Over the past year I have been talking to, working with, advocating for working mothers (otherwise known as women who blend career and family). One of the biggest things that I have learned through this work is the degree to which overwhelm is a factor in the lives of mothers. In fact, it seems to be one of the two biggest challenges that working mothers face (the other is impostor syndrome).
I would even argue that overwhelm is the biggest challenge facing working mothers, because it is easier to leave impostor syndrome back at the office. Overwhelm, on the other-hand, is all encompassing. It doesn’t stop when you clock off or leave your workplace.
Overwhelm affects us all to some degree. In the most serious cases, overwhelm can lead to feelings anxiety and/or depression, and everything feels too much to cope with. But even in the less severe cases, overwhelm affects how we see ourselves, our strengths, our capacities, and our mental health. All of us could use a little more support to address overwhelm in our lives.
For me, as an introvert, overwhelm led to closing in and shutting down. I would say no more and more, and see my friends less and less. I could hardly keep on top of the day-today. Leaving the house at all seemed more than I could handle. I am fortunate enough to have a cafe only 6 houses away from my house. If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I would have left the house at all for weeks on end!
I often see this pattern of closing in and shutting down in mamas who are overwhelmed. The other pattern I see in mamas to trying to fit too much in. Planning a busy schedule to show that things are still ok. Two or three playdates or activities a day. The busyness is almost an attempt to fight back or drown out the feelings of overwhelm. But if not addressed this pattern leads to burn out. We can’t pretend our way out of overwhelm. Nor can we shut the overwhelm out.
We need to talk about overwhelm in our lives, because it needs to be addressed. We can’t find the energy to nourish our dreams and ambitions and step into our leadership potential if we are struggling with the day-to-day. We can’t cram in leadership activities to drown out the feelings of overwhelm in the hope that they will go away.
We need to tackle overwhelm head on.
This means facing our emotions and our fears. Not pushing them away or closing them out.
For all of us, it is easy to attribute overwhelm to our own failings. I am not good enough, not organised enough. I am not a natural mama. I am not good at this. I am not capable. I am not strong enough. I am not relaxed enough. I am not smart enough. I am not driven enough. I am not focused enough.
We tell ourselves a whole manner of reasons why it is our own fault that we are not coping.
But when we look around and see that every mama is struggling with overwhelm- at least to some degree- we start to understand that this problem is not an individual one. It is a structural one. In traditional societies, raising children has been a community affair. It takes a village and all that. We hear this phrase mentioned here and there, but give it little thought to what it really means to our day-to-day lives. We give even less thought to what is means to our feelings of overwhelm.
Overwhelm is not your fault.
Society tells us that to be a good mothers, we must be always available to our children. Cooking organic food from scratch. Keeping a clean house. Teaching our children to read and write and speak a second language. Driving them to any number of extra curricula activities. We must always be emotionally available, and put the needs of our family first. We should be involved in our children’s school or childcare centre. We should earn money to support our family. But our work should not interfere with being a ‘good mother’.
None of these things are inherently bad in and of themselves. But the problem lies in the pressure that we feel to do theses things, when fathers are not subject to the same kinds of pressures.
On the otherhand, society tells us that to be a good career woman, we must always answer our emails promptly. We must always accept a meeting invitation, even if it is on our day off, and never ask the workplace to reschedule to meet our needs. We must be present in the office for the 9-5 or longer. Working hard means sitting in front of our computer. It means putting our work first, and never letting family interfere with our careers.
The expectations of how to be a good mother are largely incompatible with how to be a good career woman. It is no wonder that we are feeling overwhelmed.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. We can either accept this impossible version of success for working mothers, and continue to hold ourselves accountable to this version of success. Or we can reject it, and start to craft our own vision of success for our lives.
Society and culture are made up of individual agents who either accept or reject the dominant culture. We all have the individual agency to reinforce the dominant structure, or to reject it and start to build our own alternative. The latter is a much more difficult path, I know. But holding ourselves accountable to the dominant model of success is no easy path for working mothers to walk either.
Our ability to do this is impacted by our privilege too. I recognise this. The more marginalised your are, and the fewer choices you have- the more difficult the task. But, history is full of examples of marginalised people breaking free of their constraints and transforming society into one that is fairer and takes better care of their needs. It is possible for all of us to be part of that sort of change.
So, to take the first step in combating your overwhelm, I invite you to reject this model of success that is presented to us, and to start crafting your own. Get clear about what really matters to you. What are the elements of a good career and a good family life, and how you want to fit these together. Set very firm intentions for what you want out of your work-life fit.
Maybe it is organic food cooked from scratch, or maybe it’s meals home delivered. Maybe it is working full-time and switching off when you leave the office, or maybe it is working flexibly and fitting in with your children’s schedules. Maybe it’s going to the gym at 5:30am, or maybe it is taking a long walk with your colleagues at lunchtime. Maybe it’s home schooling your children, or maybe it’s sending them to a top private school.
The beauty of setting your own versions of success is that only you get to say what that is. But once you do know what it is, you can leave everything else behind. If you’ve chosen private school, don’t feel guilty that you have chose not to home school the kids. If you’ve chosen home delivered meals, don’t feel guilty that you have chosen not to cook. If you’ve chosen flexible work, don’t feel guilt that you have chosen not be to in the office all the time.
We can’t do everything. But we needn’t try.
Do only what matters most to you. Don’t hold yourself accountable to someone else’s version of success.
Take this topic further:
- If you are in Canberra, we are running a community workshop on the evening of Friday November 3rd called Creating Your Own Definition of Success, designed to help you untangle yourself from this overwhelm and get clear about what matters to you.
- No matter where you are in the world, the Design Your Perfect Week program is designed to help you systematically address the overwhelm that you face, and start crafting your life that fits your unique version of success. This is designed specifically for working mothers, and the unique challenges and pressures we face. And it is the exact process that I have used to craft a meaningful career and life on my own terms. We have an affordable self-guided option to make it accessible for any budget, or you can take the one-on-one coaching option for more tailored support.