The epidemic of stress for working mothers and the three things you can do about it
It shouldn’t surprise me but it does.
I still find it hard to read the latest statistics about stress for working mothers, despite having a front row seat in hearing the experiences of so many women who are struggling to combine their careers with motherhood and life in my executive coaching business.
Sadly women are now significantly more burned out, and increasingly more so, than men according to the Women In The Workplace report 2021.
It’s estimated that there have been 2.3m additional cases of burnout among working mothers due to unequal demands of home and work during the pandemic.
As schools closed and distance learning became the norm, childcare disproportionately fell to women.
The pandemic highlighted, and exacerbated, the deeply ingrained imbalance in society. Women, particularly mothers, are still more likely than men to manage a more complex set of responsibilities on a daily basis – a combination of the unpaid (and often invisible) domestic load, caring responsibilities and paid professional work.
Analysis from workplace-culture consultancy A Great Place to Work found that mothers in paid employment are 23% more likely to experience burnout than fathers in paid employment.
The statistics are heartbreaking to read - not only on a cultural level, as we’re at a critical crossroads in our history for women in the workplace - but also for me personally.
Eight years ago I had my own experience of burnout as a working mother. Within a year of giving birth to my first child I found myself suffering debilitating health issues. Despite several visits to the doctors and multiple blood tests, I was told I was just a new mum and every new mum feels tired. But I knew something else was going on in my body. I thought it was a mystery and sinister illness. And it turns out it was….but not what I’d expected.
I finally got diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I’d literally burnt out my stress system. As an overachiever, I discovered that I can struggle to realise when I'm drowning because I can hold my breath for a long time.
I’d been using willpower and determination to cope with the demands of being a working mother. Applying my well used strategies in my life before motherhood of working harder and longer to succeed.
So when I hit the burnout wall I thought I’d failed.
I told myself I was weak and incapable.
But this experience taught me so much about how to thrive as a mother, particularly if you are trying to balance a career too.
I came to realise that it wasn’t my fault that I was stressed. That the system we operate in as mothers doesn’t support us to thrive. Our current paradigm of motherhood sets us up with a complex mix of expectations that are impossible to meet. Then add in a career, where most women feel like they have to work like they don’t have children and then mother like they don’t have a paid job, and it can be brutal.
I’d burnt myself out trying to make a broken system work for me.
And that experience revolutionised how I approached my life as a working mother, so much so that I was inspired to create a specific division in my executive coaching business to support women who were facing similar challenges.
Life could be challenging for us as mothers before the pandemic hit, but then we were asked to give more than we potentially had in our reserves. So it’s not surprising that stress levels are reaching epidemic levels for mothers. It’s a theme that is almost universal in my coaching practice supporting working mothers.
Whilst it’s not our fault that the system isn’t rigged in our favour, I’ve learnt that we have to take responsibility for our resilience and wellbeing. If we don’t we’ll be forced to step back to save ourselves. Just like the 1 in 3 women who are considering downshifting or leaving their careers completely just to survive.
The long term impact for women in the workplace and gender equality is pretty worrying.
The good news is that, as women, we tend to be good at taking the initiative and are more inclined to do something about these burdens.
Here’s what we can do to empower ourselves as we navigate the broken system using what I call ‘stress disrupt-hers’:
Empower yourself with awareness
There’s a saying that I use in my work as a coach for working mothers that ‘awareness is curative’ meaning that what you’re aware of you can start to control. That awareness, in and of itself, can start to make a positive difference. Just knowing that being a mother in our modern society can be stressful can help take the guilt and shame out of the situation. Start to become consciously aware of what causes you stress - tracking the triggers empowers you with the data to create a plan to disrupt them.
Take care of your nervous system
Life as a mother, especially when trying to combine paid work with motherhood, is likely to trigger you into a threat-defense system (also known as fight/flight/freeze) response more than is healthy. If we stay in this stress response for too long it creates chronic stress; which is well documented as being damaging for our minds, bodies and health. So it’s important to take a proactive approach to soothing your nervous system.
A way to counteract this is to activate your mammalian care system - the part of your brain that evolved to keep infants safe during their vulnerable years after birth. This part of your brain you undoubtedly use well with your children but probably aren’t so good at using on yourself. When your care system is activated it releases oxytocin (the love hormone) and endorphins (the feel good opiates). These help reduce stress and increase feelings of safety and security. Proactively build activities into your daily and weekly routine that help soothe your nervous system to counterbalance the stressors in your life. Start to experiment with activities and habits that restore balance in your nervous system. For me these include weekly yoga, monthly reflexology and massages (the power of human touch is not to be underestimated as it stimulates oxytocin), and prioritising rest and sleep. Start to tune into what soothes your nervous system and do more of that!
Time to thrive
The average age that we are now having children has increased to over 30. For many of us this means that we’ve built some success in our lives and have a career that is becoming well established. This can offer lots of benefits as first time parents, but it can also create some unexpected problems when we have our children. The attributes and habits that have most likely contributed to you achieving great success in your life and work before having children, may not be the ones that help you thrive after having children. Becoming a mother is one of the biggest transitions we may ever have to navigate in our lives. We have to be ready and willing to let go of habits and practices that got us here, so we can fully embrace new ways that can help us to thrive. For me that included letting go of perfectionism, creating healthy boundaries, being willing to ask for help (and accepting it gracefully) and stepping into my personal power to ask for what I need in order to thrive. What might it be for you?
The bottom line is that we’re at an interesting crossroads for working mothers. If we continue to do what we’ve always done then it’s likely that we’ll be walking a path of trying to survive our stressful lifestyles - a path that isn’t fun and certainly isn’t sustainable. While it’s not our fault that we’re experiencing so much stress in our lives, we have to consciously and proactively influence the factors in our lives that we can. Empowering ourselves with the ability to change the things we can, giving ourselves grace for the things we can’t and for when we find it hard.
About the author
Nicky Lowe is founder of Wisdom For Working Mums and an award-winning coach who has personally supported thousands of executives in some of the world's best known organisations to navigate burnout and thrive personally and professionally.
She’s a mum of two children and, after having her first child, experienced burnout. This experience was a catalyst for her to reimagine her approach to work and motherhood. Nicky now supports women to combine their work and family life in a more successful and sustainable way - without sacrificing their sanity or wellbeing. Applying her coaching, leadership and psychological skills to help working mums to truly thrive.
Nicky runs a thriving community for working mums; running regular online masterclasses, digital courses and sharing insights through her popular podcast Wisdom for Working Mums. Head over to www.wisdomforworkingmums.co.uk to sign up to receive a weekly email with the latest podcast episode, tips and strategies to navigate life as a working mum.