Forgive yourself mothers, we all need agency to fail   

The epic exhaustion and uncertainty, combined with epic job and income loss, on top of epic and unequal family demands have reaped inconceivable shame for mothers.

The pandemic has got mothers over a barrel. It’s called of role failure.

Mothers, may I suggest we are collectively suffering from the sustained trauma of self-disappointment. Anyone can descend into perpetual fight or flight mode if she feels she is failing every single day.

While facilitating Mother to Mother, an online support group, I witness mom’s confessions about role failure. I hear a stunning depiction of justified overwhelm. It‘s heartbreaking. Since Covid-19 dropped online schooling onto the laptops of mothers everywhere, capable, effective women have been in tears due to the extra demands of yet another job. In addition, the dearth of personal down time robs mothers’ precious opportunity to refuel. I fully support keeping teachers and families safe from Covid, yet the cost of online schooling has been working moms’ collective sense of self-mastery—the notion that as mothers we can do it all.

The epic exhaustion and uncertainty, combined with epic job and income loss, on top of epic and unequal family demands have reaped inconceivable shame for mothers. Simply put, many of us are feeling lost. Here’s the harder part though; feeling lost can make you see yourself as a loser—and that’s a self-shaming accusation. It shouldn’t be a crime to lose anything. Loss is part of life, but in a culture that worships invulnerability, losing is equated with being intrinsically flawed.

Shame expert, Brene Brown (Brown, 2013) reminds us that remorse is a healthy response when we make a mistake, but shame emerges from the erroneous belief that we are a mistake. In other words, shame makes us feel defective—that we are not good enough and therefore unworthy of love. As you can imagine, failing and the shame it seeds, is having a devastating impact on the mental health of our nation’s mothers.

As a psychotherapist and single mother during Covid-19, “role failure” and shame took me by surprise, triggering my own depression and anxiety. While reaching the pinnacle of a long success climb, I stumbled into professional burnout brought on by the demands of conflicting roles. Sound familiar?

Within weeks I was a shadow of my former self, dragging through work and household chores. This went on for months. I did not feel resilient. I was failing in all of my roles. Ironically, I support clients to practice self-care. In fact, I have led workshops on the topic. Despite my own skills, I needed a slew of supportive loved ones, health practitioners and the ear of a wise therapist to fully recover.

For many, effectively coping with role failure may require outside help. Think of it like a release valve, where you can safely cry and vent all that pent up anger and emotion. Each of you, dear mothers, deserves relief from the tyranny of harsh expectations. Consider raising a warm cup of chamomile tea to toast every last one of your recent failures. I’ve needed tons of self-apology, and a lot more, to find my center amid this scourge.

Role strain (Quah, 2020) or role pressure can occur when there is a clash from the demands of conflicting roles. Feeling chronically overwhelmed can precipitate an identity crisis for women.

According to Dr. Mark Mayfield (2020), interviewed by Woman’s Day, “Often the question of ‘am I enough?’ is at the center of this stage of life. When someone cannot answer that question with an honest and vulnerable mindset, they can spiral into chaos.”

To sort out my own chaos, I took drastic measures — stealing away to a rustic cabin in the deep woods of Maine. With quiet, I gradually sank into the healing zone of “rest and digest”, also known as parasympathetic nervous system dominance. I watched in awe as my mind found its’ way back to my body. Simple remedies can be the most effective.

My point is not that we all need to retreat to the woods to feel better. It’s the built in, regular self-care that redeems. Move mountains, if you must, but carve out some personal space that you can count on. Sometimes too, we need to renegotiate agreements with others to lighten our load. A weekly date, with just you, is a steadying counterweight to the ceaseless giving of motherhood.

Getting over my own depression required much self-confession and self-forgiveness. I had to admit that, like everyone else who suffers from an addiction, I was powerless over “doing too much”, and even if it was for a noble cause, my life had become unmanageable. In the end, I had to stop blaming myself before I could fully recover.

Here’s what I learned. The marathon-like existence for working moms is set up to fail. In truth, the model needs to change. Mothers need much more help. We also need to be paid more for the work we do. Covid-19 is shining light on a way of life that has glamorized unrealistic expectations for women. It’s time we give ourselves a free pass to do a little less and champion the notion that we deserve more yielding lives. Lives that allow our own needs to matter and count.

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Margo Davis, MSW, LICSW, margaretbradleydavis.com is a psychotherapist living in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. She is currently writing a book for women about divorce and courage.