On mothers, role conflict, and role strain
Growing up I don’t think I ever fully appreciated all the things my mom had to do to fulfill all the roles that she played. She is a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and an employee among others. As a kid, and particularly as a male child, I took it for granted that she would take care of me, regardless of what she was going through. It never occurred to me that what was happening at work, or what was happening between my parents, could affect my mother deeply. All I ever really knew was that my dinner was going to be cooked, my clothes were going to be washed, my sheets clean, and the home I lived in well kept. Those things I never doubted.
It wasn’t until I became a therapist and saw a pattern among my clients that I realized how physically and emotionally draining it can be for one person to take on all those roles. I see women who always put others before themselves and it wears them out. When I ask questions like “What would you like to do for yourself?” they often just sit and shake their heads, unable to think of anything. These women literally have not thought of themselves as anything except a mother/employee/wife in years. I might then ask another way, “If you had some magical ability to make the world stand still and you could do ANYTHING, what would you do?”. Given the freedom of imagination that affords unlimited power and resources what would a mother choose? I’ve heard “I would love to just take a nap!”, and I’ve heard “I’d love to be able to spend time with my kids without worrying about _______ (my job, my father, my bills, etc.).” This simultaneously speaks to how dedicated mothers are, that they cannot even imagine a world where they don’t worry about their family first, and it also says a lot about our social structure, that we expect women to be so self-sacrificing that they can’t even imagine doing solely for themselves.
We have shifted culturally from the sort of 1950’s “ideal” American family in which the husband went off to work every day and the wife stayed home and took care of the house and the children. Despite expecting women to work a fulltime job to help support the family financially we still have the same cultural expectations about division of labor within the household. This creates role strain and role conflict, often in physically and emotionally damaging amounts, for many women. (Learn more about role strain and role conflict here). Nor is this a new phenomenon of the 21st century with our fast paced, technology based society. In 1966 the Rolling Stones wrote “Mother’s Little Helper” about housewives of the day taking (and often becoming addicted to and/or overdosing on) prescription sedatives. Today women still do the majority of housework while also working outside the home. A 2010 study showed that women spend about 25.9 hours a week taking care of home and children to men’s 16.8 hours. The women who I’ve spoken with feel driven and even if they could sit and try to relax after work most would feel too guilty. Is it any surprise then, that so many mothers feel anxious and/or depressed? What a tragedy that these women who take care of us all are, arguably, underappreciated.
Finally, I’d like to take a moment to share my appreciation for my own mother. I may not have fully appreciated everything that you did for me growing up and I certainly took for granted that you would always be there, but now I recognize that if not for you I would not be the compassionate and thoughtful person that I am today. These traits are essential to who I am as a therapist and as a person, and for that I cannot ever thank you enough. I love you, mom.
Do you experience role conflict and role strain? I’m happy to help you sort through these complex emotions and learn to let go of some of the anxiety and/or depression that comes as a result. Call (706) 534 – 8558 or e-mail me at [email protected] to setup a time to talk.