How to Deal with Stress as a Mom
How to Deal with Stress as a Mom
Stress. That naturally-occurring feeling (as a mom) that you are the only thing holding everything together and if you rest for a second your entire family will fall to their certain doom. Yeah, here's how you deal with that.
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How to Deal with Stress as a Mom
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Motherhood, thy name is stress.
Why are moms stressed?
*sets up Powerpoint slides and grabs laser pointer*
Glad you asked.
Why Are Moms Stressed?
First, I would like to firmly admonish you for even asking such a crazy question. Have you seen a child? They're effing crazy. Like, the monkey cage at the zoo but with slightly better verbal skills crazy. But since you did ask, let's get into why exactly moms all feel so stressed.
Spoiler Alert: It's not because we're anxiety-prone, weak, or fragile. We're actually superhuman creatures and seeing your way to a "thank you" every once in a while wouldn't kill you. (Probably. It's never been tested.)
Parenting is Synonymous with Worry
The first thing you feel as a new mom is worry. And you basically never stop.
Waaay before you get to actually hold your precious little potato in your arms, you have an entire 9 months of trying desperately to do your best by this crazy important little creature inhabiting your abdomen, despite the fact that (for most of your pregnancy) you can't see or even feel it. You get to "visit" it once a month for a few minutes during the ultrasound, but the rest of your time is spent second-guessing every step you take ("I'm supposed to exercise to stay healthy for delivery, but I don't want to deplete resources the baby might need") and worrying that something hasn't gone terribly wrong without your knowing it.
The internet is full of pregnancy horror stories and the second you see two pink lines THEY ALL find their way to your newsfeed. Seriously, I don't know how it happens.
Then, just as the baby is big enough for you to know all to well that they're doing okay (the kicks to your ribcage leave little to the imagination), you get to feel stressed about delivery and being prepared for a new baby, all while dealing with a truly alarming panoply of pregnancy symptoms and discomforts.
When they're a baby you worry about everything. Literally everything.
Is the baby warm enough? Are they too warm? Are they swaddled properly? Is there anything they could suffocate on in their crib? Why are they crying? Is that an "I have a mildly dirty diaper" cry or a "something is seriously wrong" cry...or maybe a "it's Tuesday and I'm a baby and we tend to do that a lot" cry?
Caring for something that can't speak is alarming when it's a schnauzer. Now make it a human child you love more than life itself (and just spent nine months creating with your actual body) and the stakes (and worries) get way higher.
Now, add all this uncertainty with the learning curve of being a new parent, the post-partum hormone coctail that makes a meth-head seem mild-mannered, and a level of sleep deprivation not even attempted by college students during finals week. That is the average life of a new mom...on a good day.
By the toddler years you get to start worrying about all the ways they'll try to injure themselves as well as how to shape their burgeoning (and occasionally demonic) personality.
Yes, you still have all the baby worries about their comfort, physical health, and safety. (Thankfully minus SIDS worries, which stop at age 1.) But you now have to cultivate the safety not of a stationary (mostly) baby, but an exploration-obsessed little oompa loompa with no respect for gravity, stranger danger, busy streets, sharp objects, wild animals, or any other of the million looming dangers around them.
Oh, and please teach them their colors, numbers, letters, shapes, animals, and the pythagorean theorem before they start preschool. No pressure.
With small kids you worry about everything from the beginning of their academic careers to how they'll fit in socially.
Are they adjusting to school properly? How are their grades? Are they fitting in with their peers? Have they started extracurriculars? Are their teeth coming in properly? All of these factors are simultaneously all on your shoulders and completely out of your possible realm of control, so enjoy your sleepless nights!
As they get bigger your worries shift to how to keep them safe when they're out of your sight, whether they're prepared for the real world, and whether you've appropriately prepared them to make the right decisions when you're not there to fret over them.
While kids (usually) try to keep it together (except for toddlers), teens develop a sudden and passionate drive to do literally everything we tell them not to do. Drugs? Alcohol? Unsafe driving? Sharp objects? Playing with fire? "Neato! Sign me up!" says the undeveloped frontal cortex of literally every teenager on earth.
