In the Same Leaky Boat: Being a Parent and Therapist By Melissa Weinberg, LCPC on 9/21/21 - 1:22 PM

I have some new career goals that have been taking a great deal of my attention and time lately. They’re exciting, but intense and demanding. I also have two little ones tugging at my clothes at all times. Sometimes I feel split in a million directions with my time, my attention, and my emotional and physical energy. I wonder why I’m working so hard and why it never feels like it’s enough (and feel that it’s all my fault). For what? Where did I get these ideas of what it means to be a successful parent and a productive therapist/business owner? And why do I feel so alone in all of it?

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

When I’m reviewing my photo reel on my phone at the end of a day (a modern habit any parent will attest to doing), an unconscious smile on my face as I scroll through my kids’ smiling goofy faces and chubby limbs, I often feel content, relieved to some degree. I made it through another day.

But I also feel guilty and like I’m falling short, sad that I’m always hurried and tired. I feel worried that I’m not soaking up the time with my small kids thoroughly enough, whatever that means. “They grow so fast!” we’re often told, as if that’s a helpful thing to hear when we're already crushed under the weight of perfectionism, guilt, a barrage of unrealistic goals and expectations, financial burdens our parents were not saddled with, and a list of other maddening external constraints.

I know my clients feel this, too. I work with many new parents and I think frequently about how best to support these clients—the ones with babies and toddlers, who feel barely human, disconnected from themselves, like they’re forever flailing, convinced they’re failing at everything.

Caroline, for example, is a client I’ve been seeing since the spring of 2020. It took a pandemic for her to feel justified in reaching out for help. When we first started working together, her baby was four months old. She had recently left her job (after a brief return following a mere eight weeks of maternity leave) to stay home with her daughter. She’d like to work again, to connect with aspects of her identity that feel distant right now, but the cost of childcare is nearly equivalent to her former salary. Additionally, she found that her workplace was too inflexible about scheduling and not supportive of pumping.

Caroline has no family nearby, and the pandemic pushed her further into introversion and isolation. She has no real “tribe” or community of other parents with which to commiserate, share information, or get her out of the house. She scrolls Instagram and feels inadequate when she sees the slim bodies of celebrity and influencer moms, the perfect plates of cut up fruit and toast for babies, the inventive sensory activities, the families out in the world doing fun things, the informative posts from child psychologists, or the quotes from other mothers that are meant to be inspiring but just reinforce her sense of failure and defeat.

She spirals into panic when she thinks something might be wrong with her daughter’s development or health. She feels responsible for carrying the weight of all of the researching and decision-making regarding various aspects of care for the baby. Her husband doesn’t see or appreciate the mental labor and intense pressure she puts on herself to make sure their daughter is fed, clothed, entertained, and developing appropriately. Their relationship has suffered significantly.

Caroline feels beaten down and trapped. All the days bleed together, and there’s nothing she really looks forward to. She loves her baby and feels connected and attuned to her but is not enjoying motherhood in the way she had hoped, which makes her feel tremendously guilty.

Sometimes we’ll be in session and all of a sudden, the baby appears, finishing up a nursing session I didn’t even know was occurring off screen. Caroline will stroke her daughter’s back while she gazes off exhaustedly and says, “No one prepared me. No one told me how hard this would be.”

We’re in this boat together, me and my clients. It has a ton of holes, and we’re constantly exhausting ourselves scooping out water with our feeble buckets and trying to keep ourselves afloat. But the truth is we didn’t build this boat. We also didn’t break it.

The more I work with clients like Caroline and go through my own experiences balancing work and life with small children (an intense phase I’m aware will be over before I know it—I don’t need the reminder), the more convinced I am that our self-blame and the pressures we put on ourselves are absurdly misplaced.

When I take the time to question the metrics I use to evaluate myself and their origins, I start to see the cracks in a society that by design provides little support to parents (mothers especially) in the workplace and beyond, reinforces impossible standards through social comparison, and isolates us from support and community (to say nothing of the deeply problematic inequities baked into all of it). We are not doing anything wrong. The system itself is broken.

And recognizing this, making this mental shift of externalizing some of the perceived failure I experience, allows me to be a bit kinder and more realistic with myself. The more that I acknowledge how broken the system is, the more I can comfortably eschew its standards.

When I’m with clients like Caroline, struggling in similar ways with expecting too much of themselves and feeling the pressure to do everything (and do it “right”) and to enjoy every second of parenthood, I can invite them to examine the larger context of these expectations. I can affirm and normalize slowing down, practicing acceptance, and embracing rest and self-compassion as an act of defiance and empowerment.

We have done enough. We are doing enough. Let’s just float for a bit.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections