I’m a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating maternal anxiety and stress. As you might imagine, given the current panic around coronavirus, I’ve been seeing a lot of stressed moms. These moms are understandably scared, and turning to me in the hopes that I can alleviate their (very understandable) anxiety. Many of them remark that they don’t want to be worried, because they need to “be strong for the kids.”
I need to be strong for the kids. I’ve heard this time and time again, and not only during times of national panic. For years, moms have sat in my office and explained that they simply cannot experience anxiety, or sadness, or anger, or any number of other negative emotions, because such feelings will interfere with their ability to mother effectively. Defined in this way, “maternal strength” essentially boils down to “sucking it up and moving on.”
When I hear a mom speak about strength in this way, I ask her what she typically does when her kids experience bad feelings. Does she tell them to “suck it up and move on?”
Of course, she doesn’t. Because moms generally encourage emoting of all varieties. When we see our kids in distress, we ask them to talk it out. We process their feelings with them. And why do we do this?
Because we know that our kids need to talk through their emotions in order to cope with them successfully.
If we consider emoting to be important for our kids, why don’t we consider it to be important for us? I’d argue that emotional expression is just as critical for moms as it is for kids, because we mothers routinely experience a complex mix of feelings. I mean, who among us hasn’t experienced a heady cocktail of pride, love, dread, guilt, anxiety, and frustration, just over the course of one bathtime or dance recital or teacher conference? We moms are constantly awash in complicated and sometimes contradictory emotions that seem to change by the minute.
Acknowledging our bad feelings actually makes us better parents. Because bad feelings serve as an important sign that we are struggling and need to make a change, before we become so overwhelmed that we have difficulty functioning. If we attempt to ignore our feelings, we will end up having an adult-sized meltdown, which will make it very difficult for us to parent effectively.
Here’s what I tell moms about coping with strong feelings:
Don’t ignore your feelings.
Whenever you notice yourself feeling sad or anxious or angry or any other negative emotion(s), stop for a minute and simply allow yourself to acknowledge what’s going on in your head. Many moms like to write down their emotions and thoughts in the moment. Phones are great for this purpose; you can easily log your feelings in the notes pages (or in one of many mood tracking apps).
Don’t attempt to control or change your feelings.
Regard yourself with compassion. Accept that you are where you are. This is especially critical during a crisis like coronavirus, when scary news comes to us at a fast and furious pace.
Think about how you can best respond to these feelings.
Once you’ve accepted your feelings, you can determine how best to cope with them. Coping can mean lots of different things. For example:
– Asking a loved one for help with managing the kids
– Letting your kids watch screens while you take an “adult time out”
– Texting/calling a friend for support
– Taking yourself and your kids out for a walk and a change of scenery
– Reaching out to a mental health provider
One additional point about maternal emotions and strength that deserves mention. Moms will sometimes tell me that they’re comfortable experiencing their negative emotions, but only in private. They never want their children to see them sad, or anxious, or angry. And in fact, there are circumstances in which it’s important to mask the true extent of our emotions, because seeing us panic will likely make our kids panic, too. The coronavirus threat is a good example of this. Our kids are looking to us to provide a feeling of safety, and it’s important that we give this to them, even as we remind them of the important precautions they need to take.
But there are many circumstances in which it can actually be helpful for our kids to see us emote in all our glory. For example, if you’re afraid of snakes, and your kids know this, and they see you go into the reptile house at the zoo, your kids will learn the importance of facing one’s fears in order to overcome them. Or if you’ve recently lost a loved one and your kids see you cry, they’ll learn that it’s fine and helpful to cry when you’re sad.
One coronavirus-related emotion that you can certainly share with your kids is your disappointment. Go ahead and let them know that you’re super-bummed about all of the disruptions and cancellations. Because of course, your kids are disappointed too, and seeing that you also feel that way will normalize their feelings for them. And once you’ve acknowledged your shared disappointment, you can problem solve together (I’m thinking about the patient and her son who are already planning his “virtual birthday party”).
So can we all agree to redefine what it means to be a “strong” mother?
A strong mother allows herself to feel sad, or anxious, or angry, or any other negative emotion.
A strong mother sees her negative emotions as a signal that she needs to take action to help herself.
A strong mother talks to her kids about how she’s feeling (when appropriate) and shares what she’s doing to manage her emotions.
Feeling your feelings, and figuring out how to respond to them, is the ultimate sign of maternal strength.