Anxiety as a mother is prevalent in our modern society. It’s a real thing. For many people, ‘being a mother’ and ‘anxiety’ seem to go hand in hand. Two years ago I didn’t even know that anxiety was a recognised mental health condition. All I knew was that I hated the monster I turned into when I found myself in certain situations, and it was causing a huge rift between me and my children. The day I noticed that my girls were looking at me like I was a crazy unhinged monster was the day I knew that something had to change, I needed to get a grip!
In recent years, mental health conditions such as Post Natal Depression (PND) have become less of a stigma. People now accept that it is a real thing. How many of us can honestly reflect on those early months of motherhood and realise that we probably needed a little help but were either were too busy to realise what was wrong, or were struggling to admit to ourselves that we weren’t quite coping. I mean, we’re mothers. We’re supposed to be feeling like this right? It’s just tiredness, right?
As someone who struggles with anxiety, I want to start the conversation and I want ‘anxiety’ to be recognised for what it is, a state a mind that we can’t always control.
What Is Anxiety?
- distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune:
- earnest but tense desire; eagerness:
- a state of apprehension and psychic tension occurring in some forms of mental disorder.
What does that really mean though?
I am going to share a personal scenario from a couple of years ago that I lived through too many times. Let me know if you can relate?
I know none of us choose to take our children grocery shopping if we have an alternative, but the reality is that I don’t have a choice.
In the car on the way there I calmly remind the girls of ‘the rules’:
“When we go inside please remember to stay close to mommy? Please don’t touch anything, it’s not necessary, and the quicker we can finish, the sooner we can leave.”
When we get inside the store I immediately become distracted because my eldest child has already wandered off. I can feel my stress level rising. The youngest one is trapped inside the dirty trolley. I begin to feel frustrated because it’s not as simple as taking 10 steps away to retrieve the eldest child. Why? Well because then the youngest one might get stolen from your trolley, or empty the shelf of glass jars!
My voice starts to go up in pitch as I call for the eldest child. I can feel the rage building inside me. She eventually strolls slowly back towards me. I angrily explain that she must not wander off, she needs to stay with me, with the trolley! People are starting to look.
The youngest child then randomly puts her mouth on the handle of the trolley and potentially contracts some gross deadly disease (even though I know I wiped it clean before putting her in there).
Something inside me explodes and I either start yelling at them or talking to them in short, sharp commands through gritted teeth with a strained smile on my face that is fooling no one. Everyone around me now stares, and at least one of the girls starts to cry.
Eventually, I get to the queue to pay and it is literally wall-to-wall sweets and junk food on both sides for the entire length of the queue. By this point, I am almost in tears because as fast as I am taking contraband sweets out of the trolley, the girls are putting others in. They don’t even care that I am snapping at them, “No, put that back. No more sweets!”.
It’s usually at this point that you hear it – a ‘tut’. I look back and there’s an older lady in her 60s or who won’t make eye contact with me but is clearly rolling her eyes and whispering about me to her browbeaten husband. Her entire demeanour conveys the message of how she is exasperated by my undisciplined children and my inability to ‘control’ my children.
Clearly, I am not doing a good enough job in her eyes! Maybe she’d be happy if I smacked them? That’s how you did it in the old days, isn’t it?
It’s Not Over …
We eventually finish in the store and then I have to load the groceries into the car, whilst making sure that the girls don’t run into traffic in the car-park. I daren’t strap them in their car seats whilst I load the groceries in the boot of the car because what if someone steals the car with them in it?
My anxiety levels are through the roof, and we have all had a torrid time.
All I did was try to do the grocery shopping. the grocery store!
Is It Just Me, Or Are There Other Anxious Mothers?
Not so long ago I watched a heavily pregnant woman leave her full trolley of groceries in the queue and walk out carrying her inconsolable 18-month-old child, with tears streaming down her face. Why?
Well, she was unable to get him to stop throwing a tantrum.
My heart broke for her. The entire queue of people behind her were completely unsympathetic to the fact that this woman was having a very bad day. No one cared about the fact that not only had she had to deal with her over-tired child, and the judgement of strangers in her heavily pregnant state, but she also had to leave her unpaid-for groceries behind and would have to come back and try again another day.
This strong mother definitely dealt with it in a far better way than I would have. I’m sad to say that I would most likely have yelled at my kids in an uncontrollable fit of frustration and anxiety. This would have been done in the car though because ‘perfect mothers don’t yell at their children’, right?
I’m very grateful that a friend of mine is a GP who specialises in mental health. I met up with her last week and I was chatting to her about the topic of anxiety as a mother. Being a mother herself she was excited about the fact that I wanted to talk about how anxiety affects us as mothers. She said that the way she explains it to her patients is this:
Anxiety is like a superpower, you are like the hulk. The hulk is a normal man, going about his normal day, and then the outside influences and situations that he finds himself in cause him to explode and turn into the incredible hulk.
I’d never thought about it like that before but put in those simple terms, that is exactly how it feels to me.
As a mother, I never enter a particular situation intending to turn into an angry raging monster, but after dealing with so many outside influences I can’t control the rage. The anxiety overcomes me. It wins.
Triggers and Outside Influences
What kind of outside influences do modern mother’s have to deal with that weren’t even issues ‘back in the day’ and how do these influences affect us as mothers struggling with anxiety?
