But let’s be honest, when it comes to motherhood and working-mum life, we swim in an ocean of unrealistic expectations.
From Instagram to Facebook, TikTok to TV, we are being sold a nonsense narrative about what a mum looks like in 2023.
She’s got a career and an aesthetically pleasing home that’s clean and tidy. Her laundry is organised and neatly folded, and she creates healthy meals for dinners and lunchboxes. She helps with homework like a teacher and still has time for manicured nails, tanned legs and the gym.
Of course, on a logical level we know she is a lie, that no one can do all of that in one day.
But the pressure to live up to her is real, as is the feeling of failure when we’re reminded on a daily basis that we can’t: when we’re scrubbing cemented porridge off the kitchen table at 8pm or fishing for whatever has been at the bottom of the laundry basket for a week and is starting to stink the house out.
What damage is it doing to us trying to live up to something so unachievable?
The night before I miscarried, I went to bed feeling unwell and completely exhausted.
I was bewildered at how I was going to do all the things I needed to do the next day, from getting children up and out, commuting, doing my job, all the usual stuff that I know I am privileged to be able to do, but which at that point, I just felt too exhausted to continue doing.
When I woke up in a lot of pain, in addition to the confusion and sadness and fear that I felt, I also had another very distinct feeling: relief.
This level of pain justified me stopping and taking a break. I would never have allowed myself to rest for a day if that hadn’t forced me to.
I know that is ridiculous but it is also real life.
And I know there are so many mums hanging on by the skin of their teeth, crying secret tears because they are exhausted and feeling that their struggle to keep up is a failure.
Not a societal failure or the impact of unrealistic expectations – but a sign of them not being good enough.
So from mums of newborn babies to those taking midnight calls from heartbroken (or financially broken) teens crying in nightclub bathrooms, what can we do to help ourselves?
I spoke to two wellness experts who are on a mission to help others: Laura Guckian of Mind Mommy Coaching and Miriam Kerins Hussey, co-founder of empowerment enterprise Soul Space.
‘We need to get honest about our reality and what’s helping us’
Before Christmas, Soul Space put on a six-hour show at The Helix in Dublin.
There were several musical performances and speakers but the day was largely driven by Miriam and her husband, performance psychologist Gerry Hussey, who took to the stage together and individually.
It’s hard to believe that the woman who held such a powerful production together was also nipping in and out to her three-month-old baby Bethany backstage.
But she’s quick to dispel any illusion that she’s got this motherhood stuff figured out.
“There are times when I feel very weak and not capable… It’s not easy being a mum and trying to work.
“I often ask myself am I doing the right thing, and what’s too much?”
She says she was “petrified” to tell family that she was going to get a doula to give her some help in the evenings for fear they would think “she’s useless, she can’t handle it”.
“We struggle to ask for help because we think everybody else is doing it all but we don’t know the truth of their reality,” Kerins Hussey said.
“They may have support. Maybe their house is sparkling because they have a cleaner, or leave their washing with the laundrette. We presume they do it all, but maybe they have a night nurse.
“We don’t know what supports other people have but we need to get honest about what’s helping us, what supports we are using and make that OK.”
False narratives around motherhood had devastating consequences for Laura Guckian.
Like most mums, she entered the newborn phase completely unprepared for what life really looks like when you have a baby – especially a baby with serious digestive issues.
After ten months of no sleep, rarely leaving the house and her own basic needs being neglected, she spent more than two months in a mental health facility.
Her recovery journey really only began when she left there. (She spoke about it movingly in this Mum’s the Word podcast in November 2022.)
“We have to start being open and honest,” Guckian told She Matters. “We have to talk about these situations truthfully.”
“If you think about before you became a mum, what did we learn about motherhood? ‘Motherhood is amazing’, ‘when you become a mum you give 100% to your child’.
“But when we become mums, we very quickly recognise that our reality does not match that narrative and we feel like we are the only ones.
“There is a societal expectation that the mother is this nurturing person and I think our definition of nurturing is that well, you just ignore your needs.
“But…you have to take care of yourself and your baby. It’s not one or the other.”
Now a mum of three, that lesson has stood to her.
“When I recently found out my two-year-old boy was autistic, literally the moment I found out, my brain went: ‘right, you really have to up your game here Laura, you really have to take care of yourself now because this is going to be hard.”
Difficult moments are often the point at which many will begin to further neglect their own needs.
“But I am programmed now,” Guckian says, “that the harder life gets, the harder I take care of myself.”
‘Not a luxury’: Giving yourself permission to look after yourself
For the women she works with, she says “the biggest hurdle we have first is overcoming that piece of permission, recognising that my needs are valid and important”.
This is how she illustrates to those women that looking after themselves is a necessity:
Imagine that your limit, your absolute breaking point, is here [holding her hand straight at head height] and everything else – every role and responsibility, mental or physical, that you have on a daily basis – is below here [places her other hand straight at chest height].
Now imagine the space in between is your reserve. If you have that space, that’s when you have energy to think clearly, you can make decisions, be more patient at home and perform better at work.
But if you have no reserve and that hand representing your roles and responsibilities is hitting your limit, you don’t have the capacity to deal with anything extra.
You don’t have the capacity to navigate the additional challenges that life throws at you every day.
(In the days after I spoke to Laura, I was putting up my Christmas tree and it hit me that when I have no reserve, I also don’t have the capacity to enjoy life’s happy moments. With shoulders scrunched up to my ears, I’m just thinking about what’s next.)
“When I explain the importance of reserve like that,” Laura said, “the women I work with start to see that, actually, finding a way to pump up their reserve is not a luxury. It’s something they have to do.”
