Proven psychological strategies for moms.
Credit: Paul Gordon
New York, NY–Every mom is a Wonder Woman, no doubt about it. But too often–in pandemic times and normal times–mothers shoulder the bulk of household and childcare responsibilities, and wind up feeling anxious, exasperated, and overwhelmed. Why do so many moms try to “do it all”? How can they learn to loosen their grip, and delegate tasks to others?
“It seems completely logical: you’re having difficulty coping, so you ask your partner, parents, or in-laws to take your kids for a little bit (or maybe just bring you some emergency chocolate cake) after which you will feel rested and refreshed. Makes sense, right?” writes psychologist Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco in her new book, Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt, and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood–and Relax into Your New Self. “I wish asking for help were that simple. I can’t tell you how much time I spend encouraging moms to ask for help when they need it. But so many struggle with this, for a variety of reasons.”
In her private practice, Dr. Dowbrow DiMacro has worked with mothers who believe it is
their sole responsibility to care for their children, or who think that asking for help signifies failure. “There are also moms who desperately want help and are willing to accept it but don’t directly ask for it, believing their loved ones should just know they need it and offer it to them. Other moms like the idea of help in theory but don’t trust that their loved ones will do as good a job with kid-related tasks as they will. Finally, there are moms who just don’t feel comfortable asking for help,” she says.
Mothers who resist asking for help for any (or all!) of these reasons, can start challenging themselves to reach out. Here are six strategies for effectively enlisting help from others:
1. Actually ask! You may know how stressed you are, but your friends and family may not, at least not until you explicitly tell them. How can your partner or mother or friend be expected to read your mind? Don’t assume that anyone knows how much you’re struggling.
2. Be specific. When you ask for help, don’t just put out a general distress call. Be very specific about what you need and when you need it. Do you need a babysitter for a few hours on a Saturday? Do you need someone to pick up some diapers at the drugstore? Do you need someone to listen to you while you cry? Telling people that you’re stressed and need help is certainly a good place to start, but think carefully about what you need and what specific actions someone will have to take to help you meet that need.
3. Try to play to your helpers’ strengths. If you have a helpful neighbor who is weirded out by babies but is happy to take a Target run, ask her to pick up a few things for you rather than babysit. If you have relatives who keep telling you how much they want to see your kids, invite them over and ask if you can go out and take a little break. If you need emotional support, call that friend who is thoughtful and sensitive. You can even write out a list of potential helpers, noting what each person on the list is best at helping with.
4. Don’t look gift horses in the mouth. Moms often look in the (metaphorical) mouths of well-meaning relatives or friends who offer to watch their kids, decide that these hypothetical helpers’ childcare skills are not up to snuff, and refuse the help. If you are lucky enough to receive a babysitting offer, and you know that the potential babysitter will keep your child safe and secure, by all means, say yes! Your kid will survive, even if he eats candy or goes to bed at 10 p.m. or watches 3 hours of TV.
5. Recognize that asking for help is not a signal that you’re failing at motherhood. All moms are frazzled messes sometimes. Asking for help is not going to out you as some incompetent disaster. Instead, it will out you as a mother who looks out for her own mental health and takes active steps to cope when her mom brain is overloaded.
6. Start small. If you feel uncomfortable asking for help, start by making small requests of notoriously accommodating people. If you have a really friendly neighbor with older kids who has repeatedly offered assistance, try asking her to perform a quick task like bringing in your packages when you’re away. Keep asking for small things from generous people until you feel ready to make some larger requests.
Asking for help isn’t always easy. But, “I urge you to start challenging yourself to reach out when you need to,” say Dr. Dowbrow DiMarco. Motherhood is a joyful rite of passage, but you don’t need to go the road alone.