By Brianna Riddlebarger
Motherhood is a complex mixture of wonderful, exhausting, and terrifying. Nothing will make you feel more whole yet also very powerless. From conception, pregnancy, labor and delivery, toddler stages, school age, teenage phases, college transitions, to the duration of your child's life, the worry never stops. This is a universal and relatable truth. But the bigger question is… what do you do to cope with this worry? Do you live in denial and internalize it? Do you avoid saying no in fear of how they’ll respond? Do you shut down and avoid intimacy because your fears and lists never end? Do you engage in a power struggle with your kids, desperate to convince them of the right way to live?
There are infinite ways we can poorly manage our stress as mothers. Ways that can take a heavy toll on our own health. And ways that actually can worsen the health of our kids as well.
So the question comes up - how exactly does a mother work through stress in healthy and productive ways?
1. Have scheduled time away from the family, including the kids. This is relevant regardless of the age of your kiddos. If it’s a newborn, it will be shorter bursts than when your child is more independent. But still necessary. During this scheduled time, make sure you are doing something that brings you joy or relaxation. Maybe it’s a night out with your friends, maybe it’s a professional massage, sneaking in a nap while the grandparents babysit, or listening to your favorite true crime podcast while you water your plants. Whatever it is, let that time help you fill your cup. This self care is essential for you to be in touch with your wants and needs outside of being a mother.
We find reasons to not fit this time in either because we live in scarcity of time, or we feel guilty for having that time away from the kids. We also complicate self care because it sounds nebulous or too expensive. Keep it simple, make it regular, and bring in your support system to help you keep the consistency of this ritual for yourself.
Why is this important as a parent? Because if you don’t get a break to do things for you, you will only be more irritable, on edge, resentful, drained, overstimulated, or even more driven by guilt. When you put yourself on the back burner, others will too, especially your needy kids. But when you live otherwise, you will gain respect from your family…and they will learn from your actions and practice it themselves. They need to see you’re human too! It's also an amazing way to model to your family healthy self care and meeting of needs. If you show them through your actions how one can practice taking care of self, they will be more likely to also learn how to take care of themselves. And you get one step further in having healthy, self sufficient, independent children.
2. Reclaim your identity - Being a mother is a wonderful identity…but it’s not our only identity. Mamas, you have so many other amazing qualities and identities!
And truthfully, your kids benefit when you live out that reality. If your whole life is consumed by the wellbeing of your children, they will feel it….and not in a good way. You will easily become a helicopter parent, you may channel your worry (or obsessions) onto them and cause added anxiety, you may never let them grow up in fear of them leaving you (infantilization), or you may protect your kids from ever experiencing hardship because you are afraid of seeing them in pain (codependency).
Further, when your kids do eventually grow up and move out, you will feel lost and empty. Your identity will feel stolen from you, which may lead to depression, resentment, and anger.
When your life is full of life-giving things outside of being a mother, you get to model healthy living to your kids. This can include a career or side-job, hobbies, community engagement, church, volunteering, or social events with friends. Wouldn’t you love to have your kids learn how to have those things from you? More than that, you get to experience that fullness in addition to the fullness of motherhood.
And a pro-tip: How you spend your time, and how much time you give yourself to think/worry about things typically exposes where you place your identity. What areas do you need more balance?
3. Don’t take ownership of what isn’t yours - This is a big one for moms. We identify as caretakers for our families, especially for everyone’s emotions. But fellow moms, please do not take on your kids’ struggles as your own. This includes big emotions, failures, hardships, the works. What does that look like? When your child is angry and lashing out at you, you don’t have to lash out back. You’re allowed to be calm and collected and hold space for their anger (even if it may catch you by surprise). If your toddler is having a tantrum, you don’t have to join the emotional turmoil or try to fix it. You can choose to remain calm and keep yourself safe while they work through the normal toddler emotions. Whether it’s suicidal thoughts, addiction, anger impulses, or OCD that your child may be struggling with, you don’t have to walk on eggshells, worrying if you will trigger an outburst or incident. It’s not your responsibility to cope for them, it’s theirs. Don’t take on what isn’t yours, you will always feel tired and like you’re failing then. This does not mean that you can’t feel sympathetic, sad, worried, or angry about situations - feeling those things is important as an emotionally present person. And a critical role as mothers is to be able to hold space for their emotions/struggles and offer support, discipline, or guidance. But that is very different from being seen as the solver, the fix-it person, or being the one responsible to carry the stress until it's figured out. Assuming that you will be the one to fix everything and make everyone comfortable is only setting you and your family up for frustration. Remember, your healthy response is to simply hold space. Place a metaphorical empty box between you and your loved one. All of their turmoil, negative emotions, fears, failures, etc goes into that box. You hold space for them to process it, analyze it, learn from it, but you will not carry that box for them. You foster skills and ideas for them to learn how to pick up that box. You may even grieve that the box exists and wish it away. But you refrain from carrying it for them or claiming ownership of that box. It is theirs to carry. And if they resist learning to carry their own box, your only responsibility is to not reinforce or enable their resistance. They must feel the natural consequences of their unhealthy resistance.
