As I write this, I’m approaching the end of my seventh year of parenting, with my first born soon to be celebrating his birthday. Facebook memories keep popping up and are providing me with a glimpse into how I was preparing for life after my baby arrived.
I was most concerned with having all the right baby gear, finishing up some cute sewing and crochet projects and preparing for the birth.
I had no idea that a tidal wave of overwhelm was about to hit me as I transitioned from maiden to mother.
The toll the stress of parenting has had on my health is hard to measure or describe. But I do know that learning what my needs are and meeting those needs has been an absolute game changer in:
how strong I feel
how well my brain works
how much energy I have
how calmly I can parent my kids
What I’ve unpacked over the years - through my own personal work and through my professional work with mothers - is understanding overwhelm and why it’s such a common experience in our Western culture.
How I describe overwhelm is having a mismatch in demand and capacity.
When we have far more demands on us than we have capacity for, and not enough support to help us cope with those demands - we feel overwhelmed.
Overwhelm is also a feeling of being overloaded, stressed out or like we are treading water all the time.
Here are some of the main reasons why so many mothers feel overwhelmed in motherhood:
Increased Responsibilities: Parenthood brings a whole new set of responsibilities and tasks that we need to manage. And because the birthing parent needs recovery time after delivery, is entitled to time off work and oftentimes is lactating as well - it’s often the mother who is home most of the time doing the majority of the care tasks during the day. She quickly becomes the expert and default parent and starts to take on more of the unpaid responsibilities of the home.
Mental Load: Statistically, mothers tend to be the parents that shoulder far more of the invisible “mental load” of the family. Remembering to book and attend appointments, researching health and development information, managing food for the family, organizing shopping and grocery lists, etc. A lot of this inequality in mental load comes from societal expectations and conditioning, gender and cultural norms.
Lack of Support: Many moms feel overwhelmed because they lack sufficient support, whether it's from a partner, family members, or a community. Mothers need a lot more practical, emotional and healthcare support but the social and health-care structure isn’t there to provide that. In the absence of this built-in support, mothers are left to organize it for themselves, which feels like an impossible task when drowning in overwhelm.
Unrealistic Societal Expectations: Society often sets unrealistic expectations for mothers, portraying an image of a "perfect mother" that is unattainable and a fantasy. Moms feel pressured to balance multiple roles effortlessly, maintain a pristine home, run a side hustle, volunteer and excel in their careers…while being an exceptional caregiver for their children. Striving to meet these unrealistic expectations can lead to feelings of inadequacy, shame, burn out and overwhelm.
Sleep Deprivation: The sleep disruptions that come with caring for infants and young children are joked about, but sleep deprivation significantly impacts a mother's physical and mental well-being both short and long term. Sleep deprivation diminishes energy levels, impairs cognitive function, interferes with hormone regulations and increases susceptibility to stress, making it harder to cope with daily challenges.
The Self-Care Struggle: Moms often prioritize the needs of their children and family over their own self-care - because we have been conditioned that this is what a good mother does. Martyrdom in motherhood is celebrated and seen as the goal. But neglecting our physical and emotional well-being inevitably leads to burnout, overwhelm, and deeper health issues like hormone imbalance and the start of disease. Moms need time and space for basic care but also for activities that recharge and rejuvenate them.
Not Eating Well: When we aren’t fueling our bodies regularly, consistently and with quality nourishing foods, our bodies become stressed on a physical level, our nervous system becomes stressed and our neurotransmitters and hormones start to be affected. This can all have a cascading effect on our mood, our stress resilience, our sleep and ability to function on a daily basis.
Comparison and Mom Guilt: Social media has increased the tendency for moms to compare themselves to others, leading to feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Comparing parenting style and choices, accomplishments, and appearance to others can contribute to a sense of overwhelm and self-doubt. Social media can be a positive way to connect with people but we need to be mindful that it’s not creating more guilt, shame or contributing to our overwhelm.
Sensory Overload: Parenting small children comes with a huge amount of sensory input. Constant touching, sounds, smells, mess and chaos, ceaseless demands for attention, assistance or snacks. It makes sense that we get overwhelmed with the sheer sensory load that comes with parenting - especially if our nervous systems are on the sensitive end.
Lack of Boundaries: Difficulty setting boundaries - saying yes when we need to say no or not speaking up when we need to - can result in moms taking on more responsibilities than they can handle.
Everyone’s experience is unique and the reasons for overwhelm vary. But these themes that I’ve listed above are some of the most common ones that I see in the mother’s that I’ve worked with over the past few years in postpartum care.
Recognizing these factors can help us understand that feeling overwhelmed is not a personal failing but a result of the complex challenges and pressures that come with motherhood.
What is something that you know you need support with? Take some time to think about that.
If you are interested in professional support, send me an email and we can set up a time to chat about what support could look like for you.