Working Mom Overwhelmed - First, Put on Your Oxygen Mask

When I came out of the fog of my first son being born I had what felt like a very short period of time (but probably average by US standards) to contemplate the immense task of returning to work, pumping, childcare, commuting. It felt like an impossible task with impossible choices such as leaving my infant in someone else’s care just to start.

I also knew before having my son that I was going to keep working. Being the daughter of a 60’s era feminist, the privilege of choice in my career was not lost on me. I took my time choosing and investing in a profession that felt meaningful to me. I was not about to surrender that just because I wanted kids.

However the actual logistical nightmare of two working parents, childcare and life was a whole other ballgame to be figured out. All while being flooded by intense attachment and bonding hormones. Keeping a foot in reality was hard. Sometimes I pumped milk while driving home after failing to keep my perfect pumping schedule I had written for the day.

When I see mothers in my practice I hear this complicated and layered story of all the pieces we are trying to hold on to, all the values we are trying to make sure we are honoring. It’s so intense sometimes we can’t even wade through it all while at the same time taking care of our family.

The idea of work/life balance sounds like a moving target that you can never actually hit. It’s a destination you can’t ever arrive at because its always changing. One day you have it all figured out on paper and then next day you wake up with a kid with a fever and are deciding who calls in sick to work.

Let’s not forget about how you can’t remember the last date night you had or the last time you got to go to a yoga class at an actual studio, not a video on YouTube.

It’s hard to get grounded in all this constant movement.

When I see mothers in my practice I realize what a difference it is to be in the midst of it all, blinded by the chaos, versus being the one listening to it and the vantage point that offers to really understand what needs to be addressed first.

There is a metaphor that I go back to over and over again. It’s that annoying but needed reminder you receive when flying on a plane with kids. The air steward reminds you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then your kids.

When we are overwhelmed by the demands of family and work we tend to keep plugging away, ignoring our need for oxygen until it reaches critical levels. This can show up in many ways: drinking too much; feeling uninterested/detached from your kids, partner or the work you use to enjoy; getting sick, (like chronically sick); turning to food for emotional needs instead of nourishment. I see it all. These struggles are usually what bring people in to therapy. They just can’t survive with that little oxygen anymore and something is telling them they need to take a big deep breath.

So how do we get a chance to take this big, needed deep breath when life keeps on going? We are running a marathon, we can’t stop and meditate. Yet, there are options available to us . When we get a moment, a pause to step back from it all, connect with our own wisdom and take a mindful look at our day, our week or our life. It could be 1 minute, or 5. It could be one hour. It isn’t about how much time but more the intention of tuning in, of listening to ourselves.

These days I am intensely grateful for 15 minutes of sitting on my porch to journal with my coffee and hear myself think. It doesn’t need to happen everyday but I’ve learned to pay attention to oxygen deprivation and not wait too long before I take a pause. I use to have the luxury to journal for much longer, even going on retreats just to journal. Ha! Who has the time now!

What I love about supporting Moms is helping them to discern what needs attending to first. Helping them to listen to what is needed right now versus what can be planned now, but take place in the future. Sometimes our depressed mood, or our irritability is telling us we need more time with the people and places and things we love, but we can’t leave tomorrow to go backpacking. However, we could ask a friend to go for a hike this weekend. Then we might talk about planning a longer trip over the summer where we get a break from kids and go for a daylong hike.

Being present for ourselves means making plans that are doable for this life, this wonderful complicated life, without giving up on our needs, without holding our breath.

Time Out Facebook In 6 Easy Steps

 A friend of mine sent me a distress text recently.  There was an update from her ex on social media; ex was recently engaged and my friend was feeling a mix of emotions over seeing this news. I responded with sympathy but also a firm suggestion; Some things are not meant for us to see. Maybe we aren't meant to stay connected to exes if it is painful. I reminded her of the good things happening in her life she could choose to focus on. She agreed and said she knew if she stopped looking and started paying attention to her own life she would feel better.  Easier said than done. If social media is a door we need to sometimes shut in order to stay present in our own lives how can we do that?