Moms of teens get all the safety worries of the baby years, minus any of the control.
Sleep Deprivation and (Lack of) Bodily Autonomy
If there are two things kids hate the most they're sleep and personal space.
When you're pregnant you can't sleep (due to hormones, worries, excitement, kicks to the ribcage, pregnancy insomnia, and just general discomfort). When you have a new baby you wake up every 2-4 hours to feed, change, and burp them, and even when you can sleep sometimes you don't because you're either worried about them or you just can't stop staring at their darn adorable sleeping faces. Little kids will wake you up for food, monster checks, nightmares, potty accidents, and sometimes just for fun. You get maybe one or two good years of sleep in the middle school realm, then you have to start waiting up for a teenager who is hell-bent on getting home no more than 17 seconds before curfew.
So yes, parents don't sleep. Moms sleep even less.
And then there's the fact that, from when you first get pregnant to sometime in the early tweens, your body is not your own. You are first inhabited by a growing alien determined to steal your resources and make you sick. (In a glowing, magical way though.) Then you have a baby who literally EATS FROM YOUR BODY TO SURVIVE. Oh and they also need to be held 24/7. And they will deposit at least three types of bodily substances on you with zero hesitation. Then you have a toddler who views you as their own personal climbing structure, mattress, punching bag, and carnival game. Sometimes all at once.
Moms don't get personal space. We get touched. We get punched. We get tiny hands under the bathroom door if we have the lunacy to attempt to poop without bringing them with us.
If there's anything I learned from my multiple degrees in psychology, it's that humans obviously function at their optimal levels when deprived of sleep on a long-term basis and completely devoid of personal boundaries or physical autonomy. Yeah, nothing could go wrong here.
Parenting Plus a House
Oh yes, while you're doing all this parenting worrying on zero sleep, could you also make sure it stays clean around here?
There is serious research on how a clean, organized living space can have positive short- and long-term effects on its inhabitants. There is not enough research on how much dang pressure this puts on the person in charge of keeping the living space clean and organized.
Also, you are expected to do this while taking care of your kids (literally at the same time) even though said kids are in the process of creating more mess in the space you just cleaned.
Ummmm, yeah, while you're at it could you also make sure all the meals are cooked, and the bills are paid, and everyone has what they need for the day all packed, and the fridge is stocked, and the groceries are put away, and the budget is balanced....and could you feed the dog?
If I put my hand on my husband's shoulder while we're sitting on the floor, our baby will literally crawl across the floor and physically remove it. This is neither a joke nor an exaggeration.
It usually takes two people to bring a child into this world, yet they are strangely intolerant of the relationship that enabled their existence. The very presence of children makes the simplest of conversations between spouses difficult (due to shouting, not so subtle bids for attention, interruptions, and constant demands for snacks). Kids live to crawl in your bed, invade your room, and make any sense of intimacy flee like cockroaches before an impending boot.
Oh, and even when you do actually get alone time with your spouse, you are both so exhausted from parental activities that you're capable of nothing more than laying on a floor (probably touching each other...somehow...crossed feet or something) and mumbling a half-conversation.
But don't get me wrong, you still need to put your spouse first (but also your kids first), keep yourself fit for your spouse (whatever the hell that ball of chauvinistic BS means), make time for your marriage, and be a supportive partner.
Whether it's because you need to bring in the money, because society judges the crap out of moms who are "just moms" (don't get me started), or because you genuinely love what you do...more and more moms have either a full-time career, part-time work, or some kind of side hustle.
It's fun to note that we have to do our work as if it's a luxury, even while men get to do their work as an obligation. Evidence? Have you ever noticed most moms say "I got two hours of work time after the kids went to bed" while non-moms say "I had to work for two hours late at night"? Yeahhhhh. Work somehow turned into this luxury we get if we're good or something.
If anything can create stress, it's the idea that you're required to earn a certain amount of money for your family, but that it's a personal indulgence (or an offense against said family) to take time away from your kids to perform the work that earns that money.
Normal Human Emotions
Moms are...and stay with me here...also human beings.
