Why Parenting is the Biggest Challenge to Maintaining My Mental Health

Little girl playing video games

This morning, I was woken up at 5:13 am by my six-year-old, who desperately needed a drink of water — and who apparently needed to whine at the top of his lungs to tell me so. This would not have been such a big deal had I not been up half the night with a bad head cold…the same cold my son had kept me up all night with two days prior.

Needless to say, I spent the morning with a pounding headache, a full day’s work ahead of me that I couldn’t put off, and a good deal of resentment.

This small snapshot of my life is not unusual. As a working mother of two, there is always a lot on my plate. It seems as though someone is always sick, in need of food or drink, or emotional support. And because they are my children and I love them to the moon and back, I find myself putting my children’s needs about ten miles ahead of my own.

Raising children is one of the most wonderful and rewarding things I’ve ever done, but if I am speaking candidly, it has taken a huge toll on my mental health. As someone with an anxiety disorder, the emotional impact of motherhood has at times made it especially difficult to manage my already fragile mental state. And I know I am not alone in this experience.

Mothers Bear The Burden Of The “Invisible Load”

Just the other day, I came across a recently published study in Sex Roles I found a little too relatable. Researchers found that a majority of women see their mental health deteriorate after having children. Women bear the brunt of the “invisible labor” in their homes: organization of their family’s schedules, other general managerial tasks, and care of their children’s emotional wellbeing. In the process, they often put their own mental health on the backburner.

“Until recently, no one stopped to think about mom herself,” said Suniya Luthar, senior author of the study, adding that “there’s no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health.”

In particular, says Luthar, all the emotional caretaking mothers are in charge of can lead to feelings of “emptiness” and “distress,” as well as “low satisfaction levels about life overall and with the marriage or partnership.” In other words, parenting — which we were promised would be the most satisfying task we could undertake — can sometimes leave us feeling depressed, anxious, and entirely unfulfilled.

Mental Health Disorders Impact Fathers, Too

Mental health struggles associated with parenthood affects fathers as well, and perhaps in more damaging ways. Men typically don’t express their feelings are readily as women do, and don’t seek help for their mental health at the same rates.

A 2016 report from the University of Massachusetts’ Journal of Parent and Family Mental Health, for example, found that postpartum depression — typically thought to just impact mothers — was almost as common in dads as in moms.

In fact, between 4-25% of dads experience postpartum depression during the first 3-6 months after their babies are born. Their symptoms are similar to the ones new mothers experience: lack of interest in normal activities, insomnia, suicidal ideation, and feelings of guilt and hopelessness. But dads typically experience other symptoms too — like irritability, avoidance behavior, impulsiveness, and even violent behavior — that can easily be missed as the signs of a postpartum mental health disorder.

Parents Need Support Too

So what can be done about all of this? Besides learning to recognize the signs of mental health disorders — and making sure more doctors and therapists understand the links between this and the burdens of parenthood — amassing a network of support is key. Unlike other times in history, there isn’t really a “village” for parents these days. Many live without extended family nearby, or a feeling of community with fellow parents. We go it alone, shouldering the physical and mental load without positive support.

Support can come in the form of a good therapist. One of the reasons I love online therapy is that it fits well into my busy mom schedule! Also, enlist as much household and childcare help as you can afford, making sure you congregate with other parents frequently to commiserate and share the struggle.

In my case, I know I have to make sure everyone in my home understands that we are all in this together., Contributing equally when it comes to chores and the “invisible” load isn’t just good for our home, but also good for the mental health of everyone in it. After all, if mama ain’t happy, nobody else is either.

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Wendy Wisner

Contributor