What if it were completely possible to be a working mom and no longer feel stressed out? What if feeling stressed out was actually a choice, rather than a requirement of working motherhood?
When I first asked myself those questions last year, I was not yet ready to believe them. At the time, I had two daughters under the age of four, and I had recently found out that my husband and I were expecting our third baby. In my professional life, I was working full-time in a senior management role in my corporate job, and I was dreaming of also launching my own private coaching practice for working moms. I was putting in long hours at a job that was full of continued potential, but also required dedicated time and effort. I felt like I was juggling my career aspirations with daily attempts to also be an amazing mom to two young children. And, I was struggling to search for my ever-evolving identity — as a wife, mom, corporate career woman, aspiring entrepreneur, daughter, sister, and friend. Maybe some working moms have the luxury of not feeling stressed out, I had thought, but that’s not an option for me.
I loved (and still love) living a full and busy life, but I also felt drained. I was in an all-too-common season of life where when I was at work, I felt guilty for being away from my family. And, when I was with my family, I felt guilty for being away from my work.
Feeling stressed out was a daily occurrence. I felt pulled in too many different directions, and although I tried to stay afloat in everything, I also felt like I was succeeding at nothing. After a streak of particularly low days last summer, I finally decided that enough was enough. I enrolled in the life coaching certification program that I had been eyeing for the past several months with hopes of learning how to reduce my own stress. If I could figure it out for myself, I wanted to teach the solution to other working moms too.
Within minutes of beginning my certification coursework, I uncovered the truth about what was causing my stress, and I felt like my whole world had been rocked. Unbeknownst to me, my stress wasn’t at all caused by the fact that I was a working mom. It wasn’t caused by my job responsibilities or my children or my household to-do list either. I also learned that no secret strategy or solution would relieve my stress unless I first addressed what was actually at the root of all of my struggles — my own brain.
For nearly all of my life up until that point, I had never paid much attention to my inner dialogue about working motherhood. The sentences I told myself about what it meant to be a working mom felt so automatic and true, so I never really questioned them. My thoughts were on repeat. “Being a working mom is really hard.” “I never have enough time to get everything done at work and at home.” “I feel like I’m not being the best mom I could be to my children because I spend so much time working.” “My job and my family both demand my time, and there’s not enough of me to go around.”
I had also mistakenly thought that the circumstances around me (situations, people, places, things) were the cause of my joy, sadness, stress — and any other emotion. Not only did I incorrectly believe that my job or my children or my to-do list caused my stress, but I also had convinced myself that feeling stressed out as a working mom was inevitable, rather than an option. In an attempt to feel better, I unintentionally reinforced those thoughts by constantly reminding myself that this was a hard season of life that I needed to simply survive, and it would get better eventually — maybe when my children were older or if my job ever changed.
As it turned out, I was wrong about it all. Here’s what I learned: Feelings (including feeling stressed out) are never caused by anything outside of us. Feelings are always caused by our thoughts about what is going on around us. It may sound like a minor distinction, but understanding this difference is the secret to preventing stress from overtaking you ever again. If I wanted to stop feeling constantly stressed out as a working mom, I needed to change the way I viewed my life. It was time to stop telling myself thoughts that brought on stress, and it was time to start practicing new thoughts until they created my new reality. It was time to start believing that I could be a working mom and no longer feel stressed out.
As working moms, we may not feel like we have control over certain things in our lives, but we always have control over the thoughts we choose to think. Our human brains are preprogrammed to seek out danger, as a way to protect us, and our brains are incredibly skilled at repeatedly serving up prior thoughts. It’s completely normal for our brain to offer us sentences about how hard, exhausting, draining, or overwhelming working motherhood is. It’s also completely normal for our brain to seek out evidence in our own lives and the lives of other working moms to help reinforce and prove our thoughts true.
To break the cycle, we need to first understand that our thoughts about working motherhood are choices. This opens up the opportunity to choose alternative thoughts. Next, we need to learn that our thoughts cause our feelings. This is how we reclaim our power and control over how we feel, rather than blaming other things for making us feel stressed out. No matter what situation we are in, we always have the choice over what thoughts we want to think and how we want to feel.
If you’re feeling stressed out, take time to examine your thoughts in the moment. What does your inner dialogue sound like on your most stressful days? What sentences are you telling yourself about being a working mom? How do you talk about working motherhood to other people? Your thoughts create your reality.
Once you become aware of what you’re thinking, you can decide if you want to keep thinking those thoughts — or if you want to choose new thoughts. The trick is to find thoughts that feel believable. Going from “I am completely stressed out.” to “I am completely stress free!” is too much of a stretch for most people. If it feels fake, it won’t stick, and it won’t change the way you feel. Instead, I encourage incremental shifts in thinking that both recognize your old, automatic thoughts and also remind your brain that there are other thoughts to choose from too. Maybe today, the thought you practice is, “I am completely stressed out, but I’m willing to try to change.” Then, in a few days, your thought may become, “It might be possible to feel less stressed out than I am now if I pay attention to my thoughts.” A few days later, maybe it’s “I’m starting to see what it feels like to be less stressed out as a working mom.” Inch your way toward your new belief.
The next time you’re feeling stressed out, pause and ask yourself what you’re thinking. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with thinking negative thoughts. It’s completely normal, and it’s important to acknowledge them. Try telling yourself, “Thanks, Brain, for offering those thoughts about how hard life is right now and how busy I am. I hear you, and your opinion is noted. But when I think those thoughts, I feel stressed, and that’s not helping me get things done. What’s another way that I can view this situation?” or “I am having the thought right now that working motherhood is hard, and there’s too much to do. It sounds like a fact, but I now know it’s just my opinion. It’s just one way to view this situation. I’m in complete control of how I want to think, so I can choose a different thought if I want to feel differently. What’s another thought I could try on today that is more useful?” It may sound silly at first, but give it a try. Taking a moment to separate yourself from the rapid flow of automatic stressful thoughts that your brain offers is a critical first step in programming new thinking. At the very least, you can always think, “I used to be a stressed out working mom, I am now learning how to change my thinking to feel less stressed out.”
As my third maternity leave is coming to an end, I am preparing to return to my corporate job at the beginning of January with a new mindset. I am committed to believing sentences that I once thought were impossible. I am training my brain to serve up new thoughts about working motherhood, and I am practicing them daily until they become automatic. Beginning today, I invite you to join me in no longer telling yourself that you are stressed out. If your brain offers those words to you (which it likely will!), acknowledge it, and then ask what you could think instead that would be more useful.
You can believe anything you want to believe about being a working mom. Anything. Any thought in the world is available to you. Do you want to keep choosing thoughts that bring on feelings of stress and guilt? Or, could 2021 be the year where you can finally say, “I’m no longer allowing myself to feel stressed out as a working mom — no matter what situation I am in.” What new beliefs are you ready to practice? What impossibility are you ready to make your new reality? It all starts with a thought.
Lauren Gordon is a corporate working mom of three young daughters and a dual-certified life coach for working moms. Follow Lauren on Instagram @workingmomcoach where she teaches working moms how to free themselves from feeling stress and guilt so they can focus on their career and family. Visit http://www.laurengordon.com for more information about Lauren’s coaching practice.