It is normal for a human to feel stressed. Most people have anxieties, worries, mental health issues, or other concerns that are treated as perfectly valid reasons to be stressed or require care. However, moms are often expected to perform our mom duties on top of what is already considered a "full emotional load" for non-parental humans. And usually we are told (either verbally or implicitly) to "keep it together" for the kids, regardless of what else we have going on.
...and An Actual Identity?
Remember how before you became a mom you got to have likes, hobbies, friends, and things you did to relax?
Congratulations, that's gone.
Well, not gone gone, but significantly changed. One of the hardest shifts of motherhood is the fact that, in the blink of an eye, you go from being yourself to being so-and-so's mom. You aren't a person, you are a utilitarian object that changes diapers, gives snuggles, makes snacks, and fills in forms at the doctor.
This is a noble calling, but the problem with utilitarian objects is that they usually don't have likes, hobbies, friends, or things they do to relax. They simply exist to serve. However, this is not a healthy (or plausibly sustainable) existence for you as a real human being, no matter how stoic.
So yes, stress is something that’s natural in life, but moms get more than their fair share of it. For our own sakes, it's up to us to figure out how to manage that stress to try to live peacefully and not suffer the unchecked consequences of long-term stress.
Why Even Bother Trying Not to Be Stressed?
So yeah, everything on the list above is pretty much permanent.
If none of our stressors are going away, is it really worth the time and effort of managing our stress? Isn't this just a good opportunity for some "grin and bear it" type coping styles?
Nice try, but actually no. There are a lot of empirically-demonstrated, negative consequences to long-term stress.
VERY IMPORTANT POINT: The following consequences are due to unchecked stress, not due to the presence of stressors. If you are able to manage, process, and deal with your stress, these will not apply to you. If you adopt the aforementioned "grin and bear it" strategy, however, you may face some unpleasant long-term consequences
You’re More Prone to Disease
Being stressed can make you much more prone to disease, specifically in the long term. If you already live with a chronic condition, stress can make dealing with it a lot harder than it ever was before.
At the same time, if you’re stressed over a series of weeks or months, it can mean your immune system is lowered by a dramatic amount, and with the amount of cortisol in your blood, it can mean infections make their way into your body a lot easier.
From both physical conditions to mental conditions, long-term stress can make you ill in a variety of ways, and this is one of the main reasons we need more stress busters in our lives.
You Feel Like You Have No Energy
Stress can make you feel permanently fatigued, especially when you’re living with chronic stress. (Great! More fatigue!) After all, you’re in a permanent state of fight or flight, thanks to all the related stress hormones your body is producing en masse right now, and that can really wear a person out.
And when you’re feeling tired, and like you can’t get a good night’s rest no matter what, the hard time you’re going through is just going to get harder. (Yay! More sleep deprivation!) It’s why a lot of people feel like they can’t handle or cope with their emotions when they lose a loved one - even just looking through some information about grief and death can really take it out of you, because you’re already stressed and feeling like you want to run away.
But how are you supposed to hold yourself down and focus on what’s important? Especially if you can’t actually run away from the fact that you’ve lost someone important to you? As a result, all those stress hormones are just going to build up.
Your Appetite Goes All Over the Place
You might start eating much more frequently, or you might not want to eat at all. You might just turn to typical ‘junk’ foods to make you feel better - no matter what stress does to your appetite.
As if this isn't bad enough by itself, erratic appetite or uncontrolled eating (or fasting) can affect not just our waistline, but also our hormone levels, our moods, our ability to sleep, and the habits we pass down to our kids. Neat.
You May Feel Out of Touch in Relationships
And finally, stress can take a toll on your relationships as well. It can make you turn away from intimacy, and it can make you feel like you want nothing to do with your relationship’s usual activities. It also makes normal parent-child bonding less likely and more stressful (for them and for you).
Not to mention just how isolating stress can feel; you feel like you can’t talk about it, because you don’t have the words or it’s just too frustrating to get out, and you also feel like your partner can’t do anything for you right now. And when you can’t talk to your partner, or you’re acting stressed towards them, they themselves can become stressed, and that can form a ‘stress cycle’ between the two of you.