Here are a few reasons why we have become these anxious mothers:
- Thanks to social media, and well-meaning people not being able to keep their opinions to themselves, there is an unrealistic perception of what a ‘perfect mother’ is supposed to be like, even though we know that in reality there is no such thing!
- The constant ‘witch-hunt’ that exists between mothers themselves with regards to so many aspects of our daily lives: seat-belts, car seats, sleep routine, dummies, sterilizing bottles, the ‘right’ pushchair, breastfeeding in public, eating healthy food – not junk food, the list seems endless and overwhelming and the constant ‘fear’ of getting it wrong and being judged contributes to our state of mind. We all know they are important and necessary but we are just as worried about getting it right as we are about getting it wrong. This is enough to make anyone an anxious mother.
- The unrealistic expectation that children should always ‘be good’, ‘not touch’, in essence, be robots! Let’s be honest, in a world of constant overstimulation, it is unrealistic to expect our children to be mini-robots who follow all commands, but that doesn’t mean we can ‘allow’ them to run riot in a supermarket now does it? The anxiety for mothers to strike the right balance is real!
- Hygiene! We are living in a world where the unseen threat of germs and disease is something we are constantly afraid of. The continual threat is another cause of anxiety for mothers.
- Mom-guilt: the guilt we as moms feel for even wanting to have a life beyond motherhood causes major anxiety. We are told that as modern mothers we can and should have careers and families. We are told that we can have it all. The reality is though that in order to ‘do it all’ we often burn ourselves out, or end up living in a state of permanent anxiety as we try to be the perfect mother, perfect wife, the perfect career-focused and ambitious employee, exercise right, eat right, and be the all-round “Ms Perfect”! The fact that we often ‘drop the ball’, a reality of this type of life, is the primary cause of mom-guilt and anxiety!
Anxiety As A Mother in South Africa
As mothers in South Africa, we have additional layers of stress to deal with.
- Safety and security. That of having to keep our children safe from the dangerous people in this world. The unfortunate reality is that the world we live in is just not as safe today as it once was. We are constantly on the defence, trying to keep our children safe, not to take our eyes off them for even a moment, just in case. We see it in the news every day, the horrendous crime against women and children. Every Day! It is real, not imagined, not inflated by the media. It is a reality.
- Simply driving in heavy traffic is another anxiety-causing scenario for many of us. The sheer anxiety I feel when driving my children at 120 km/hr on the five-lane highway and feeling like I’m going significantly slower than everyone else often causes me to turn into a monster and scream and yell at my kids.
- It’s not just the sheer speed and unpredictable driving though. Even when I’m at a traffic light I am constantly scanning my surroundings anticipating a car-jacking. I often feel like I have a target on my back driving in Gauteng with my Free State plates. That is the reality of my life and that of many other South African mothers.
I’m sure these situations are not only applicable to life in South Africa, but I know that I personally feel far more ‘at risk’ in South Africa than I do when I am in other countries.
The New Normal
I asked my friend if this is normal? Are the feelings of anxiety I have normal?
Apparently, it is. Anxiety in mothers is extremely common, especially in South Africa, we just don’t hear about it very often. The reality is that we are not in control of most of the outside influences that cause us to feel anxious. We can’t always avoid them, we can’t move just because the traffic to work is bad. At some point, we do have to go out in public. It’s also not healthy to wrap our kids in cotton wool! Unless we can? Asking for a friend!
How To Cope With Anxiety As A Mother
The fact that we can’t control these influences means that we need to find ways of coping with anxiety. Some people cope better than others, whilst others need a little help. The help is there if you need it! Speak to your GP and work out a way of coping that you are happy with. This does not have to be medication, it can be counselling, tweaks to your lifestyle.
Try to identify your triggers. Once you know what they are then you can work out how to cope with them or even avoid them.
I’m not a doctor, but here are the ways that I have learnt to cope with my personal anxiety triggers:
- I forced myself to realise that there is NO SUCH THING as a perfect mother! We all do the best we can for our children and I am the best mother for my children. If my husband is happy with the way I care for our children, then this means I am a good enough mother to our girls. If I need external validation, his is the only one I should worry about.
- I also forced myself to realise that I don’t actually care what all the ‘tutters’ think! You can tut away love, this is the way my children are. They are not bad children, they are awesome kids who really don’t want to be queuing in this line either. Cut them some slack! If you can’t be understanding enough, that is your problem, not mine. I don’t need a stranger’s validation of my parenting or children’s behaviour.
- Don’t drive in Jo’burg unless I really must! Haha. This has got better for me as my confidence has grown. I’m less distracted by my kids now that they are older too. I can focus more on the driving and less on the yelling from the back-seat. This is obviously not always avoidable, but it is one of those things that is getting better as they get older.
Update: Since this post was written we have left South Africa and moved back to the UK. Many of the anxiety triggers I mentioned above have been removed. I no longer have to worry about the crazy driving, and my girls don’t slap each other whilst I’m barrelling down the highway anymore. I also really don’t care anymore what people think of me or my kids. We are happy and we are minding our own business. That’s not to say I don’t have anxiety anymore. I still do get it from time to time. The triggers have changed, but the frequency is much less. Moving was definitely good for my maternal mental health.
If you as a mother identified with anything I wrote above, if this sounds like your version of normal, please speak to someone? Anxiety as a mother in itself can cause mom-guilt and we all have enough of that in our daily lives!