    On one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain, the hosts discussed two recent studies on social media use and happiness. The studies suggest a correlation between decreasing social media use and increased happiness. The study authors explored how social media use increased experiences of fear of missing out or "FOMO", more specifically we fear our relationships with others will suffer if we miss out on a social event. As the interviewer, Shankar Vedantam pointed out, when we are in FOMO we are essentially ruining the present moment we are in. We step on the possibility of enjoying what we have going on in our own lives when we focus on others.

As a therapist I often support clients in looking at their painful habits. Social media use comes up often.   Often we look hoping to take a mental break and catch up on our social world,  maybe see something fun like a cute puppy or a funny meme. Yet, we sometimes see something that triggers the opposite emotions;  a scary post about some strange, random food-born illness or someone raising money for a child who is sick and needs help with medical bills, or an update from an ex. We are thrown into an emotional world we weren't prepared for or ready for.

In the real world if we attend a friends wedding for instance, we are a little more prepared for the possibility of running into an ex.  We get to choose how resilient we are feeling or weigh the pros and cons of avoiding versus attending the wedding. We have space and time which equals choice.  Even in person, if someone starts telling us a sad story there are social norms and filters which create boundaries around sharing all the gory details. When someone is "sharing" face to face with us we also get to ask questions, get more info and process the experience.  In the social media world we are often alone with data, images and our thoughts and we can't predict what we will get.   Images can be very emotionally provocative without a human context.  Roll the dice and you may come up puppies, you may come up exes.

When the experience upsets us or causes distress I find we often lurch towards extreme solutions to the emotional roller coaster; “un-friend-ing” people in a drastic friend purge, swearing off all social media and entering into a no-media self-induced retreat or at our worst, impulsively ranting back in a destructive way.  These solutions are often unsustainable for many reasons and we may go back to using social media in the same exact unmindful way.

  Instead, here are a few middle of the road, mindful practices that may help us avoid the emotional roller coasters, build awareness and allow for a more balanced relationship with our media world.

1. Take a small, short-term and time-specific break.  Try turning off your phone at dinner every night or just one hour before bedtime.  This week I tried just driving to and from work with my phone off, no radio, podcasts or music.  Be specific in terms of a start and end to the break. Start with something that feels easy to try. It doesn't have to be a long time out, my 2 year old gets calmer when he takes a 2 minute time out.

2. Just notice the urge. When you feel the urge to impulsively pick up your phone maybe you still pick it up but you pay attention to the urge, note the urge. Slow down.  Being able to witness your urges allows you to sit in a mindful position of choice versus feeling at the will of your phone. Then you can decide if this moment is the best time to open up the social media wormhole.

3. Make access to social media incompatible with the situation at hand. Take your phone off Wifi temporarily or while at work, wherever you most want to be present in your life or have less emotional bandwidth. Maybe you don't care enough to use up all your data. Use airplane mode when not on an airplane. If you really want to get radical, take social media apps off your phone. If you have to do extra work to get access you may find you are less likely to do it. Also you can just watch yourself picking up and looking for something that's not there.  Like cutting the head off a snake, eventually the impulse will die when access is not instantly gratified.

4. Pay attention to the difference when you don't engage. Notice how you feel when you give yourself a break. Do you feel more balanced? More present? Do you notice things in your world in a different way? Feel more friendly or compassionate?  Do you become more creative?  These are all things I have heard clients report.  I noticed this week when I left my phone in the car while getting coffee I was more pleasant with the barista and I started a rather pleasant conversation with a stranger.

5. Do it, but do it mindfully. Make an intention and choose when and where to use social media. Surf Facebook when you are with friends so you have people to discuss things with and check yourself. Sunday morning Instagram-ing can be pleasurable when there's nothing else needing your attention and having a nuclear meltdown can be managed with calls to friends or taking a walk or just deep breaths.

6. Imagine and plan a replacement activity. If we look to social media for a mental break and instead we get more stress or worry then we need a better solution. What does make you feel better? 10 minutes of a meditation app? A short walk around the block? Grabbing coffee with a friend? If social media does not make our real life happier, then what does? We might have to try and find out.

