The Secret Antidote to the Stress of Being a Working Mom
I have long had a passion for the plight of working mothers. You may think my choice of language too bold, but having been a working mother for thirty years, and a single working mother for six of those years, I understand how difficult the situation facing many working mothers can be. From my own experience and from talking with working mothers, I know they often sacrifice their own well-being to their efforts to provide the best they can for their family. But a burned-out, unhappy working mother is neither the best worker nor the best mother. Is there an antidote to the stress of being a working mother? Better yet, if there is an antidote, can this same magic potion help protect our children?
The short answer is YES! There are quick and simple strategies working mothers can deploy to mitigate their stress and build their well-being. These same strategies can also help their children develop stress mitigation that can last their lifetimes, and may even protect them from the risk of adolescent depression, which is growing at alarming rates. Many of these strategies are coming out of the study of the science of well- being. This relatively recent science is focused on helping individuals and families, and the communities they inhabit, thrive[i].
Thriving is not the experience of most working mothers, however. Aside from threats to overall well-being, studies show higher mortality risk among working mothers, especially those who are single[ii]. This is but one end, some might say extreme end, of the lack-of-thriving spectrum. On any given day, working mothers deal with stresses from the simple ‘not enough time in the day’ to the more complex ‘am I damaging my children by working?’ concerns (we will look at this question, and the reassuring answer, in more detail in subsequent posts). Maternal guilt over returning to the workforce is a very real challenge for working mothers, especially for those that have no choice but to work for economic reasons[iii]. Are there simple strategies to address these concerns? Yes! Are there simple strategies to help mothers not only learn to thrive but teach their children these same skills? Yes!
In this series of informative blogs and podcasts, I will share these quick and simple strategies. Each one may make only a small difference, but over time and when multiple strategies are used, they can collectively result in significant change. In this post, I will expose the challenges working mothers face and some of the research that provides clues to the strategies I will explain in subsequent installments.
One of the challenges in sharing these strategies with working mothers is time. In my experience as a working mother, time was something I had too little of, and of that elusive concept of spare time, generally none. Fortunately, these simple strategies are not time-consuming. Once learned, they have the added benefit for mothers of being concepts they can share with their children that will not only enhance their children’s experience of daily life now and for years to come, but will also likely improve the mother-child relationship, a key element in the risk for depression. These skills have also been shown to successfully reduce the risk of depression in children, adolescents, and college students[iv]. This should be exciting news for working mothers; I know it would have been for me.
In my experience as a working mother, one of the only times I had to devote to myself was in the car, after I had dropped my children at school, and I was making my way to work. If I had the energy, I might have 15 or 20 minutes at the end of the day to check my email or read. Most working mothers likely have at least ten minutes of time that they can spare to listen to the radio or, perhaps, an audio book or podcast and, with any luck, a little time every now and then to read a short blog post. These installments will focus on areas most important to building well-being for working mothers, including character strengths, resilience and optimism, ABC/ATC and thinking traps, active constructive responding, and last but definitely not least, developing an appreciation mindset. In fact, this appreciation mindset forms a sound foundation for the series. It is one of the easiest, and one of the most impactful, concepts for building well-being.
It’s likely that many working mothers like you spend as much, if not more, time at work than they do with their children. Because of this, it is important that any efforts aimed at improving the well-being of working mothers provide tools you can use both at work and with your children.
An appreciation mindset is a foundational concept of the science of well-being. Studies suggest that a grateful outlook on life, including a conscious effort to focus on blessings as opposed to burdens, fosters emotional and interpersonal benefits[v] as well as provides health benefits[vi]. There are many activities that can increase our feelings of appreciation, including an appreciation journal[vii], where things you appreciate are recorded, or the similar “what went well” exercise[viii], where you record at least three things that went well that day. An appreciation mindset also promotes the “savoring of positive life experiences”[ix] and the savoring of positive experiences promotes well-being[x]. I will devote at least one installment to these powerful strategies.
Along with an appreciation mindset, there are other skills and strategies mothers can learn to reduce stress and build their own well-being, as well as that of their children. The beauty of these skills and strategies is that once learned, they do not take any additional time. Many are simply a shift in perspective, an extra breath or moment between words, or just the thought of a different viewpoint. In addition to an appreciation mindset, which is a foundational concept, there are also character strengths, mindfulness, and the various mechanisms of resilience.
Communication between mothers and their children has been important since time began. If you are a working mother, then you are often exhausted at the end of the work day, when you must attend to the needs of your family, including managing conversations with children who are likely as tired and grumpy as you are[xi]. There are communication skills, such as active constructive responding, which can be key in maintaining positive relationships with children. Teaching this skill to working mothers requires identifying the primary response styles – whether active constructive, active destructive, passive constructive, or passive destructive. By learning about these four main styles, and how powerful the active constructive style can be in building and improving relationships, working mothers can become aware of when they are deploying each style and can make in-the-moment course corrections toward an active constructive response. This skill can be pivotal in not only building resilience and improving relationships, but to building the well-being of the entire family[xii]. I will delve into the nuances and ways to most effectively use active constructive responding in a separate installment.
The beauty of children is they are the supreme copy-cats! As you begin to deploy these strategies, your children are bound to copy your actions, even if you don’t actively attempt to teach these concepts. The simple act of using active constructive responding when dealing with your children will teach your children the tenets of this powerful response strategy. By showing a spirit of an authentic appreciation mindset and maintaining a grateful outlook on life, you can model behavior that builds friendships and positive emotions, enables creative thinking, and helps build skills to cope with stress and adversity[xiii].
Teaching our children to live productive and fulfilling lives is a goal of every mother; getting through the motherhood years with the least amount of stress in another goal. Modern life produces more than enough stress but working mothers have additional responsibilities and concerns which can amplify the normal stress of modern life. Learning simple, easy-to-implement strategies which can improve the experience of working mothers and build their well-being, and helping children learn how to develop their own life enhancing skills, are added benefits that can help working mothers enjoy their work experience and their motherhood experience.