Mothers: It is OK to be Yourself

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I don't know if it's because Mother's Day recently happened or because the change of seasons makes people more reflective but I have noticed something in the past couple of weeks: mothers don't get enough opportunities to be themselves.

The mothers I see in my therapy practice fill a dizzying number of roles in their lives. They are ambitious professionals, dedicated partners, engaged community members, devoted friends - and on most days they show up in each of these ways before lunchtime! 

When people think of mothers and mental health what often comes to mind are stereotypes. One of the tropes that is commonly associated with therapy is the notion of 'the bad mother.' Freud's infamous theories of psychoanalysis contributed many intriguing and useful concepts to the field of psychology, but it also began the narrative of 'mommy issues.' The adult son who can not commit to anything without his overbearing mother's permission. The daughter who always feels insecure in the shadow of her high-achieving mother. The mother who treats her children like toys and not actual, fully-feeling human beings. The stereotypes of bad mothers are so prevalent that sometimes when clients begin therapy with me, they quickly rush to clarify that issues with their mothers are not the reason they are coming to counseling. They do not want me to assume their mothers were or are tyrants.

We have been led to believe that inattentive, distant, catty, or cruel mothering is at the core of all psychological pain. Sometimes, this is the case but not always. The mother is not always the bad guy. Sometimes, the bad guy is bigger: systems of oppression that keep generations of families in poverty, prevent access to basic human rights and constantly keep people of color in fear. 

In light of all of the challenges that the world throws at us, it makes sense that being a mother can often be stressful work. Mothers don't want to mess up. They don't want to be that mom. Whether a mother carried children in her womb or someone stepped in to take care of another human, mothering demands equal parts perseverance and faith. Those in mothering roles are often the heart and foundation of their families, the ones people come to when they need affection and when they need hope to keep facing challenges. 

In my experience as a psychotherapist and as a woman blessed with many mother figures, I have noticed that while many mothers relish the opportunity to serve others at the same time it can be exhausting. Constantly putting others needs before your own can lead to burnout ('I barely have enough energy to do the things I have to do'), bitterness ('If I wasn't giving so much I could be happier') or feeling unappreciated ('They don't even notice how much I do for them').

The most effective way I have found to work against these feelings of stuckness and fatigue is to encourage mothers to claim their identity. Too often my clients say that even though they love their children and families, they are treated as if being a mother is the fullness of their experience. People only seem to ask them about their kids - and sometimes, mothers don't know who they are outside of their children, either.

Mothers and mother figures are so much more than the people they take care of on a daily basis. I invite clients to think about the topics they are passionate about, dreams they still want to pursue, parts of themselves that they want to explore - and then go after them. This can mean taking the initiative to start the conversation with other adults about topics they care about or going back to school. It can mean teaching their children about who they were before they became a mother or learning more about the mothering figures they respect.

A key part of mothers living into their full identities is for them to practice self-care. My mothering clients wiggle uncomfortably when I tell them this but unless caregivers take the time to attend to their own needs and goals, they will not have the stamina, flexibility, and resilience needed to successfully mother. As mothers, it is not selfish to take care of yourselves. It is smart because you are ensuring that you can be around for the long haul. Additionally, and this is the part that really hits home for my mothering clients, it models for your children and dependents the importance of them pausing to take care of themselves so that they can fully be present for their loved ones. That is an early lesson that can go a long way in strengthening their mental health.

So mothers, be yourselves. Recognize that what makes you a good mother is your complete self, not the kind of mother you think you have to be because of the media, other parents around you or your mother. Make time for your hobbies and your friends. Ask for help and let people help you. Love your families and love every part of what makes you you.  You don't have to be perfect but you do have to be good to yourself so that you can be a good mother for someone else.

Daring to be Powerful

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Audre Lorde, a brilliant artist and educator, proudly identified as a Black, Lesbian, womanist warrior. In her book, The Cancer Journals, named after the disease that took her life, she wrote this line:

"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

As the new year arrives (at least for Western cultures), many people are planning their resolutions. Lose weight. Stop drinking. Be happier.

