No, sweet Mama, you’re not failing
Updated: Jul 16
I am a huge believer in the sacredness of motherhood. This in no way negates the important role of fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other meaningful connections in life, but those roles are inherently different. In our society, mothers take on the vast majority of unpaid work (i.e., caregiving) which amounts to what is known as a second shift of unequally divided labour for working mothers. On top of that, there is discrimination in the workforce against mothers called the motherhood penalty which often pushes women with children out of the employment sector or places heavier burdens upon them than their childless counterparts. And overall our cultural perspectives tend to lean more conservatively with regards to expectations of mothers and motherhood, which places more pressure on mothers everywhere. With all of these dynamics, mothers everywhere are stressed as just the general baseline for “normal”.
Motherhood is sacred because mothers are the essential and often invisible cornerstone of a well-functioning society. From womb to tomb, mothers cultivate and care for children and family members in many aspects including health, education, household management, planning, appointment setting, emotional care, shopping/basic needs, and many others as well. Yes, I am aware that single father families exist and that not all mothers are nurturing or the embodiment of healthy motherhood. But this is not what we’re talking about today as we are talking about the general expectations of, burdens placed upon, and functions of mothers in our society. And generally speaking, mothers are very key components to the well-being of those around them and yet they are frequently overworked and undervalued. With such a crucially imperative role comprised of life-giving and life-sustaining elements, motherhood is indeed sacred. So why don’t we treat it as such?
With motherhood roles being so frequently unappreciated, it’s no wonder that women everywhere are exhausted. But add in to that already-strained dynamic a nationwide pandemic, and mothers are really struggling. In fact, studies are showing that the greatest burdens of the pandemic are falling on the shoulders of – you guessed it – mothers. And if you pay attention to any discussions either on social media or elsewhere, you’ll find similar themes repeated: mothers are overwhelmed, disconnected, and frustrated. Many note that the bulk of return to school decisions (arguably one of the most strenuous choices to be made recently) are left up to mothers and the anxiety surrounding that can be crushing. Many are finding increased pressures in the home while trying to meet the needs of semi-quarantined children and still trying to balance work and/or other obligations. Over and over, mothers are reaching out for help and guidance while feeling more exasperated overall. And mothers are feeling a sense of guilt and personal failure while trying to navigate these often-conflicting expectations and scenarios.
Let me share some insight with you: you are not failing. We were simply not designed to function this way and it is impossible thrive under these circumstances. On all accounts, the pressure is increasing for mothers everywhere at a time when they are once again a critical component to success during a major difficulty both at home and in the greater social network. There are too many demands, too many changing variables, too many stressors and not enough support. Additionally, the usual avenues for such support are effectively disconnected because of the virus restrictions. And although this may be necessary temporarily, it is still exceedingly difficult to cope with.
People were not created to live in isolation or operate well under these circumstances. We flourish through connection, creativity, shared exchange, and partnership. So when many of these avenues and typical routines are removed, it is expected that people will struggle and need more time to rest and recharge. Except if you know anything about motherhood, it is that there is never really any downtime and the work is never truly finished. And since mothers are the primary planners and organizers and doers-of-most-things in family and social spheres, they are striving to maintain functions and decision-making efforts regardless of the ongoing stress. But it's hard. Being in a space of limbo without the full information to make decisions and where the landscape is constantly changing as data changes sometimes by the hour, mothers are distressed by the lack of ability to function at the usual high-achieving and often-seamless level typically required. And mothers everywhere are blaming themselves.
Give the circumstances, it is expected to feel fatigued, have difficulty concentrating, experience anxiety or low mood, notice trouble sleeping, be irritable, have interpersonal challenges, and more. All of these are normative to a body and brain under chronic stress. It is so important to remember that many of these symptoms are normative and not a sign of dysfunction given the current state of the world because this acknowledgment can help to remove some of the invisible burdens placed upon mothers during this time. Your body and mind are slowing down because you need to rest and relax to reduce stress levels. Start by reminding yourself that this is an unprecedented and unusual situation and it is unfair and unrealistic to expect anyone to function as if this were anything but that.
There are a few simple techniques you can use to help yourself stay grounded and try to cope. An excellent one is called thought reframing. Start noticing the types of thoughts that you’re having and how you are speaking to yourself internally. The way you talk to yourself greatly affects perception and self-esteem. If you find that you engage in negative self-talk, practice talking back to it. For example, if you find yourself thinking “I am a failure, other moms are handling this better so why can’t I?”, challenge it. Ask yourself if that is really true and what evidence you have to support that thought. Remind yourself that people often portray the best aspects of themselves and you are likely not seeing just how much everyone else is struggling too. Then replace (or reframe) that thought with a more balanced thought such as “I am not failing. I am navigating an impossible scenario which is very difficult. I am doing the best I can with difficult circumstances”. And remind yourself that you are doing a good job, because I guarantee you are doing better than you think you are!
Recognize that the expectations being placed upon you are too high right now. It is okay to give yourself permission to relax and do less. Focus instead of what matters the most on any given day. Does it really matter if the house is spotlessly clean (whose is though, really?!) or is it more important to keep a lower stress level or spend time reading with a child or otherwise being actively engaged? Be mindful of your values and remember that connection is of paramount importance, above any other tasks you may deem necessary. Simplify what you are doing as much as possible right now, and give yourself ample credit for what you are and have been accomplishing during this time.
Here is a quick survival list – perhaps you’d like to print it out as a reminder when you’re feeling overwhelmed:
1. Talk back to negative thoughts
2. Give yourself permission to do less
3. Prioritize what matters most
4. Be gentle with yourself
5. Feel your emotions
6. Engage in regular self-care
While this stressful time is temporary, the strain of it can have lasting effects if you do not intentionally reduce the burden placed upon you. And I want you to know this week and always, sweet mothers reading this today, that you are not failing. You are doing your very best in an impossible scenario, and you are doing it over and over again each day. And that is the wonderful sacred work of motherhood. It is okay to be tired and overwhelmed and frustrated and disappointed. Everything you are feeling with this pandemic and these changes are valid. Take some time to rest, to grieve the plans you had for this time, and to give yourself enough grace by refusing to hold yourself to impossible standards.
Remember that you are not failing. You are sacred. Treat yourself accordingly.