Moms and Stress: How to Be a Present Parent

two women racing after little girl and dog in a city scape with coats on

Is there any role in life more stressful than that of mother? Caring for our kids and managing our household – not to mention our work outside the home – can be chaotic and at times overwhelming. This episode of Total Health Radio examines how stress affects us physically and emotionally, and it explores tips for working through common stressful situations (dinnertime, anyone?). It also touches on the challenges and benefits of mindfulness in parenting, and how small shifts in perspective and expectations – of our children and spouse as well as ourselves – can help us stay cool when life’s hectic pace takes its toll.

About the Guest
Jennifer Whaley, MD, is a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta, Georgia.

Episode Host
Joyce Gottesfeld, MD, is an OB/GYN with Kaiser Permanente Colorado, where she’s worked 17 years. She’s a wife, proud mother of three girls, runner and blogger. Read more about Dr. Gottesfeld.

Learn More
Looking for more information about managing the stress of motherhood?  Explore more in the links below.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  Welcome to Total Health Radio, I’m Dr. Joyce Gottesfeld. Everyone experiences stress at times, but there’s a deeper level of stress that many of us cannot understand until we become moms.  I don’t know about you, but between work, getting my kids to all their activities, being a wife, managing the house, my life is chaos and it is stressful.  Doctor Jennifer Whaley is a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente in Georgia, and she’s here today to talk with us about the stresses of motherhood, and give us some tips about how to deal with these stressors.  Thank you for joining us today Dr. Whaley.

DR. WHALEY:  Thank you for having me.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  We all feel stress. What exactly is stress, what does that mean?

DR. WHALEY:  It’s an interesting question because from a psychiatric perspective we talk about stress all the time but it’s not really a psychiatric term, it’s more of a sort of layman’s term.  If you look it up in a dictionary the actual definition is, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from very demanding circumstances.”  Now notice that it says “strain” or “tension.” It doesn’t necessarily imply that stress is bad, and I think what’s really important to know is that this tension is very subjective.  So that experience that I might have in a specific situation would be very different from what you might experience in a situation.  So, it’s a heightened arousal because of some kind of stressor.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  So it’s experienced differently by different people.

DR. WHALEY:  Absolutely.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  Is there a healthy stress?  Is some stress okay?

DR. WHALEY:  Yes, yes.  To give you sort of an extreme example, if I were dropped in the middle of the Serengeti in Africa, surrounded by lions, it would probably be great for me to have a bit of stress, right?  Because when a person becomes stressed, certain things happen to your body: Your eyes dilate so that you can get more light in, and so that you can see things more clearly. Your heart rate speeds up, your blood pressure increases. Those things let me run away and react faster; blood sugar increases so that my brain gets more food. So all of those things are extremely adaptive in those circumstances. And actually, studies show that there’s sort of what is called an “area of best performance,” meaning if you’re in a very low stress environment, most people don’t perform as well, they’re sort of bored.  But as stress increases, their performance increases until you reach this sort of maximum threshold after which performance actually declines markedly. And that’s because at that point the stress becomes unmanageable, and then the person’s just experiencing anxiety and it actually interferes with performance.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  So like having the pressure of a deadline or something kinda gets you moving, but those responses that you were telling me about before that are good in the Serengeti while you’re facing down a lion, are not so good necessarily at work or standing at the kitchen table at 6:30 when you’re trying to put dinner together?

DR. WHALEY:  Yes and no, it depends on the person.  In the short term, stress can be very adaptive, but it becomes a problem when either the stress is too high, where I’m feeling so much stress that I’m so paralyzed that I can’t run away from the lion, or the stress lasts for too long.  So, those experiences that we’re having when we’re stressed are really fight or flight sort of things.  They’re not designed for your body to experience long term.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  So let’s bring that into the everyday world.  Let’s take the example of moms, because a lot of moms I think feel a lot of stress because they have so many responsibilities. And you know I’ll certainly say if women also have a job outside the home, but this really applies to any mom – I mean walking into the house and having a bunch of kids come at you is sorta like being in the Serengeti with a lion staring you down.  So let’s talk a little bit about that.  What things are unique to moms that add to their stress?