Without clear, attainable goals, within weeks these resolutions often become jokes, surface level actions or, worse, self-shaming failures.

What if we took a different approach?

This year, instead of resolving to do something you may actually be dreading, what if instead you set an intention to be powerful. This can look different for each person and is not easy. However, choosing courage instead of fear can lead to drastic life changes. This can look like saying no to someone in your life who does not appreciate you or asking for that raise at work. It can mean wearing that color you love but were told makes you look "too ethnic." Little acts of courage build your strength and enable you to know that you are powerful in all settings.

If you knew you were powerful, what could you achieve?

 

For Sexual Assault Survivors on an Election Night

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Trigger warning: this blog post addresses sexual violence and may be traumatizing for certain readers.

My phone screen lightly beeped me the news: "Doug Jones wins a tight Senate race in Alabama." I paused, noticing the relief in my chest and ignored the rest of the article as a vivid memory flashed through my mind.

My introduction to working in the mental health field began when I volunteered as a Sexual Assault Victim's Advocate during college. I had never been sexually assaulted but was horrified by the number of friends and acquaintances who had. They whispered their stories to me on walks between classes, at the entrance to my dorm room, late at night when they explained why they were scared to walk home alone. I wanted to do something, to somehow make the world safer for these women, for myself. So I became an Advocate and after months of training, I was called to my first emergency room visit early one morning before the sun had fully risen.

The dispatcher who briefed me on the incident reported that the victim was young, but when I walked into the ER room I realized that fact was sorely lacking in detail. Young is the early twenties, maybe even adolescence. The person in front of me with pink pajamas holding a teddy bear was not young. She was a child. 

For the next twelve hours, I sat with this nine-year-old girl, her six-year-old sister, and their distraught parents. In between talking about Justin Bieber and getting her to giggle, I informed the family of their rights, held her mother's hand as I explained what a rape kit is, and firmly reminded law enforcement officials who needed to be making the decisions in that particular moment (the family). By the time I left the hospital, the younger sister through listening to all of the conversations happening in the room had climbed into her father's lap and whispered, "Me too." Even as my heart was shattering, I looked at her and repeated what I had told her sister.

"Thank you for telling us. You are so brave. What he did to you was not your fault. It was wrong."

Over the course of my career, I have sat with too many people as they shared their sexual assault stories. In ER rooms, over the phone late at night on crisis lines, by their deathbeds, on college campuses, in church sanctuaries, on vacation, at family reunions, in a San Diego club, in graduate school, in my therapy office. The stories are everywhere. 

As the #Metoo movement spreads throughout national consciousness and men from Hollywood to Capitol Hill face real consequences for perpetrating acts of sexual violence and intimidation, I remember every single person that shared their story with me. But tonight, as the Alabama special election results cover the front page of every news outlet, as polls show that 98% of Black women and 93% of Black men voted for Doug Jones while 63% of White women and 72% of White men voted for Moore despite the many sexual misconduct allegations against him, all I can think of is that little girl. Pink pajamas and a teddy bear. 

If you are a survivor of sexual violence, this might be a very overwhelming time. The news is never-ending, the possibility for flash-backs is high and the American President is slut-shaming women for speaking out about what he did to them. This is a time for self-care. That might mean sharing your story, becoming a Sexual Assault Victim's Advocate yourself, or working for cultural change in your workplace. But know that self-care right now can also mean sobbing, not looking at social media or the news, or taking time to ensure you feel safe. It is your decision. 

If you are a loved one of someone who has shared their story of sexual violence with you, this also might be an overwhelming time for you. Know that you have similar options. When you have the choice, let survivors take the lead. They were violently stripped of their agency and part of their healing will be regaining the power to make decisions for themselves. You can speak out against sexual misconduct though remember that you should never disclose someone's story unless they give you permission. You can, however, speak powerfully about your own experience. You can become an Advocate in many senses of that word and you, too, can lament. Take care of yourself.

