Years of therapy taught me how to be a better mom
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I remember three years ago on a sunny L.A. day, I somehow found myself hiding in an empty office at work and sobbing uncontrollably. It wasn’t because of a breakup or a bad performance review. In fact, nothing in particular happened that day—I had actually been crying every day for weeks. It’s painful to think about it now after going through the process of therapy, but back then, it became normal. Just about every afternoon, I would sit on the ground hugging my knees to my chest and cry for a while. Then I would get up, wipe my face and get back to working and being a mom to my then two-year-old son.
At first, I thought I was simply grieving the loss of my dad to cancer several months before. But as time stretched on, I started to feel worse instead of better. Little things would irritate me. I got annoyed very easily. I was having a hard time concentrating. Then I started to feel guilty that I was falling behind at work and at home. Often, I was too emotionally exhausted from just getting through the day at work pretending everything was fine, that I wasn’t really mentally present with my son in the evenings. I would be at home with him, playing, reading books, giving him a bath, but those simple things seemed to take a huge amount of my energy, and my mind was often blank, like I was half asleep. My anxiety started to increase as well—even though I went into remission years ago, I started to think more about my own cancer ordeal and worried about the cancer returning. At that point, I also hadn’t fully dealt with the sexual assault I experienced as a teenager and I started to experience panic attacks again.
Elyse Springer, a therapist who specializes in working with moms to improve their mental health, sees moms with some of the same issues I was dealing with. She said that while there is no one reason moms start therapy, she often sees that becoming a mom can bring up past traumas, and that a lot of moms of young children have to learn to cope with anger in a new way.
It took a long and gentle conversation with a good friend for me to finally get the help I needed. I couldn’t see for myself how I would be able to afford therapy every week for months or years. I also knew that evening appointments weren’t going to work when there was dinner to make and a toddler to snuggle to sleep. So, with my friend at times literally holding my hand, I found a counseling center I could afford, that was also near my office so I could go for appointments on my lunch break.
One of the first things my therapist taught me was to consistently ask myself the question, “What do I need in this situation?”
Every mom I know will tell you that her needs are often overshadowed, and understandably so, by her children’s needs—especially when those kids are babies or toddlers.
However, practicing asking myself that one question every day taught me that it was possible to regularly consider my own needs alongside those of my family.
While it seems like self-care 101, it can be hard to insist on meeting your own needs when you have a deadline at work and your little one has a fever. I’ve had to learn through therapy how to ask for help more often, and to be more realistic with what I can accomplish in a given day, or how long I can go without a break. Last year, after a ten-day work trip, I thought I could slip right back into commuting, full-time work, and parenting nearly all evenings and weekends without a day off. Not giving myself the break that I needed meant I was inefficient at work, distracted at home, and trying to steal away tiny moments of rest. It only got better when I actually took a day off to catch up on rest, get a little alone time, and then reconnect with my son. Taking care of myself is not just better for me, I’m also a better mom when I get enough sleep, go for a 10-minute walk by myself, and remember to drink a bottle of water in the morning. If you’re not sure where to start, Springer suggests that moms “take some time every day to simply meditate, which helps reset the nervous system and calms the body.”
Therapy isn’t just teaching me to be a better mom, it’s also helping me learn to deal with my emotions alongside my child who is learning to deal with his. A few months ago, my son was frustrated with the project they were working on in class and got in trouble at school for yelling at his teacher. I was explaining to him that he could say he was frustrated without yelling at his teacher. While having that conversation, it dawned on me that instead of admitting how I felt, I would bottle up the feelings, only to yell about something else later on too.
“A common theme I see when working with moms in therapy is anger, and more specifically, the fear of anger—their own anger, their partner’s anger, their child’s anger,” Springer says. “Babies and young children who can’t communicate their needs are angry beings and that can be difficult to handle.”
Through therapy, I learned that I developed the bad habit of repressing my feelings, especially hurt, disappointment and anger.
Parenting a young child, working full-time, and traveling across the country to see my dad when he was sick and just getting sicker was too much to deal with at once. Repressing my feelings seemed like the only way to get through the day.
I would clump my disappointment from something that happened at work with my anger at my husband over not doing the dishes and try to shove everything aside. The problem is that it just doesn’t work, and those feelings always come back out eventually.
Part of my journey to grieve my father’s death was talking about all of the parts of our relationship, disappointments included. When a parent dies you mourn the end of the relationship you did have, but also, you mourn what you wanted from the relationship but didn’t get. Due to my tendency to gloss over my true feelings to focus on positive emotions only, I wasn’t giving myself the chance to fully grieve.
By practicing in therapy, I learned to take a deep breath and (most of the time) admit out loud to someone else exactly how I’m feeling. Now, I’m working with my son to help him “name it to tame it”—a phrase coined by Dr. Dan Siegel in the book Whole Brain Child — so we can both remember that labeling our feelings makes them less scary and overwhelming.
It’s taken my therapist telling me repeatedly over the course of the three and a half years that I will feel angry from time to time, that there isn’t any avoiding it altogether, and in certain circumstances, anger can be healthy. I’m still learning to accept that anger is going to be a part of my life and it won’t help me, or anyone, to pretend like it doesn’t exist.
I’ve been in therapy now for more than three years, and while it has been very difficult to deal with my grief and to face some of the most traumatic moments of my life head on, it has also without question given me back my life. I didn’t go to therapy to become a better mom, but learning how to deal with my true feelings, grieve the loss of my father, and move through past traumas has definitely improved how I parent and helped me deepen my relationship with my son.