  Now I can already anticipate the push back and believe me I had to consider the obstacles to change personally and professionally. As studies suggest the common argument for constantly checking our phones is the fear of being out of touch.

If I don't look at my phone I might miss an important email or call from work.  If I'm not on Facebook I'll miss important events with friends or groups.  I'll miss important political actions or events that I care about following.

  Here is the invitation, decide for yourself how much you actually value being emotionally available and in connection all the time. Not how much other people or your work values it but how much you value it. We do not have to give up our relationships, our passions or our livelihood in order to achieve emotional balance. We can pay attention when the balance is upset and we need to shift away temporarily to come back to solid emotional ground, meaning the present moment and our present life. We all need a good time out now and then. Perhaps it will make you more effective in your relationships, in your passions and in your life.

Non-diet approach: Flipping the Script on "Not enough"

    I meet so many clients (and people) who have lived so long with a story about themselves that guides their life, their love, their decisions, their habits. I can sum it up in a few words; "I'm not enough". It is a story I use to believe about myself as well.

   When I hear this story running in the background of my clients struggles with their weight, their love life or their careers I remember how that story made me feel, what it made me believe I needed to do to be enough. Let’s just say it was lots of things, lots of things that weren't helping me feel like I was enough. It felt like a hamster wheel.

   When we are caught in a "not enough" story, however it gets started, we often turn our solutions for feeling better towards our body or appearance(s). I think most people know good pictures on social media do not equal a good life.  If inside of us a story is saying, "You are not good" then we tend to look for ways to improve and what we see externally is an easy place to focus. However easy solutions are not usually best and there is a cost to focusing on the external; we neglect or stay blind to the internal messaging that is the problem.  

   There are so many predatory products out there which validate the idea we are not enough, i.e. the entire diet industry, reality t.v., or just our entire consumer-driven society. We are all chasing our tails to some extent in this society. Even college is a product we purchase hoping it will make us enough.

  So, how do we change the internal message? I find so much joy in helping people in their personal therapy to step out of the hamster wheel, get their feet on the ground and uncover the roots and branches of this story. Sometimes we all need help developing a new story, taking the old wounds or scars that we all have and letting them help us heal and grow rather than wither. 

  Recently I discovered and rediscovered some free resources (I've included on my Resources page) for flipping the "not enough" script and building a new story about ourselves that is about finding self-trust, intuitive wisdom and peace within ourselves.  For a real game-changer mindset, if you are ready to start loving yourself and connecting with yourself check out the podcast Dieiticans Unplugged.  I've been catching up with episodes, starting from the beginning.  I'm so happy to see non-diet, intuitive eating approaches to our relationship with food actually trending in the media. This gives me hope we will begin to change that nasty old habit we have in our media/society of fueling the "not enough" story.  When we change our story, when we start believing differently, then no one else can tell us we need to be anything else but who we truly are; beautiful, imperfect and whole.

12-Step Doesn't Work for Everyone: Why I Love Harm Reduction

My colleague and friend Cynthia Hoffman offered this piece of wisdom recently.  She offers another option to 12-Step, for those who need support with their relationship to substances. 

12-Step Doesn't Work for Everyone: Why I Love Harm Reduction

by Cynthia Hoffman on July 14, 2014
First appeared on the website PsychedinSanFrancisco
  She comes in and sits on the edge of the couch, anxious. As she tells me why she's sitting in my office, she looks over furtively, both fearful and defended. I ask personal questions, some that she hasn't answered even for herself. For example, I ask her what alcohol does for her, how it helps her. I help her identify the ways in which she has already employed harm reduction. Maybe she takes nights of the week off, or tries to eat dinner before she starts drinking. We solidify what she wants for herself, maybe do a pros and cons list about her drinking. She starts to relax in the seat. She begins to realize that I'm not going to give her a prescription of 12 step meetings or rehab, that I'm not even going to suggest that she stop using. She realizes through our conversation that she can be honest with me, that I'm not going to judge her or talk down to her.
This is a common example of what can happen during an initial Harm Reduction Therapy session.

To read the full article click here.
For more info or to connect with Cynthia visit