Add this to the normal complications of co-parenting and you're looking at the dictionary definition of a 'lose lose' situation.
How to Handle Stress as a Mom
This list is mom-specific. I am not going to suggest yoga retreats, extended "me-time", or any other things that may be helpful but have a snowball's chance in hell of actually occurring. Moms don't have time to take a yoga retreat. We don't have time to go to the bathroom!
These (in no particular order) are actionable strategies of reducing and dealing with stress within the parameters of a mom's actual existence.
Lower Your Tolerance to Stress
The absolute most important thing you will read about stress is to lower your tolerance to it.
Yes, this sounds completely counterintuitive. Don't you want to raise your tolerance? No. You do not. Here's why.
Stress isn't bad in and of itself. Stressful times, when properly handled and modulated, can end up being some of our most fulfilling, gratifying, productive, and amazing memories. Think about planning a wedding, working for a promotion at your job, or childbirth. Crappy times, but they led to something amazing that we look back at fondly.
Stress that is ignored or not handled properly is the real killer.
If you lower your tolerance to stress, you are getting to the point where you say "this is a problem" sooner in the game.
This means that you will notice stress and start dealing with it in a healthy way sooner, as opposed to saying "everything is fine", shoving a bag of Cheetos in your face, and trying to act as if everything is normal.
It isn't. It isn't fine.
Start noticing, reacting to, and taking steps to resolve your stressful situations much sooner. Stop denying that you are stressed and start making active plans to cope with your stress in a healthy way.
Remember Your Body
The first thing I tell moms to do sounds absolutely ridiculous: to remember their bodies.
Yes, you are probably aware you have a body. It's that thing that hurts all the time. The thing your kids climb on, kick, eat from, and from which they demand constant cuddles. You're putting the emphasis on the wrong word.
Moms need to remember their bodies. As in, the fact that their body does, in fact, belong to them.
This is not a given. After the dehumanizing process of being pregnant, being poked and prodded and scoped at so many doctor appointments, after being touched down there by goodness knows how many pairs of hands during the labor and delivery process, after learning to breastfeed in a hospital where seeing boobs on parade has long since become commonplace, and after having to whip 'em out every time your baby gets hungry for a year or two...it's completely normal for a mom to have completely lost the feeling that her body belongs to her.
This is the first thing you need to reclaim in order to reduce stress.
Start by taking deep breaths. Put your kid down (for a few seconds) and stand with proper posture. Start reclaiming (even if only in your head) your body as something that belongs to you. The more connected you are with your body, the more it will be a refuge against stress (rather than a source of more stress).
Eat Right and Occasionally Splurge
Yes, I said "and". It's important to give your body the fuel it needs to survive. A human cannot survive on Dorritos and stolen sandwich crusts.
It's not about your long-term health, your waistline, or even your physique. It's about giving you the energy you need to make it through the day, deal with your insanely energetic offspring, and suffer through the minimum necessary human interactions without snapping someone's head off.
Your body needs fuel the same way a car needs fuel. If you fill your minivan up with watered-down diesel instead of premium unleaded, you're going to break down halfway down the highway. If you try to make it through your day on no breakfast, drive through french fries, and coffee you're going to be a cranky-pants all day and eventually crash and fall into a pile of tears before the dinner dishes are done.
Give your body real food. Don't make your life harder.
That said, give yourself the occasional splurge. Hard day? It's oreo o'clock somewhere! Need an extra mocha-latte-frappa-whatever to entice you out of bed because the baby woke you up every 30 minutes from 8pm to 7am? Zero guilt and zero excuses needed. Just don't make it an everyday occurrence and you're good to go.
Humans have a tendency to make everything fit into neat, little, organized, contradiction-free boxes. We hate grey area. It's black and white, yes or no. Do you love your kids? Yes or no. Do you get along with your spouse? Yes or no.
This is not the way the real world operates.
You can love your kids AT THE EXACT SAME TIME as feeling like they annoy the crap out of you. Both are equally true. It's not "I love my kids, but they annoy the crap out of me". This makes them annoying the crap out of you negate some of the love. Try saying "I love my kids and they annoy the crap out of you." Do you love them? Hell yes. Do they annoy you? Every dang day. Does this contradict? Maybe. Does it make it any less true? Not in the slightest.
