“Mental health is very much like physical health,” Dr. Kathleen O’Grady, a licensed clinical psychologist tells me one afternoon. “If you had a broken leg, you wouldn’t ignore it and just limp. You would treat and heal it.”
This connection seems like an obvious one, and yet tending to our mental health often takes a back seat—especially as we embrace our roles as parents. Why? Partly because we’re busy, and partly because our cultural narrative suggests asking for help means we’re admitting defeat. And yet, how can we hope to care for our children when we’ve totally neglected to care for ourselves?
I spoke with Kathleen about the new pressures modern moms face—and how these stresses may leave us more vulnerable to anxiety and depression than ever before.
THE SUPER MOM MYTH
Plain and simple, perfect parenting doesn’t exist. Though that’s certainly not the message women are receiving from expert child-rearing books and their Instagram feeds.
“I remember reading four different infant sleep advice books when my daughter was a baby,” Sandra, mom of 3-year-old Milla tells me. “It was the most frustrating experience because every author had something to say that contradicted the one before. I mean, who are we even supposed to believe?”
Kathleen explains that it’s opposing advice like this, coupled with the pervasive idea of the ideal mom that challenges women emotionally. “Never in your life have you wanted to do something so well,” she says of parenting, “And never has it mattered so much! There’s unbelievable pressure, and it’s a setup for tremendous anxiety.”
PERFECTION IS NOT THE GOAL
For moms, raising young children can come at a cost. We dedicate so much time and energy to giving our children what we feel they need that we often don’t make space for ourselves. As Kathleen explains, “You give up awareness of what you need, what you want, and how you feel. If you never nurture yourself, then your self becomes more and more depleted.” This, she explains, is one way to leave yourself vulnerable to depression.
To combat this and turn your attention back on yourself, even if briefly, Kathleen encourages women to reframe their idea of motherhood. After all, it’s not your job to be a perfect parent—in fact, perfection may even do your kids more harm than good in the long run.
“Your children require a less-than-perfect mom to grow well. Otherwise, there’s no need for them to adjust and adapt to the ups and downs of life,” Kathleen theorizes. “Being a good mom means leading with your heart and doing the best you can that day. And the best isn’t like ‘gold star best,’ it’s right there around bronze. And that’s good because it allows your kid the opportunity to deal with real life.”
Releasing the idea of perfection frees up space for more important things, mainly you. Use some of that time just for you, whether that’s 15 minutes with your nose in a book or 30 minutes with your nose to your yoga mat. Whatever you choose, implement a simple ritual each day that’s focused completely on what you need: a luxurious shower, a phone call with a friend, or a special meal.
Wondering what’s so life changing about these 15 minutes alone? Kathleen explains, “It’s a reminder to a mom that she’s a person too, not just a function. It nurtures and connects you to your sense of self, which you need in order to stave off depression.”
And what happens if these simple rituals can’t keep a mental health slump at bay? Acknowledge you’re struggling, seek the professional help you need, and go on. After all, that’s want modeling good self-care for your kids is all about.