By Amanda Gail Whitacre, Ph.D.
These last few months of quarantine have increased the already huge load of responsibility and tasks already placed on moms, while decreasing access to help. The result? Severely strained mental health. We spoke with Dr. Amanda Gail Whitacre, a Fairfield County, CT-based psychologist, about the top 8 challenges for moms in quarantine and how to meet them.
For more on Dr. Amanda Gail Whitacre and to contact Fairfield County Psychological Services, click here.
#1 – A high degree of guilt. Guilt can be described as the feeling of internalized shame or regret—often resulting in various forms of painful self-judgment. This “mom guilt” (as many are calling it) is showing up in two forms right now: guilt over actions and guilt over feelings.
When clients come to us with guilt over actions, it is often with regard to issues like children’s heightened screen time, unorganized daily schedules, or limited creative activities. With this, we encourage moms to focus on what the guilt is about—are they fearful of how others might view their parenting? Do they feel like they are failing in some way? Typically, the guilt reflects their own self-views—rather than a belief that the children are really at risk.
Once the specifics are identified, we also remind them that during a time-limited (and unprecedented) quarantine, survival becomes the main focus—rather than self-enhancement. We then work to alleviate the guilt all together. Guilt is the one feeling that, with regard to raising our children, does not often serve us.
When it comes to guilt over one’s feelings, we are hearing a self-induced pressure to stay positive and count one’s blessings. While it is important to practice gratitude, denial of feelings can lead to lasting, adverse mental health difficulties. Not only would it be unnatural not to feel some negative emotions right now (such as stress, anger, sadness, or boredom) but it is also beneficial for children to witness an array of emotions in their caregivers. It helps them to understand emotional identification and expression—especially during such a scary and unique time in their lives.
We suggest that moms label their feelings aloud, demonstrate to their children that strong feelings come in waves (typically lasting up to 90 seconds)—and show them that they do not last forever. And be sure to check in with your children about their feelings regularly—even if they are seemingly “too young to know” what’s going on.
#2 – No space to breathe (or eat, think, bathe…). Living in such close quarters is inducing a claustrophobic-like response in many moms. I have even heard some discuss it as “the walls closing in” on them. That is because we are used to coming and going so frequently from our homes and having the freedom to exit the house for work, a run, a grocery store visit, or to see a friend. Even if we don’t leave, we are used to being allowed to. Without having the option to leave home safely, it can feel like a literal enclosure. Add children, makeshift classrooms, and an at-home partner to the 24-7 quarantine—and it is no wonder this complaint is so common.
But it is not actually the house that is encroaching on moms’ freedom, it is the (adorable little) people. This distinction is important. Some clients have benefited from acknowledging this and finding a “designated mom-only space.” This can be a small room, a corner of a room, the car, or even the bathroom. They have reported that having a place that no one else is allowed (and maybe has locks on the doors) can help them think and breathe—or use the toilet in peace—even if only for 3-5 minutes at a time.
Making the space your own is an additional tool. We suggest adding a candle, a peaceful photograph, some snacks, or a comfortable blanket to the space (and leave it in there!) for a cozy, more personalized (even if momentary) sensory experience.
It is also important to remember that this lockdown is temporary. Clients that dislike closed spaces sometimes comment that containment feels like it will last forever. Right now, with no clear end in sight, moms are feeling the same way—no matter how much they love spending time with their babies. When we remind clients to repeat the phrase, “ I will not be in here forever,” they report improvement in anxiety, frustration, and panic.
#3 The repetitive cycle of it all. We are all familiar with the conversation: One person asks, “So how’s it going? The other responds; “it’s going” with a small, desperate chuckle. This is often a result of the overwhelming feelings that go along with repetitive, unending cycles of work. Some of our moms have reported that every few hours they must prep a meal, serve a meal, and clean up after a meal; and then change a child, bathe a child, and do the child’s laundry… followed by other repetitive tasks that feel never-ending.
Even if one typically enjoys cooking, when it is a requirement three or more times a day, it can turn from a relaxing hobby into a challenging chore. We are increasingly seeing people struggle with showering and getting dressed each morning, in an attempt to ward off the inevitable cycle ahead. Our recommendations include (1) calling a friend to validate one another’s feelings. This is one of the most productive ways to cope that we have found, especially when it involves empathy, humor, and mutual laughter; and (2) developing different weekday routines than weekend routines.