Try the following statements on for size:
- I am so irritated with my husband and I love him more than anything in the world.
- I love spending 24/7 with my kids and I vehemently wish I had a "real" career (read: away from the kids).
- I can't stand it when the house is disorganized and I am okay letting the kids make a total mess when they play.
- I am so exhausted I can't wait to sleep and I am going to stay up late to work after the kids go to bed.
Freeing yourself from the need to make everything make perfect sense allows you to feel multiple things at one time without feeling absolutely bonkers. Embrace contradictions and you will free up a ridiculous amount of mental energy.
Talk to Other Moms
Momming is one of the weirdest professions out there.
If you don't believe me, please name another job where your boss can wake you up at 3am, crawl into your bed, kick you in the face, demand macaroni and cheese, give you a giant sloppy kiss, and then fall asleep on top of your body. Also there is no way to quit, there are no vacations, you work 24/7/365, there is no HR, you will be called all kinds of lazy for "just" doing that job and not another as well, and the pay is zero dollars minus expenses.
I'll wait. Nothing? That's what I thought.
It's very hard to understand all the crazy, weird crap moms go through without having gone through it yourself, just like very few people know what it's like to be a Navy SEAL, an Olympic gymnast, or a professional Rockette.
On hard days on the job (and it is a job, no matter how much you love your kids), sometimes you need to circle around a water cooler and complain to other employees at the same thankless job.
Is this water cooler real? No. Usually, it's via dictated text messages sent while you're changing a diaper to another mom who is watching soccer practice. But having someone who's in the same position as you are does so much to make you feel less crazy.
No, I'm not saying you get a spa day. You can't do that. Your kids will destroy your house in the time it takes to take out the garbage, not to mention have an entire hour or two to yourself.
However, I am saying that next time you put the baby in the carseat, take an extra couple of seconds to walk around to the driver's side of the car. Enjoy the silence. Feel the sun in your face. You earned it.
Seriously though, take a look at your life and analyze what kind of things you can plausibly do even without getting a babysitter that fill your soul.
Can you throw the kids in a stroller and go for an extra long nature walk? Can you bake a comfort food together and let them "help" (read: destroy backup ingredients on an easy-to-clean counter)? Maybe you can throw on a workout video and let them "workout" with you.
Whatever your solace is, try to find ways you can involve the kids in an activity that you don't actually hate. Something that makes you feel a little less murder-y.
Make a Physical Safe Space
This is completely stupid and absolutely 100% effective.
Find a place you can control and make it your own. I'm not saying a full on mom-cave or she-shed. Don't spend hours decorating or gazillions of dollars in renovations. Find a closet, the corner of a room, or even an unused segment of a hallway. Abduct a comfy chair, a fuzzy blanket, a clean whiteboard, or whatever soothes your soul from elsewhere in the house. The rest of the house may belong to the entire family, but that 10 square foot area belongs to YOU AND TO YOU ALONE.
I personally have turned my closet into a miniature room. I have blankets, remote controlled fake candles, pretty whiteboards (for brainstorming and therapy), and not as many clothes as should be in a closet. It isn't big, it isn't expensive, but it is my happy little cave. I get to control 100% of it. I can clean it or leave it disorganized. I can reorganize how I want. No one has reason to go in my closet. It is MIIIIINE.
Why does this relieve stress? Well, humans are basically animals. It wasn't that far up the evolutionary chain that we were actual animals. We are territorial and it freaks us out on a pretty primal level when other beings start messing with our territory.
Unfortunately "messing with our territory" is basically a child's job description. They draw in our books, unfold our laundry, dig through our drawers, eat our food, and get in pretty much everything everyday always forever. This is completely natural, but it is also stressful to the reptilian hindbrain part of us that just wants to sit in the door of our cave and growl at intruders.
Having a tiny oasis of physical "me space" gives our territorial, inner cavewoman a token nod so we can go about our perfectly evolved day and let our progeny trash the rest of our house with a smile (or less of a grimace) on our face.