Bottom line: you can’t fix or control your kids…..at all. So stop trying to.
You have your own box of hardship, stress, and emotions to carry…you get to focus on that instead. It will feel selfish and wrong when you first start to practice these boundaries, and you may question if you are being a bad parent. But over time the freedom of no longer carrying other's shame and responsibilities will kick in.
Don’t be a superhero, moms, focus on what you do have control over….you!
4. Let your kids fail, let your kids learn - Just like we have to let go of the training wheels on the bike and accept that some scrapes may happen… our kids will not learn how to be resilient or successful in life if we protect them from any sense of failure. Learning how to fail upwards is a huge skill that is becoming lost. One of the biggest culprits is mom anxiety and mom guilt. The toddler may only truly learn spatial awareness through bumping his head a few times. The student may only truly learn the importance of studying for tests until he gets a bad grade. The addict may never know his need to take sobriety seriously until he loses his access to a warm bed and shelter.
Watching our children struggle is extremely painful for the mom's heart… let yourself be aware of that pain, but don’t react to it. Give your child the space to learn how to rise to the occasion. With space, your encouragement, and the right tools, your child can do great things.
5. Own your stress, and then do something about it - Motherhood is stressful. Setting boundaries is stressful. Watching our kids go through growing pains is stressful. Acknowledge how that feels for you, and find healthy ways to cope. It does us no good to alleviate this stress by “just fixing it”. This is where your self care and coping skills come in. If you approach these stressful situations with a full cup, you will have better insight and judgment into how to respond. When your cup is dry, your reactions will be out of fear, guilt, exhaustion, and desperation…and the decisions we make will affect our children/family.
Finally moms, don’t be a martyr. Don’t wear your stress, your busy schedule, your checklists, etc., as a badge to show off to the world what a hard job you have. You don’t need to find validation in showing the world how overwhelmed you are. Validate your own efforts and emotions and take care of yourself. And if you are unsure on how to do so, seek help with a therapist to help you walk through those categories in your personal life.
6. Celebrate who your children are, not who you want them to be - As moms we can easily allow ourselves to talk and think in terms of “if onlys.” “If only she didn’t fight me on her math homework.” “If only he was as calm and well behaved as his friends.”
When we begin to compare our children to what they aren’t instead of appreciating the strengths and abilities they do have, we create resentment and frustration. And our kids feel it. And worse of all, they begin to develop an inner voice of critique of never being enough. Replacing that negative focus with “math isn’t her strength but she’s an amazing artist, we will use art as a reinforcement for her math homework, or “he struggles to listen but his mind is full of ideas and creativity, we’re going to find healthy outlets for his energy”, we team up with our kids on using their strengths to help them overcome their weaknesses. This helps reduce the power struggle that can develop when we want them to fit into our perfect mold of what a well-behaved, well-balanced child looks like. Embracing and focusing on their strengths is not only therapeutic for your relationship with your child but it also reduces our stress as mothers because we are surrendering control. This doesn’t mean we don’t address behavioral issues with intentional discipline, but we can approach it with grace and openness - because we know they can build the skills they need to. And you’re there to remind them of their strengths that will help them learn and overcome more efficiently.
Motherhood can feel all-encompassing and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to become a burden. The choices we make as moms can either liberate us or shackle us. Choosing healthy boundaries, self efficacy, and meeting our own needs goes a long way. You don’t have to be stuck in mom guilt or crippling fear of “what if” with your kids. Accept and celebrate your limits, and reclaim the things that bring you joy and life. You might be surprised with how much this will positively impact your family. And most importantly, how it will impact your relationship with yourself. You got this, mama.