Mental health and the family: Managing when there's too much to manage

If you're a mother, especially if you work outside the home as well, the chances are you feel very, very stressed most of the time. Your day starts early (that's if you got to sleep through the night, most babies don't sleep all night and toddlers often wake until the age of four or five). You might not even have a bed free of children, or you bed hop depending on what's the best way to just get some sleep. So you wake but already you're exhausted and there's no gentle start to the morning. Getting little children and even teenagers ready and out for the day is hard work. Being uncooperative is the way children test the boundaries and work out whose in control. They tend to like testing this on their mums when mum is the one who's mostly there and most likely to be asking them to do things!

One of the hardest parts of the daily routine, leaving aside the huge amount of practical and administrative work, is the lack of space for oneself. There is no time to spend choosing an outfit, or quiet for listening to the radio, let alone finishing a sentence. Children constantly call for attention. They are curious about your private things and many babies won't even let you put them down. There is no privacy. Your bedroom is a free for all, your body is someone else's territory, even the bathroom is a shared space! As a mother, you constantly put your own wants and needs to one side because others need you to. It gets a little easier as time goes on but the basics stay the same, meeting the needs of others and repressing or ignoring those very real needs of your own; the need for time and space for yourself, for relaxing, for your interests, your relationships with yourself and with other adults.

The roles of mum and dad

Domestic and parenting work is shared between mothers and fathers now, far more than in the past. Dads cook, bathe and change nappies, they do school runs and read at bedtime, this is such an improvement on the previous generation and allows fathers to have a much healthier relationship with their sons and daughters. Yet for some women, everything is still not equal in the parenting world. Some mothers find that unlike their partners, they cannot seem to switch off. They have somehow taken on the role of lead parent and for them, their partner is still the assistant. It's knowing what snacks to provide for nursery, which day the PE kit is required, how to get an overtired baby off to sleep or how to arrange a babysitter. These things can quite often be taken on by the role of the mother, not because dad cannot do it, but rather dad has to be told how and then retold and for mums it can feel like the most depressing thing when it happens over and over.

Switching off is a problem for a lot of mothers because of the emotional attunement that they feel with their children. The constant round the clock monitoring of the child's moods and behaviours, in order to provide the most appropriate loving response is hard work. Of course, men respond to their children's feelings too, but the pattern that emerges is sometimes dad notices less, or later, that their child is in need of attention. Sometimes this is no bad thing, as it allows children, of the right age and stage of development to learn some coping skills. However, it also leaves the mum with the feeling that she can't risk leaving attunement to children's needs to their father, as he so often doesn't seem to notice or simply looks, automatically to her when things get tricky.

The reality is that the parent who spends most time around the children, especially in the first weeks and months of life, is bound to learn the cues and subtleties of her babies behaviour, while the other parent, the one who has to be at work most of the time can't pick up this language so quickly. They fall behind in the steep learning curve of new parenting almost from the first moments. For many men, developing the confidence to parent is inhibited by the fact that there is already someone 'doing it better'. It doesn't matter that the mother feels out of her depth too, as far as he can see, she knows what to do more than he does and it comes to seem like a natural or innate ability to soothe children and generally juggle competing demands.

Despite the fact that modern parents don't conform to old-fashioned gendered roles, certainly not intentionally, there is still bias when it comes to the responsibility for the mental work of the household and the needs of the children. The invisible labour of organising the families diaries, remembering dates and schedules, as well as the burden of monitoring the emotional health and well being of the children, still falls largely on one parent. The specialised knowledge the lead parent builds up is complex and requires a very particular skill set of patience, creativity, memory, adaptability and good humour even under great stress. Leaving it to someone else feels virtually impossible.

Coping with the struggles of parenting

The feeling of being the only person to make decisions that would affect the outcomes for children, for the better or possibly the worse, not surprisingly seems to be linked to stress and anxiety for parents. If you're a mum (or dad) reading this and your stress levels are through the roof, you probably want to do something about it but feel stuck because you know if you took a break all the plates you are juggling would come crashing down. Is this really true though? Isn't it time to take a good look at those plates and explore the possibility that someone else could manage them, or maybe they just shouldn't be up there anymore? Children are resilient and the burden of emotional labour and multitasking needs to equal between both parents if they are ever going to learn how it feels and how to get better at it. Exactly how you make these changes might need thinking through carefully, but it is possible and making space and time to explore where you are now, how you got there and where you'd like to be could be the first important step towards attunement to your own needs, wants and wishes for the future.

Taking an hour a week to talk about how you are feeling, venting to someone about your frustrations, without judgement and just checking in on your emotions will not only benefit you but also your whole family. Taking care of yourself is the best way to take care of others. Seeing a counsellor once a week can give you that space to step back and hit refresh. 

Although this article refers to 'mum and dad', it is intended for any relationship where one parent finds themselves the primary carer for children. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cardiff CF10 & Clynderwen SA66
Written by Katie Leatham, Individual and Couples Counsellor/ Supervisor BACP, UKRCP
Cardiff CF10 & Clynderwen SA66

My name is Katie Leatham and I am an accredited, registered BACP counsellor working in Sussex. I work with all people including children and young people, couples and individuals, helping with a range of issues. I specialise in counselling for parents and especially mothers with postnatal depression and anxiety, or other family relationship issues.

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