Most moms are used to routine—but it becomes painfully repetitive when we have nowhere to be, no one to answer to, and no activities to attend. Deciding to do certain things on weekends but not on weekdays (and vice versa), with no exceptions, can really help! For example, deciding on Make Your Own Pizza Mondays can take the guessing work out of dinner—and even give everyone something to look forward to. Additionally, deciding not to make any beds on Saturdays or Sundays (but doing so each weekday) is surprisingly freeing—and helps to separate one day from another. These small changes can disrupt the routine in effective ways.
#4 – Tension with a spouse. Of course, this one made the list! Couples are not used to being under the same roof 24/7—even under positive circumstances. Most couples’ therapists agree that healthy relationships require some independence—and missing each other sometimes. Without that, we are seeing an increase in arguments and hostility.
First and foremost, the tasks/responsibilities that are expected of each person have suddenly become unclear. Patterns that once flowed naturally are now a source of confusion and resentment. Not to mention, there are simply more things to be done than two people combined can possibly do.
This confusion, increased demand, and forced closeness brings up a host of new challenges—and it highlights any challenges that existed within the couple beforehand. The good news is that these are the first steps of couples’ therapy: Identifying specific hurdles and feeling the resulting negative emotions. The next steps are communication and productive resolution.
In the event that you can do short-term couples teletherapy, we recommend it. This can notably improve morale and communication within the home. If therapy is not an option, consulting Marsha Linehan’s Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills (available online) can also help.
Specifically, the “DEAR MAN” skill is a favorite. This skill aids in effective communication and serves to help you get your needs met within a specific moment. The acronym stands for the steps to take in your request: DEAR = Describe (the situation), Express (your feelings), Assert (the request clearly) and Reinforce (the other person for related things they have done well). And MAN = Mindfulness (staying on topic), Appearing confident, and Negotiating (being willing to give something to get something in return). This entire process should only take a few minutes to execute.
Lastly, many parents argue in public but make up in private. If you do argue in front of your children, be sure to resolve the argument in front of them as well. Wake them up to do so if you have to! It is often a surprise to moms to hear that their children not only witness more spousal arguments than they realize—but also that it is imperative for the children to see the resolution to the argument. They deeply benefit from seeing that disagreements can be resolved—rather than harbored, brushed aside, or explained away.
#5 – Homeschooling stress (soon to become summer activity stress). This is such an important concern for every mom that plays the newfound role of homeschool teacher. We continue to hear worries about children that won’t do their work, are having trouble adapting, or are all working on different lessons—chaotically and unproductively. I try to remind moms that this is not an “every day in the classroom counts” kind of time. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is an “any work that gets done is impressive” kind of time. There will be time to make up for “lost” classroom learning; and the transition to home school is simply too much too suddenly for true productivity to take place.
This does not mean that other types of learning are not going on! When I’ve asked moms what “non-school” lessons they think their children have learned at home, it takes them a moment to think about it; but then, the lists are endless. Many are learning lessons of social-emotional functioning that would not otherwise be presented to them in the classroom. This includes managing emotions, individual play, collaborative learning, creative thought, socialization with adults, managing boredom, and the list goes on.
One of our moms reported that she noticed her son’s sudden interest in a girl in his class (over Zoom), and this resulted in a conversation about the birds and the bees that she did not initially realize he was ready to hear. It turns out, he was ready. And she was available each day thereafter to answer any follow-up questions that came up—in real-time. Another mom told us that her daughter began discussing all the “weird dreams” she has been having lately over their daily lunches together. They learned about her unconscious thoughts—and bonded through the journey.
These are irreplaceable developmental lessons. And as summer approaches, it is important to remember that summertime was once about roaming free, finding things to do in the backyard, and coming up with creative games to play with siblings. Children do not necessarily need to be scheduled for camp or summer-school every minute. In some ways, a carefree summertime could be the best education they get right now.
#6 – Trouble modulating feelings. We have discussed managing guilt and accepting all ends of the emotional spectrum; but another important task right now is to be able to modulate feelings as well. There might be stress over losing a job, sadness on behalf of children being without their friends, or grief over an ill loved one. As stated, these feelings require an outlet.
But we also want to prevent these feelings from overwhelming you. And there are steps that can be taken to do this. Another skill from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that we recommend is the “PLEASE” skill, which assumes that to take care of the mind, we must take care of the body. This skill should be practiced on a daily basis to reduce emotional vulnerability.
