Navigate the Emotional Toll of Motherhood and Employment

It’s healthy to know that balancing work and family is practically impossible.

Posted Oct 03, 2019

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In 2018, the memoir Becoming by Michelle Obama took the world by storm. It’s been translated into 24 languages and broke numerous sales records. One reason Obama’s memoir resonated with women is that she’s honest about the difficulty of balancing work and family. In fact, she bravely asserts that a true balance is impossible: Sometimes work gets the lion’s share of the attention, and sometimes the focus tips toward the children. The hard truth for working moms is that when our children are under 18, the juggling act is physically and mentally exhausting. Most of us know what we should do for our minds and bodies: Get more sleep, eat better, exercise, and indulge in some self-care rituals. Yet many of us aren’t taking the emotional toll of motherhood seriously enough. We’re so busy managing work and family expectations that we’re lucky if we accomplish even one of our physical goals, let alone addressing the psychological challenges we face. This is why so many of us rejoiced at the First Lady’s candor when she admitted that “leaning in” doesn’t always work. In fact, “leaning in” can lead to burnout, depression, and acute stress.

Day after day, employed mothers are expected to dig deep, shake it off, and move forward without analyzing why they might feel so strung out and mentally exhausted. Only social change and policy can fully rectify the immense pressure and demands that are thrust on working moms. Until that day comes, we can take steps to protect our mental health amidst the tug of war between work and family. Here are five suggestions to get you started:

  1. Maintain perspective. It’s critical to see the bigger picture instead of losing yourself in it. Be aware that the expectations of working motherhood are unrealistic and need to be changed. Does your boss falsely assume that you’re up for frequent travel, or that you’re unwilling to work on weekends? Do coworkers resent you for staying home to take care of a sick child? Instead of feeling hurt, speak up. Ideas about work and motherhood are still evolving, so be part of the evolution! When you feel doubtful or insecure, remind yourself of all that you’re balancing and that no one can juggle it all, regardless of the “success stories” in the media or happy Facebook posts that gloss over the hard parts. Employers, friends, family, and even partners can fall back on stereotypes and myths about working moms, but you can’t afford to. Keep it real, and acknowledge the struggle as you do your best.

  2. Build an emotional support network. As a working mom, life is too hard and complicated to skate through unscathed. Whether it’s mansplaining at work or a child struggling at school, we all face challenges that other working moms can relate to. Whether you turn to your tribe to cry together, laugh hysterically, or brainstorm, there is special beauty in knowing that these people really get it. Don’t turn down opportunities to connect with other working women. Only putting energy into your children, partner, and work won’t offer adequate protection from the very dynamic that’s stressing you out in the first place. An emotional support network is an invaluable buffer from the daily grind of aiming for the impossible.

  3. Stop the guilt. Unrealistic expectations are the root of our collective mom guilt. We can’t be all things to our children, and we can’t always be the consummate employee. Unfortunately, society tends to place mom guilt front and center, but we as mothers don’t have to accept this. If you’ve ever been in therapy, you’re aware that mothering is often under a psychological microscope. But therapy usually reveals that a mother tried her best, given her conditions and experiences. Afford yourself the same analysis. Instead of self-blame, try self-empathy. Compassion is a much healthier emotion. Motherhood is hard enough; guilt can make it even harder. Let’s cast off the guilt and help moms parent with love, pride, and confidence.

  4. Laugh and play. Your juggling act won’t always be perfect, so don’t sweat the small stuff. Better yet, learn to laugh at the fact that your briefcase is filled with crayons or your blazer has spit-up on the shoulder (true story). Spend time playing with your kids, friends, and family. Having fun and laughing triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Playing with family and friends can also help ward off stress, depression, and anxiety. Play also stimulates your imagination and helps you become a better problem solver, a trait familiar to all busy moms. So, in the middle of your pressure-filled juggling act, take time to play! 

  5. Own your strengths. Are you a superb leader but not that great with toddlers? Or maybe you’re a baby whisperer, but your boss wants you to be more assertive? Working moms often get down on themselves for no good reason. So what if you ordered out for three nights in a row, or your kid watched TV while you had a conference call? We can’t be all things at all times. Focusing on what you do well builds self-esteem and confidence, which can help ward off the inevitable negative emotions. Feeling worthy and practicing self-love will yield big payoffs at home and at work. So, celebrate all the amazing feats, large and small, that come with the Herculean effort of being a working mother.