And whatever you choose, whatever your story, please know this: You are so brave. What happened to you was not your fault. It was wrong. Thank you for sharing what you can, when you are ready.

Grief During the Holidays

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It is "that" time of year again. The daylight fades quickly, the weather is noticeably colder and seemingly overnight stores have turned into variations of Santa's workshop. For many people, the months of November, December and January are a festive time to celebrate holidays with those they love. The carols, parties and gift-giving atmosphere create a wonderful opportunity to express gratitude and reflect on the fullness of another year.

However, this is not true for everyone. Many people find these months to be a particularly painful season. Instead of being a time of peace on earth, some find themselves experiencing grief, anger or isolation, not to mention the stress that often accompanies Western holiday traditions.

Some of my clients dread this time of year because it ushers in memories of loved ones who have died. Whether it is the first holiday spent without someone or the thirty-first, people may often find themselves thinking about the person who is gone, the bittersweet memories of past celebrations and what it was like at the end of the loved one's life. If there were unresolved issues in the relationship or if the death was unexpected, there can also be additional levels of complexity in the grief. Instead of being a happy time, the holidays are an anniversary of loss and sad endings.

Being surrounded by images, customs and sounds of celebration can also be difficult for people who are struggling with strained relationships. This can take a variety of forms: the person who just broke-up with a romantic partner; the parent who is struggling with an angry child; the adult trying to ignore the memories of abuse that happened every year at this time; or the person unable to be with the rest of the family during the holidays because of work, physical distance or low funds. The holidays can be a disheartening reminder that, for whatever reason, someone is living without meaningful connections.

If the end-of-year holidays are a difficult time for you, know that you are not alone. A survey conducted by Healthline in 2015 found that over sixty percent of respondents experienced their stress to be "very or somewhat" high during the holidays. Only ten percent of people reported feeling no stress at all during this time.

What can you do to help yourself get through and maybe even enjoy this time of year? First and foremost, be kind to yourself. Grief, loneliness and isolation are very real experiences and are heavy to hold. You are not a bad person for not being happy during the holidays just because the popular societal narrative tells you that is how you should feel.

Second, find ways to honor the people, relationships and customs that are important to you. Whether that means setting out a picture of a loved one who made the holidays special or starting a new tradition that honors everything you have survived, create a moment that celebrates your lived experience during this season.

Third, connect with people you enjoy being with who care about you as much as possible. You do not need to do a holiday type of activity. Grab a cup of coffee, go rock climbing, send someone a letter expressing gratitude for who they are in your life. If you do not have someone in your life to connect with, try attending a community event that sounds fun to you or finding a local non-profit to volunteer with during a holiday. 

Though the holidays are not always the happiest time of the year, you can make this season into what you would like and need it to be. Taking good care of yourself is reason enough to celebrate.

Self-Care is for POC, too

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"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." - Audre Lorde

I often ask clients at the end of our therapy sessions together how they will practice self-care in the coming week. The first few times I ask this, I am often met with blank or panicked stares. Some clients wearily shake their heads and say they don't have the time or money for self-care. Others say putting the needs of others (their children, partners, etc.) first will be enough. My favorite response to the self-care question came from an outspoken and high-achieving client.

"Self-care?" he repeated loudly. "What in the world is that?"

What is self-care? The term has become a popular catchphrase in recent years but is rarely defined as anything other than a series of"treat yo self"splurges that include pumpkin spice lattes, manicures, and massages. While there is nothing wrong with these treats, many of the common self-care tropes implicitly perpetuate a stereotype that relaxation and, therefore, wellness is reserved for people not only with disposable incomes but who are also predominantly White and female. Where are the media depictions of self-care practices that acknowledge the need for safety, cultural relevance and accessibility for people of color?

For many individuals who do not identify as wealthy, White or female, self-care as presented in the societal norm does not exist or even make sense in their lives. This version of self-care fails to take into account the reality of sexist pay structures; the continued impact of a racist history in which Brown and Black bodies were not considered human, and, therefore, did not need to be taken care of; and the fact that admitting you need rest every now and then is not a sign of weakness. 