PLEASE: “Pl” stands for “treat Physical iLlness.” Albeit a poor acronym, this suggests that any health conditions should be monitored and managed regularly. E = Eating a balanced diet. For many in quarantine, this has been difficult. The most effective method we have seen has been to consume three small meals, and two to three small snacks per day. Because we are more likely to eat when bored, stressed, or near the kitchen, (for most people) eating healthy portions throughout the day is the best way to metabolize food and maintain blood sugar levels—which aids in mood management.
A = Avoid mood altering drugs. This includes overdoing alcoholic beverages, a common quarantine complaint; reducing use can significantly improve mood volatility. S = Sleep a balanced amount, typically 7-8 hours per night (and no more or less). If you have trouble sleeping, you may want to do some reading online about DBT-based “Sleep Hygiene Habits.” And lastly, E = exercise regularly. This one is so important when stuck indoors all day. We recommend a 25-minute aerobics or yoga video on YouTube. These are manageable on a daily basis, without becoming a daunting task and provide sufficient heart rate acceleration for most individuals to stay of healthy body—and mind!
#7 – The struggle with uncertainty. From session to session, we hear struggles around the uncertainty of what is going to happen with the pandemic—regarding health, as well as re-opening the country. Although there is information out there, as of yet there are no clear-cut answers. Specifically, the indefinite timing of the quarantine is throwing people off. Many are even having trouble enacting their usual coping skills.
A useful DBT tactic during times of stress or uncertainty is the skill of Radical Acceptance. This skill is used to maintain composure and reduce suffering in times just like these. To engage in radical acceptance, you must make an active commitment to the ultimate truth that what is going on cannot go any other way right now. The idea is that much of the suffering we endure comes from trying to deny a reality we cannot change.
For example, a person might say, “I don’t want my family to get sick. But we can’t be forced to stay in isolation any longer.” This opposition toward the current guidelines conflicts with the desire to stay healthy. This wish is a longing for things to be different, which increases suffering; rather, radical acceptance suggests a full acceptance (with the body and mind) that the virus is out there, is harmful, and as of yet has no cure—leading us to understand that in order to keep our families healthy, we have to stay home at this time.
With this full acceptance, the fighting of reality can cease—and so can the misery around denial. Only then can we unearth the pleasure around what can be enjoyed and accomplished when under quarantine’s restrictions.
#8 – Difficulty finding joy. As one might expect, the pandemic has made it more difficult to find joy. Some have even mentioned that they are not sure they should be joyful when people they know or love are in dire circumstances. But it is critical to allow yourself to find moments of joy right now, for your sake and the sake of your children. This time is about survival—and being joyful is a major component of that.
The practice of mindfulness is one way to find joy. This involves engaging in active awareness of the present moment, including any sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or tactile sensations around you. It is about fully stepping into the moment and allowing your mind to only focus on what is before you—not what thoughts are in your head. This takes practice! But it has empirical validation and is well worth the effort. (Note that the practice is not only for finding joy but can be used as such.) And there are many exercises online that aid in the process—for adults and children of any age. Kids often enjoy these mindfulness practices too!
I tend to avoid discussing “happiness” in favor of “moments of joy” because they are easier to hold onto and they accumulate. Sometimes it takes active effort to find these moments, as mentioned. And sometimes, a moment of pure pleasure comes over you and it is unclear why or where it came from. I urge you to pause in these moments, drop what you are doing, maybe even close your eyes, and pay attention—this is a moment to grasp and to remember.
We have also seen heightened joy when folks hold celebrations they might not otherwise hold. This can mean a Zoom book club or birthday party, a Friday night happy hour with your partner, or a first-day-of-Summer-dinner party with the family. Even letting the kids decide what they want to celebrate can be fun (such as, say, the first of June!). Making homemade decorations, baking, or playing a game that loosely matches the theme of the “event” can make it feel that much more celebratory.
Remember, these struggles are affecting all of us. You are not alone in that. And there are extensive resources out there right now (such as teletherapy) should you want to seek help in enacting the above strategies to stay mentally healthy during a difficult time.
(Please note: The moms discussed in this article gave me permission to use their comments while maintaining their confidentiality).
To contact Dr. Amanda Gail Whitacre:
Fairfield County Psychological Services, LLC
Phone: (203) 580-3595
1200 High Ridge Road,
Stamford, CT 06905
1506 Post Road
Fairfield, Connecticut 06824