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Cure for the overwhlemed mom: Shut up!

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Honey, are you having a first-world-problem kind of day?

Honey, are you having a first-world-problem kind of day?

When my kids were tiny we would go to the weekly play group at the neighborhood Lutheran church. I loved the cozy atmosphere in that basement where church ladies served up Folgers and popcorn, kids crawled and ran around, and nursing mommies sipped coffee from white Styrofoam cups and enjoyed being around other adults.

Except one mom.

Each and every Wednesday this chick would be a harried trainwreck the entire afternoon, constantly dashing from her toddler to her preschooler, addressing one invisible disaster after another. If you dared ask her, “How’s it goin’?” you’d be met with: “Oh God! This one was up ALL night and THIS one threw a tantrum all morning and OH MY GOD YOU KNOW HOW IT IS?!?

Um, not so much. While we’ve all had our days, this exasperated, frazzled stay-at-home mom seemed to have one of those days Every.Single.Day. She has remained in my mind as an example of how we have elevated the role of parenting-as-work to a level that unduly exhausts and overwhelms us — and gives moms license to command sympathy far beyond what they are owed.

Like every other educated parent in this country, I pay close attention to the discussions raging about work and family and parenting and economics. On one hand, these are important issues, the critical finer points of feminism that must be ironed out if gender equality is ever to be achieved and children are to be raised with the care and time they deserve. But it seems the pendulum can swing way, way too far in the opposite direction. I fear that we (when I say “we,” I mean “women”) have spent so much energy convincing the establishment that housework and child care are indeed work, that we make it far more work than it actually is.

Bottom line: Parenthood is hard. But we can make it far harder than it needs to be. Especially when technology and social advancements should be making parenting far easier than ever in history.

I’ve been reading a whole lot of Stephanie Coontz, the brilliant and entertaining academic who writes about family and gender. In a number of her books Coontz points out the fact that for the vast, vast majority of history, families relied on the labor of both men and women (and until recently, children) in order for the family to survive. That means that in addition to raising children, women were working in fields, running businesses, and managing households without luxuries like washing machines, vacuum cleaners, bagel slicers or iPads loaded with toddler games. In other words, until the past half-century, women had to do a whole, whole lot more work, in addition to caring for kids. Just like they do in the vast majority of this world today. (Hello, first-world problems?)

So with all the luxury of modern conveniences and the absence of a vocation outside of parenting, why was this stay-at-home mom out of her mind because her 3-year-old’s ponytail holder was slipping out AT THE EXACT SAME MOMENT her baby’s nose was dripping?

Well, who really knows. Maybe there were other, critical issues brewing that I was unaware of. Or maybe, she unconsciously made the decision to lose her mind as a way to justify her work. To many of us, work means stress and overwhelm. If our only work is caring for two children when humanity has forever expected us to care for children in addition to working a farm and running a house without plumbing and electricity, we feel pretty lame.

And so we foster negative energy by blathering about our overwhelm, and creating stress where stress did not previously exist in an effort to foster the illusion that we are working far harder than we actually are.


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  1. Erica

    Yes, this chick is probably a drama queen. She probably would complain like this about whatever slight drama was going on in her life no matter what it was… it just so happened she was a stay at home mom to two young kids at that moment. Also, who knows what else she could have had going on in her life that could have been stressing her out?

    But in general, I believe we DO stress ourselves out about properly raising our kids in a way that parents haven’t done in the past. It is a delicate balance, I think, because we don’t just want them to run wild, either. However, to say that we should all just be happy we have dishwashers or whatever is also wrong. The fact that we no longer have to worry about our basic survival as we did in the past means we do worry about things like our emotional happiness and that of our children and also silly things like ponytail holders. I personally don’t worry about ponytail holders, but some people do.

    However, by choosing this particular example and the way you worded it, it sounds as though you are belittling stay-at-home moms as a whole. I know you disagree with the choice, but that is completely different than belittling the choice. If you wanted to make a point that we all stress about our children too much, I think it could have been done in a better way. The title of the article just says “mom”, but it really sounds like you mean “stay at home mom”…

  2. Honoree Corder
    Honoree Corder03-18-2013

    I’m so glad you had the guts to say it — I’ve said the same thing for years — there’s not so much to do we need to complain about it. I clean my house, make meals, help with homework, run a few businesses … and I still have time to read, workout, shoe shop, and keep up with way too many television shows. Am I that amazing and efficient? No, I don’t think so. I’m too busy keeping my mouth shut and “just doing it.”

