I’ve had a unique glimpse into the psychological challenges faced by women who parent alone as the founder of Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere (ESME). In chat rooms and Facebook groups, I’ve observed solo moms thriving and succeeding—but I’ve also interacted with solo moms who are lonely, exhausted, anxious and pushed to their limit.
My work with solo moms has proven to me that the realities of motherhood, regardless of one’s relationship status, can undermine the mental health of moms.
Women are routinely screened for postpartum depression after childbirth, but concerns about maternal mental health quickly fall off the healthcare system’s radar after that. Andlthough most Americans are beginning to grasp the often devastating consequences of post-partum depression, we aren’t talking enough about the daily onslaught of social challenges that mothers are expected to endure.
It’s time for our society to recognize the value of prophylactic mental health.
Motherhood taps women’s depleted psychological resources, and many moms don’t have the time or energy to understand why they feel so awful. As a result, they internalize their feelings and do the best they can, day after day.
One of the most psychologically destabilizing realities of modern motherhood is that we are expected to care for entire families at home, as if we don’t have careers, and that our employers expect us to work in the office as if we don’t have children. These contradictory expectations take a psychological toll on millions of working moms who scramble and sacrifice to balance each day. Without family leave, affordable childcare and other needed support, too many of us feel worn down, exhausted and guilty.
One of the most common complaints of moms, especially those with younger children, is sleep deprivation. In their effort to get it all done, moms are operating with too little sleep. Exhaustion has become the norm. But the cumulative impact of sleep deprivation is dangerous for our mental health—contributing to depression, anxiety, stress, panic attacks, and other health problems. (Not to mention the negative trickle-down effect on our families!)
The burdens of caregiving and housekeeping, mom guilt and sexism also impact our well-being. Women, and particularly mothers, perform the large majority of unpaid care work—whether for the elderly, the sick or the children in their families. We overwhelmingly step up to the herculean task of caring for children with special needs and chronic illness. The weight of this burden is relentless and harsh, and it often compromises a mother’s ability to care for herself. “Mom guilt” lurks behind our decisions to compromise sleep, work extra hours, compromise our own health or risks our jobs to stay home with a sick child. Meanwhile, friends, family and the media fixate on perceived flaws in our mothering. Fierce love for our children makes us susceptible to our own second-guessing and ongoing regret.
Employed mothers also contend with unequal pay, mansplaining a lack of mentors, and barriers to upward mobility—not to mention a host of intolerable behaviors such as sexual harassment, body shaming and the threat of sexual assault.
For single mothers, the psychological pressures of motherhood—including sleep deprivation, stigma, conflict with an ex and financial insecurity—are magnified. Add racism, xenophobia, poverty, fear of gun violence and homophobia to this list, and it’s no wonder so many moms are hurting.
If mothers had access to mental health support, they would be able to process and contextualize their feelings as legitimate and valuable. Therapists, support groups or organizational counselors could help mothers put these feelings in perspective when they’re too exhausted to think straight—but, whether solo or coupled, only a privileged few moms can even afford therapy or participate in the self-care needed to steel them against the overwhelming pressures of motherhood.
Mental health is a building block of women’s empowerment. Psychological and emotional support can show women that they’re not alone and empower them to find ways to avoid and end abusive relationships.
Until we acknowledge and grapple with the significant social challenges to maternal mental health, moms will continue to suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, exhaustion and PTSD than the general public. We must ensure that mothers get the support they need to understand the structures that make motherhood so psychologically disempowering.
Maybe then we will find the strength and will to fight for a society that frees mothers from socially harmful behavior, judgments and expectations that keep our families from thriving.