We touched on control a little above, but this one deserves its own section. Parenting is one of the biggest and most sudden losses of control a person can experience. We go from being pretty much the master of our own destinies to being at the beck and call of a mercurial little tyrant with whims that blow like the wind during tornado season.
This isn't bad. It's totally normal. However, it is a major stressor, especially if you don't acknowledge it.
Even if you just say it out loud (to yourself), it can help you process what a truly Herculean and amazing thing you are doing just surviving your current lifestyle.
I have no control over when I wake up in the morning. My first few hours centers on getting everyone else's needs met as they get ready for their days. I am available to serve everyone else's needs and must drop whatever I'm working on to do so at a moment's notice. If someone is sick, upset, hurt, or otherwise off-kilter I need to be the glue that puts them back together. I have to be consistent and stable mood-wise so that I can keep all the kiddos' emotions level. I do not get to shower in a room by myself or the house will get destroyed before I even reach for the conditioner. I get woken up an unknown number of times at night to feed a tiny human with my body.
And all of that is okay.
You don't have to be in control all the time. However, by acknowledging that you have to be temporarily out of control, you can ease the inner panic that screams "why is this so hard?!?!?!?". You know why it's hard. Because you're focusing on everyone else 24/7 and that is effing hard.
You can't change it (and you probably wouldn't want to) but seeing it and acknowledging it makes it less stressful and more of a victory.
Even if you just gave birth yesterday, in five years your life is going to be veeeeery different.
One of the most salient parts of parenting is that it's a temporary gig. You won't have tiny kids forever. You aren't still going to be doing carpool pickups and diaper duty in another decade. If you step back and look at things from a long-term perspective, everything that's stressing you out now has a very, very limited shelf life.
That doesn't make it easier, but it does make it a temporary condition.
The biggest help in reducing that soul-ache, fully-fatigued, bone-weary mom stress is realizing that this is one phase of many. You do your best in the moment and it really won't be this way forever.
Be Present In the Good Stuff
Everything in your life has a good and a bad side.
The bad side is what's stressing you, and the good side is what made you do it in the first place. For example, take my evil d-bag of a dog. He barks at every passing leaf (waking up napping babies in the process). He has regular seizures that make him poop on the floor, roll in it, then run around the house in a panic, smearing poop on all the walls. He tricks our other (bigger) dog into stealing food off counters and then bullies him into letting him eat the entire thing. These are all bad, stressful aspects. However, I initially got him when I was a single, lonely grad student who wanted something fuzzy to cuddle with....and man is he fuzzy.
I can spend my day gritching about how evil this dog is (and he is....he really is) or I can see him and focus on rubbing that spot on his neck where my hand literally disappears in dog fluff. I still see the bad stuff (because you'd have to be blind and quite stupid not to), but the more I focus on how needy and fluffy he is, the less I get angry at the bad stuff.
When something in your life stresses you out, remember why you got that thing in the first place. If your house is messy, think about how you bought it because you loved the floorplan. When your husband is stressed, exhausted, and distant, remember how he's still the funniest person you know. When your kids annoy the crap out of you, think of how adorable they are when they sleep. Hate doing dishes? Smell the yummy dish soap smell and focus on how good the warm water feels on your hands.
By intentionally seeing the good in our surroundings, embracing the contradiction that these self-same surroundings can possibly be stressing us out even though we love them, starting to acknowledge and respond to stress earlier in the game, and taking steps to reclaim some of our sanity, we can reduce mom-stress to a truly survivable level.
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About the Author
Liz Bayardelle, PhD
Founder | Contributor
Liz (or Dr. Mommy, as her toddler started calling her after learning what a PhD was) is the happily sleep-deprived mom of a toddler (and professional raccoon noise impersonator), a sparkle-clad kidnado, a teenage stepdaughter, 200 cumulative pounds of dog, and herd of dustbunnies (if daily vacuuming doesn't occur). During nights and naptimes, she uses her PhD in business psychology as an author, speaker, and consultant. She also serves as an executive and principal for three companies, two of which she co-founded with her very patient (and equally exhausted) husband.