an overwhelmed mother is having a supportive confidant, a person with whom you can share and feel closely connected. Many years ago a study of single mothers in England found that those had a confidant were less likely to fall victim to depression even if they were at greater risk due to poverty and high stress. This result has been replicated many times.

The key elements for support and intimacy are the ability to share without fear of judgment, mutuality, and a feeling of deep connection. I often ask my depressed patients to scan their emotional horizons to identify a confidant. Sometimes they say their spouse-partner, sometimes not. You might need to look at the people in your life to identify if a relationship can be strengthened and deepened. It’s possible that a relationship with a cousin or another relative, an old friend from school or work can be reestablished. Keep looking, it’s worth it. And although I know it’s extremely difficult, but try to stay connected. If you don’t have time to speak, then email or text. We all need connection now more than ever.

Support from Government

Although I am suggesting self-compassion and social support to help mothers now, these ideas are just a start because the situation is dire. On the political level, our individual patchworks of help are unsustainable. It is a disgrace that the United States lags so far behind other countries not only in healthcare—a constant worry for many these days—but also in support of child care, early education extended school hours, and paid family leave. I believe that we all need to work for improvement in these family policies. The 2020 election is over but we must continue to examine candidates' positions and advocate accordingly. You can choose to be politically engaged by supporting and voting only for those candidates who can endorse better policies, up and down the ballot. You can also join advocacy groups. (It doesn't take too much time.) Mothers have been paying the price for the gaps in U.S. family policies for far too long.

The final post of the series on The Third Shift will address the needs of children and teenagers.