DR. WHALEY:  That’s a really great question.  I think that mothers, particularly early on, deal with some body changes that really enhance the stress response.  So when you become a new mother, as all mothers know, there’s usually a period of sleep deprivation which may last months or years depending on how well your child actually sleeps through the night.  There are hormonal changes after you give birth, and all of those things take what would be just ordinarily a stressful situation and can really magnify it. And then adding to that, there’s stresses on relationships when you have children.  So what might have been a very functional partnership all of a sudden can be really difficult if you or your partner disagree about how to parent your children, or who’s gonna wash the dishes, who’s gonna change this diaper?  I think also, from women especially, there’s a guilt that often comes from working and being a mother.  Now certainly this can happen in other circumstances too, but it’s really hard to miss recitals or other milestones in your child’s life because you have to work. And how a woman deals with that can have greater implications.  Some women find that they might be more prone to be a bit more permissive, because, “I feel so bad about this, I’m gonna let you get away with this bad behavior.”  Or other women – and I think this is particularly common – will tend to not really take care of themselves because they feel guilty about having not been around their kids, and so it’s really hard for them to say, “No, this is my time. This is mommy’s time.”

DR. GOTTESFELD:  I know I’m having a little palpitation just talking to you here.  You really need to have some – I hate to use the tired phrase, “me time,” but as a human being you need to have some time to yourself to think, to process, to exercise.  You need to have that to be able to have your brain function normally I think.

DR. WHALEY:  Oh I 100% agree.  Couldn’t have said it better.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  And you know the whole sleep issue is interesting, because you think about it as the early stages of life; your baby gets up in the middle of the night to feed, and then eventually the baby learns to sleep, but it seems like as a baby gets close to any milestone, they go through another period where they don’t sleep very well – and as they get older their kids have anxiety about school or things at school, and then you’ve got to stay up late to help people with homework, and then you’ve gotta stay up late and wait for your teenager to get home from a party, and then they’ve got their license, and then I’m imagining you never sleep when your kid’s driving a car.  I mean I think that’s also a source of stress is that there’s no end in sight.  It’s not like studying for a test, you take the test, it’s over.  It kinda goes on for the rest of your life!

DR. WHALEY:  Well yes.  I mean hypothetically you get to a point where they’re not waking you up in the middle of the night with nightmares and they’re living on their own and taking care of themselves, but you’re right, absolutely, the rest that you have as a parent is sort of with one eye open so to speak.  Whereas you might go get your nails done before and turn your phone off, as a parent you kinda can’t do that, you need to be available in case something happens, and the same is true when you’re sleeping.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  You know, I was talking to a friend of mine earlier, another doctor friend.  I was saying that my daughter had something a few months ago where her school went on lock-down, and I was working and I didn’t check my phone, and she calls me and says, you know I was evacuated from school half an hour ago, how come you didn’t answer your phone?  And I thought, “Because I suck as a human! I don’t know what to tell you.”  It’s like you can’t turn it off.

DR. WHALEY:  Well I think that you also bring up a really good point there, which is I think that oftentimes mothers feel like they have to be perfect, or if not perfect, you know have higher expectations for themselves than what is really truly feasible. And I think that “I suck as a human being,” or, “I suck as a mother” when you’re not able to live up to this ideal that you set for yourself that is just not attainable is something that we women experience a lot and I don’t think that we talk about it as much as we maybe could.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  I think you bring up such a good point there.  I mean, a really good parent is really just a good enough parent.  Like you said, nobody’s perfect.

DR. WHALEY:  Right, I think at the end of the day we can only do the best that we absolutely can, and you just have to sort of let the rest of it go and let it be what it will be.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  So I want to go over a few examples with you that I get asked about.  So a mom gets home after a long day at work, or she’s been with her kids all day and it’s just been really busy, she hasn’t had any downtime.  She’s trying to get dinner ready, get everybody to the table, and everybody’s trying to get her attention. Somebody needs an ear sewn back on a doll, somebody needs help with their math, somebody’s crying because so and so pushed them at school. So what are some tips for the mom for staying cool in this circumstance?  Keeping a cool head at the end of a chaotic day.

DR. WHALEY:  Right, so I think this example really lends itself to thinking about what your priorities are.  When you come home at the end of the day and everybody’s getting your attention, what is most important?  For some people it’s really, “I just need to get this done so I can get on to some other things.” And so in that case, it’s probably important to set your limits.  Let the kids know, “You can’t cross this line in the kitchen for the next 15 minutes, because I need to get dinner on the table,” or, “All requests for dolls ears to be reattached, et cetera, can only be made after 7:00 pm.”

DR. GOTTESFELD:  That’s good.

