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What to Know If Being ‘Just a Mom’ is Affecting Your Mental Health

As the United States faces a rising number of cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19), a new form of isolation has set in for mothers. Many are rarely alone, surrounded by their kids all day, hopping on and off their own Zoom calls while managing virtual school as well as the family’s emotional and physical needs. And yet, there can be a new depth of loneliness. Have you lost yourself in the race to get the family through another day?

It doesn’t take much searching to find stories and opinions that reflect the idea that the sole source of meaning and fulfillment for women is motherhood. Many women hold this belief themselves, sometimes unconsciously, striving to live into the expectations of society and family. I often speak with mothers who wonder if they are missing something and why they seem to be the only ones not 100% satisfied. They think, “Is there more I was meant to be? More to do? More to life?” Or the phrase “just a mom” comes up. Is being “just a mom” OK?

What usually follows these musings is a mixture of reactions. Often there are tears, or perhaps a quick change of subject, on to a safer anecdote about someone else’s needs. There is a need to run from or push down the guilt and shame that can come from simply thinking the uncomfortable truth that you are more than just a mom.

Beliefs about standards of motherhood are so deep, so ingrained in our culture and personal experiences, that often even exploring the questions is off-limits. Whether you work outside the home or not, keep a spotless house or not, or would be up for “mother of the year” based on your social media posts, you are more than just a mom.

Before going any further, let’s all agree that if you are asking these questions, it does not mean that you do not love your children or are a bad mother. Most mothers I know and those I counsel love boundlessly, serve endlessly and sacrifice daily for their children and families. And, they are human.

Many women have a strong, instinctual, biological drive toward becoming mothers, and it isn’t always an easy path. Some women do not want children. The journey of motherhood (in whatever form it takes) has a powerful influence on our lives and identities. And yet, there is more. To define ourselves by one role, one expression given the rich complexity of our personalities and desires is unrealistic and restrictive.

I know far too many women, myself included, who lived far too long under the impossible expectation that they should be completely contented as a wife and mother, period. As if these roles should be one’s entire fulfillment and being rather than just a part, albeit a large one. I have talked to many women who wonder that something is wrong with them for not feeling completely satisfied to be Mom. These thoughts can bring tears of frustration, self-criticism, doubt and shame at feeling like the only one who feels like something is missing.

Here’s the secret that isn’t shared often enough: the missing link is you. Somewhere along the way those other parts of yourself were neglected and hidden away. You may have forgotten who you are apart from your role as a caretaker and family cruise director. The good news is that these parts are still with you. They are not lost forever. But, they do need some love and attention.

The strain of forcing yourself into a single role and guilt for not living up to unrealistic expectations of motherhood begins to take a toll on our mind, hearts and bodies. Perhaps you’ve felt a nagging ache in your heart or emptiness in the pit of your stomach. Do you feel uncomfortable sitting still, easily distracted or stressed by messy countertops (or your personal pet peeve)? Maybe you find yourself short-tempered and easily irritated, snapping at your kids or partner. Or you may experience outbursts of tears when they can no longer be held back.

You are not alone. Those hidden, buried parts of you are struggling to stay quiet. They are essential parts that make up the full, true, beautiful you. Your true self has been buried for too long. The longer these parts, these needs, have been ignored and buried, the greater the impact on our health. Some see increased anxiety, panic attacks and depression.

Early patterns have taught me I thought the answer could be found by ignoring these signals. Get on with it, get busy, get moving, go shopping, numb out, have another glass of wine.

This journey is yours alone. Only you can rescue your essential self. This exploration has never been more important, as your body, mind and heart all point to a time of change. This is time for validation and affirmation of your longing. It is time to begin a journey of discovery, rather than ignoring or apologizing for having unfulfilled needs.

Learning to tune into my inner longings and desires is a process and won’t happen overnight. Sitting in that place of uncertainty and emotional upheaval can be uncomfortable. A holistic mental health therapist can help you along the journey, as do meditation, long walks, reading and journaling.

Are you ready for change? You may have reached the point where the status quo is no longer sustainable. The first step is simply paying attention and giving voice to the thoughts and emotions that call to you. Allow yourself to trust your inner guidance and know that a whole, integrated, real version of yourself will benefit you as well as your entire family and the world.

“You may cover a million miles on the way, but ultimately you will come to see that all along, your own North Star has been, simply, you. You are the best destination you could possibly imagine or experience. Welcome home.” — Martha Beck, “Finding Your Own North Star”

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog.

Photo by Shelby Deeter on Unsplash