Self-care is more than a pricey form of taking a break. In its most effective forms, self-care practices allow your brain to de-stimulate in order to gain more clarity; eases the stress that your body has soaked up over time, which in turn can reduce physical tension and pain; and improves and regulates moods. Self-care makes your life better.

When I introduce the topic of self-care to my clients, I often use an airplane safety analogy. At the beginning of every flight, the airplane crew gives passengers a set of instructions for the upcoming trip, including what to do in case of an emergency. One of the notes is that if the plane unexpectedly loses cabin pressure making it hard to breathe, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling for use. Passengers are instructed to secure their own masks first before assisting others with theirs. You are only able to be helpful and make it through the flight if you can breathe properly.

Self-care is your oxygen mask. You do not always need it but when life gets difficult and stress arrives, pausing to assess what you need in order to be well helps you to be more efficient and successful. Furthermore, practicing self-care even when you are not experiencing a difficult time builds mental, and in some cases physical, muscle memory on how to be resilient, resourceful, and attentive to what you need in order to live a full life. You teach yourself that you are a priority worth investing time and care to develop.

For people of color, self-care is a compassionate and practical way of working against the negative impacts of racism, marginalization and oppression. By prioritizing your wellness, joy and uniqueness you help change the narrative about who deserves to be taken care of and what is possible for yourself. You might even empower others to also take care of themselves.

So how do you actually practice self-care? I advise people to begin by focusing on what positive choices make you happy. Ask yourself what you enjoy doing when you have nothing you must do. Studies have shown us that certain things like eating healthier and exercising create biochemical differences that promote wellness and happiness, but there is no one right way to do this - and if you do not enjoy something, you will not actually follow through with doing it regularly! Choose things that are manageable, repeatable and sustainable for you to do. Include activities and tasks that nurture you mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. If needed, do not call it self-care. I refer to my self-care as how I love myself. Others call it their "mental spa time" or the fun "treat yo self" mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Also, consider things you can do quickly. If you feel yourself getting stressed at work, you may not be able to do the 30 minutes meditation that you love. However, you may have just enough time to do some stretches and shoulder shrugs at your desk before running into your next meeting.

Once you know what you enjoy doing, build time into your life to practice these methods of self-care. This is often the largest hurdle for busy people. I recommend adding self-care into your schedule as if it was one of your other required appointments and treating it as equally, if not more, important. Do not throw it out because an unexpected wrinkle occurs in your schedule. Reschedule your self-care if you must, but keep it a priority. With a variety of activities, you can also fill things that take varying amounts of time to do into your schedule in a way that makes sense. Additionally, having a "self-care buddy," someone who can encourage and join you in some of your self-care practices, is a great way of creating accountability for yourself and reducing isolation.

Here is a list of self-care practices and resources to try. Feel free to find what works for you and your lifestyle! Self-care is about honoring what you need to be healthy and well so as long as it leaves you feeling recharged and happier, you are on the right track.

  • Drink at least 2 liters (about 8 glasses) of water a day.
  • Do something creative.
  • Cook a healthy, delicious meal.
  • Spend a day off of social media - this includes email!
  • Create a new morning routine.
  • De-clutter a room in your home or your work space.
  • Buy yourself flowers.
  • Make a list of what you are grateful for today.
  • Take a long shower or bath.
  • Exercise (take a walk, go for a run, find a YouTube workout video you like, etc.).
  • Give away things you do not use.
  • Set some short-term goals.
  • Spend extra time washing, combing and styling your hair.
  • Write a love letter to yourself and read it again in six months.
  • Find a therapist who you can trust.
  • Stretch your body (this can be particularly relaxing before bed).
  • Watch an inspiring movie or TED Talk.
  • Do a breathing meditation.
  • Go to a community event.
  • Read a biography or autobiography about someone you admire.
  • Go on a trip.
  • Spend time with people who are kind to you.
  • Journal.
  • Get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Drink a pumpkin spice latte or other seasonal beverage.
  • Get a manicure/pedicure.
  • Enjoy a massage.