DR. WHALEY:  Other people, dinner time is a family affair, right? And that’s what they want their children to really take from it. And so it may mean that you have kind of an interesting dinner, so to speak, because you’re involving your kids in the process. And so you distract them from having the dolls ear sewn back on by saying, “Can you chop these vegetables for me? Can you set the table for me?”  And then it becomes a really collaborative process.  I think that if you’re someone who you get home and you just have tons and tons of things to do, the other thing that you can really do is plan ahead, manage your time ahead of time as much as you possibly can. Maybe you’re gonna have a crock-pot meal, maybe you’re going to order out if you absolutely have to. But at the end of the day, all of these small issues are really just that, small issues, right?  So I think it can always be helpful to sorta take a deep breath and ask yourself again why am I here, what do I need to accomplish, what is most important for me to get done in the next hour, two hours, et cetera, and just sorta let the rest of it go.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  I think that’s great advice.  You know I started out as a yeller, a parent who yells a lot, and I fortunately realized that didn’t work, and so I think in that situation some self-talk about not yelling, I think your kids take the cue from you.  So, if you ramp up, they ramp up; if you stay cool, you at least have a shot that they’re gonna stay cool.

DR. WHALEY: Absolutely.

DR. GOTTESFELD: I wanna ask you about another example though. When you are trapped in the car.  So you’re in the car, you’re with your kids or maybe your kids and their friends, and they’re singing, maybe they’re fighting, maybe they’re throwing shoes at each other. How do you stay calm there?

DR. WHALEY:  I think getting into the car from the very beginning, you set the tone: “These are the rules for being in this car,” particularly if they’re people who are friends of your children.  “In this car we do not throw things, in this car we do not, et cetera.”  You can say it in a fun way, but more than that, you set the tone, right?  So is this car ride gonna be pulling your hair out and just gritting your teeth and bearing it, or is this gonna be fun?  So maybe you play a game.  Maybe it’s we’re gonna do karaoke, right?  We’re gonna sing this song, let’s all come up with a song that we like to sing and sing it together.  Maybe we’re gonna tell jokes.  So if you decide, “I’m gonna have a good time, I’m gonna enjoy my kids, I’m gonna enjoy my kids friends, and I’m gonna make the absolute most of this time,” you’re gonna set the tone and other people will follow it.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  One more example I want to just talk about.  We talked a little bit about new motherhood, but let’s talk about sort of transitioning back to work, that can be very difficult, it can be very difficult dealing with relationships.  So what are some of the things that new moms can do to make this transition back to work – almost back into her marriage – without losing her mind?

DR. WHALEY:  Right.  So I think the absolute first thing to say is, you have to expect to be surprised.  You can read all the books, you could talk to all of your friends, and you’re still just not gonna really understand what that’s like until you’ve experienced it. And as we talked about before, there are some hormonal changes, particularly early on, that are gonna be happening. So it’s okay if you don’t quite feel like yourself.  For the average new mom, I would say the number one is sleep. It is absolutely impossible to feel like a normal human being if you’re not sleeping, so you’re gonna have to get up in the middle of the night, particularly if you’re breast feeding, but you can ask someone to let you sleep in or take a nap so that you can sort of catch up on sleep here and there as you can.  I would say the second thing is, do not feel bad about scheduling some time for yourself. And that might be going for a run, that might be spending a little time in the garden, you might go to lunch with friends, you might just go get a mani/pedi.  It does not make you less of a mother if you are spending time to take care of yourself, okay?  If you’re happier, your children will be happier.  And then the last thing, and I think this is probably the absolute most important, is do not be afraid to ask for help.  I think, too often, we as women try to sort of take care of everything for ourselves, and we don’t really ask for help until we are just sinking.  So if you start off early communicating with your partner, saying, “Hey, I’m really struggling here, can you help me by making sure that you do all the laundry?” or asking your family, “Hey I just need to get out of the house, can you please babysit for two hours?”  And if you don’t have a partner or family that can help you, look for your friends, find community resources.  Maybe there’s a neighbor that you have that also has a child that you could sort of share babysitting duties with. But you just can’t do this kind of thing alone, and you have to be willing to ask for help.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  And I think that applies to the newborn period, but really even throughout raising children because there are times that are more stressful than others and you need to call in your people to help you out, and that’s okay.

DR. WHALEY:  Absolutely, absolutely.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  Well, I really appreciate you talking with us about this issue of stress and moms.  I know a lot of people have to deal with this and I think if we can have fun it would be a lot better.

DR. WHALEY:  Thank you for having me.

DR. GOTTESFELD:  Alright Dr. Whaley, have a great day, and thanks for being on Total Health Radio.

DR. WHALEY:  Thank you.


This show is for educational purposes only. If you have specific health concerns, you are encouraged to address those with your personal doctor. And as always, if you’re having a health emergency, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency department.