I am a 42-year-old mother of two and I am finding it increasingly stressful to maintain what I think of as “the smiling face of Mum” during the Covid-19 crisis. I am the oldest of three siblings and I was always the one in the family who put a bright face on things and rallied round and got everybody through.
I think, as a child, I was happy with that role; being the positive, practical one. But when I had my first child, 14 years ago, I found myself struggling. I was overwhelmed and needed some help but I felt everybody expected me to know how to cope and just get through. I felt so alone with it all. That feeling of almost not being allowed to stop being the strong one and admit I need support myself has come back with a vengeance in these terribly worrying days.
I have my husband at home worried he’s going to lose his business; my kids are at home sad, angry and confused about why they can’t hang out with their friends; a fragile, aged mother self-isolating in Norfolk; a brother who is struggling and drinking himself stupid most nights; and a sister who is eight months pregnant and her anxiety is going through the roof. They are all looking me to help them out. On mother’s day, I almost snapped, I just felt overwhelmed because of the pressure of them all expecting me to be “Smiling Mum” soldiering on, and sorting it all out for everybody else. When what I really wanted was a bit of a cry and some comfort myself.
Is that horribly selfish? It’s just that this Coronavirus thing is very worrying for me too, and so when people keep expecting me to keep on holding everything together, I worry I might just collapse. It’s so exhausting! Vanessa, Croydon
I know that the coronavirus outbreak has created demanding and difficult situations for everyone, but I do think that it is particularly hard on mums, because people, no matter what age or relation they are, will always look to the mothers to make things better.
So, wow! You are carrying a lot and, no, it is most definitely not selfish to want a bit of support yourself. I think part of the problem is that, not only do all the people in your life depend on you being the “smiling face of mum”, but that you do too. Being the practical caring, coping one as a child got you validation and was the way you felt heard and cared for. So there is a part of you now that finds it hard to show a vulnerable side and ask for help. However, in the logic of the announcement at the beginning of an airline flight telling you to use your oxygen mask first, you have to learn to both self-care and seek support so that you can all survive this.
Try to focus your attention on today, and the next few days, rather than projecting and predicting into the unknowable future. Choose to do activities you find comforting, whether that is having a bath, talking to a friend, or going for a walk (which at the time of writing we are still all allowed to do once a day). Planning these things for yourself will help to calm you.
Then you can start to think about the kind of space and care you would like for yourself, and apply that to others. So, rather than being that “perma-smiling mum”, constantly telling them it’s all going to be okay, or rushing in to support them, you can allow them to sit with their feelings and be sad, angry and confused. This will give you space to share your feelings about it all too. And then you can agree to do something together: such as make a meal, water the pot plants, or Skype an elderly relative.
That way, rather than them all looking to you as a beacon of hope, you, and those closest to you, will recognise that we are all in this together. In a way this Covid-19 situation is a great leveller. I have had to move all my clients’ sessions online so we literally have a different way of communicating. And they all know that I may have some of the same worries as them about the Coronavirus, so the therapeutic alliance has slightly shifted and can be rethought.
In a way, I think this is an opportunity for your family to shift focus about you. They can start to take in that you, too, have to deal with a lot of uncertainty, and that you all need to pull together, rather than look to you for solutions all the time. You can get them to think with you, about how start doing things differently so you can all help each other through this.