  3. Emma

    Hi Erica,

    Point taken about how I’m really ripping on SAHMs. But I will extend this commentary to working moms, too. As Honoree points out, it is all about how we manage our time, energy and expectations of ourselves. As I said, we all have our moments, but the human condition was not built to be a strung-out mess 24/7.

    Your argument supports my point: “The fact that we no longer have to worry about our basic survival as we did in the past means we do worry about things like our emotional happiness and that of our children and also silly things like ponytail holders.”

    Right – so where has this worry about happiness gotten us? Where have those dishwashers gotten us? How about dads who change diapers and flexible work schedules? Sure, we have a long way to go to level the professional/economic/family labor playing field, but how much happier are we today than before the current advancements?

    • Erica

      That’s the problem… everything gets taken for granted eventually. When you get more, it makes you want more. Even with money, I forget the exact numbers, but happiness only increases with the amount of money in a household up to about $100K (maybe less?). After that, it doesn’t help your happiness at all.

      I don’t know if people as a whole are any happier than they were before technological, etc., advancements… we definitely live a lot longer and expect a lot more… and possibly we expect more without having to do any work for it. We feel entitled.

      I was guilty of taking my husband for granted too much before my divorce. Of “sweating the small stuff”. And so was my husband with me. I wish I had taken more time to step back instead of getting lost in the day to day. I think the best thing to come out of my divorce is that I’ve gained a lot of maturity as well as spent significant time reflecting on what is really important to me in life, relationships, family, etc. I am a lot happier now than before… I’m just sorry it took a divorce for me to spend this time on myself.

  4. nicoleandmaggie

    Oh, I dunno, I’d probably go insane home alone with my (active, adorable, destructive, never sleeping) baby. That’s one of the many reasons that I have a job. Not everybody is cut out for stay at home parenting, and that’s ok. What’s bad is when people force themselves into those kinds of situations when they’d be much better off in a different situation. Work allows me to enjoy all the time I spend with her.

    The happiness number was 72K, though I’m sure it must have inflated some since the study came out.

    Also: I <3 my dishwasher. My parents are frugal eco nuts, and that meant my sister and I were the dishwashers at home. (Though now I can argue that the dishwasher uses less energy than hand-washing.) That's another reason I make money. (That and air conditioning.)

    • Emma

      I agree 100%, we all have ideas about who we are and what will most fulfill us, yet we never truly know until we are in that moment. As for your dishwasher – that dishwasher MAKES you money! If you had to spend 20-30 minutes daily scrubbing plates and spoons, that would be time and energy taken AWAY from your work and kids.

  5. J

    It’s so easy to judge when you’re not in her shoes. How do you know what it’s like at her house? Try a little compassion for others. It goes a long way. While what you’re saying had some truth, you really just come off holier than thou.

  6. Betsy

    Oh lord. I just came across this post after googling “how to not be an overwhelmed mom.” For real. I think I was hoping to get some sort of list that would help me feel more organized, or that someone would magically pop out of the screen and take care of everything so I could go get some much needed sleep.

    I am the chronically frazzled mom you’re talking about here. I have a feeling if she had left her children’s pony tails half out and nose running, that you’d be critizing her for that as well.

    I’m not a single mom, but with my husband working 70 hours/week in a city 9 hours away from any family, it can sometimes feel like it. Reading this article was a huge reminder to me that compassion and understanding go a long way. I cherish the friends that listen to me vent on my off days, and I will always be there for them no matter how small I perceive their issues to be because we’ve all been there. And WE ARE THERE FOR EACH OTHER.

    Your judgements here foster negative energy much more than a woman venting about having a bad day, come on.

  7. AJ

    I agree with Betsy. This was a ridiculous article.

  8. T

    While I see your point about the complaining, I agree with the other mothers who’ve pointed out that a little compassion goes a long way, and that you have no idea what’s going on in her personal life.

    One key fact you’ve missed in your anecdote about historical motherly duties is the fact that historically, mother’s weren’t raising children in isolation. They had extended family and close-knit communities of friends, including older children, to assist with child-rearing and care. Babies were passed from mom, to aunt, to cousin, to grandma, to friend, so mother could get some things done. Extended family and friends played with toddlers, who watched and learned from older cousins and friend’s children.

    Many modern mothers raise their children in near-complete isolation, with no family to help out at all, and some don’t have the financial luxury of hiring a sitter or daycare for even an occasional respite. The situations don’t compare.

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