Miriam Kerins Hussey says people often fail to recognise how important they are.
“We ask people we work with to write down the five most important people in their life – and then ask them did they put themselves on that list.
“The majority of the time they didn’t and we say, well you are top of the list. If you are a mum or a dad, you are top of the list because if your son or daughter – or your partner or family – were to write down their list, you would be top of it,” she said.
“If something happened to you, their world would be destroyed.
“So you do matter. Looking after yourself is critical.”
What helps someone else, won’t necessarily work for you
For Kerins Hussey, the most important questions to ask ourselves are: Why am I doing this? What is actually important in my life?
“By all means listen to and get advice, but then shut the door and just say ‘what is going to work for us?’”
The mother of two believes one of the fastest roads to suffering is trying to conform or to fit a mould that’s just not working.
“It’s important to set our lives up to suit our own family,” she said.
“If you are working, what are the supports you can put in place? Maybe you could get somebody to help with the washing and the cleaning, maybe you could outsource clothes to the laundrette or get a babysitter once or twice a week.”
Tailoring support to meet your own needs is vital, says Laura Guckian, and it can start with the simplest of measures – especially for those feeling overwhelmed in the throes of early motherhood.
“Ask yourself ‘what needs to happen for this to feel easier for me?’”
“When we talk about filling up our reserves, there is a narrative out there that looking after yourself means going for a walk, meditating…those things are great but they don’t always help.
“It is genuinely about what you need and want. It is not about what some well-being expert is telling you is good for you or what somebody is saying worked for them, it’s about exploring what you need.
“That could be going up to your room and watching Netflix for half an hour, that could be getting your favourite take away or using paper plates so that you don’t have to deal with more dirty dishes today: whatever will bring you a moment of happiness, a moment of releasing that pressure.”
The transition to motherhood is HUGE and there’s a word for it: Matrescence
Matrescence is one of those words that when I first heard it, it changed how I saw the world and everything made a little more sense.
Coined by anthropologists, it describes the process of becoming a mother as similar to that of adolescence.
“[It] is an experience of dis-orientation and re-orientation marked by an acceleration of changes in multiple domains: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual,” says Dr Aurélie Athan.
Research shows that a woman’s brain seems to change ‘more quickly and more drastically’ during pregnancy and the post-partum period than at any other time in her life.
So amidst all the beauty and love and joy that you might be feeling, there are a lot of other things going on.
Guckian points out that during matresence, we not only physically change, but from a psychological and emotional perspective.
“During pregnancy and post-partum period we are at our most vulnerable from a psychological perspective. Psychologists and psychiatrists describe it as a fertile time for mental illness.
“If you were prone to anxiety or even just liking routine or doing things in a certain way, you may experience that in a more heightened way when you become a mum.
“And then we have this massive lifestyle change where our core needs are not being met, sleep is gone, your eating is probably not what it was and you’re navigating a massive shift in identity from perhaps being on a career path to being at home alone with a baby.
“All these changes are happening but the support does not match that reality,” she said.
So if you’re feeling like the transition to motherhood is much more all-consuming than you ever imagined, you’re not alone. Acknowledge and accept how you are feeling, and be kind to yourself.
If you need some support, we have links and contacts at the bottom of this article.
If you do nothing to change the situation, nothing will change
When we’ve taken care of our most immediate needs and eased the pressure – created a little reserve – Laura Guckian says that is when it is time to look at what or if anything needs to change more long-term.
“Do I want additional support? What does that mean for me? Is that working with a life coach, is that talking to my GP or having a conversation with my partner.
“If this mum is in work, what conversation can she have with her employer to try to ease some of the stresses?”
One example Guckian gives is the stress that surrounds children falling ill – because the reality is they will. Regularly.
If your employer doesn’t have policies in place that match your needs, can you bring a solution?
“Have it out with them: if my child becomes sick and I have to pick her up, can I log back in at 8pm to finish it off. What agreement can we come to that works for both of us.”
Have those conversations with your partner about where the load can be shared more fairly.
“We have a schedule, my husband and I,” says Guckian, “so this week I am on call and next week he is on call if one of the children gets sick.”
Another powerful question she suggests asking yourself is: If I do nothing, what will happen? How will this situation look in two months, five months, next year?
When it comes to bigger adjustments like a change in job or working fewer hours, Miriam Kerins Hussey says it doesn’t have to be a dramatic or reckless shift.
“The biggest lie we have been told is that we can’t change. Yes we can…fear and the stories in our head are what stops us.”
“You can work toward where you want to be and where you want to go, so if you are in a job right now and you are gone all day and you don’t like that – what can you do to try and shift that change?”
She worked for 10 years as a pharmacist and wanted to move into the wellness and coaching space but didn’t want to leave the financial security of her job.
“I am a very cautious person, I am not someone who can jump without a safety net, so I started to do things on the side,” she said.
“I did extra courses, I was always learning and building it up, then I reduced my hours and started to teach yoga part-time, started to do coaching.
“I worked part-time in what I was really passionate about until I got to the stage that I felt OK, now I’m ready to fully take the leap.”
“I would say to people, this is your one, beautiful, short life and it’s not a dress rehearsal. If there is something you want to do, set yourself up to do it.”
Maternal Mental Health Alliance list of support services
Women’s Resource and Development agency’s maternal mental health resources
Sure Start offers a range of mental health and well being programmes for families
South of Ireland
There are links to several resources for pregnancy and post-natal mental health care at this HSE site but if you have any more direct links that you think would be helpful to other women, please do send them through.