The mother I had seen walk by me at the mall was wearing heels and a killer outfit, perfectly coiffed hair, and a flawless manicure, all while pushing her high end stroller. I, still newly married and well before motherhood, was post call and managed to keep my blood-shot eyes open for just a bit longer as I darted to the mall to make some returns. Here I was — in crumpled scrubs, my hair tangled and uncombed, my face unwashed. In short, I was a mess. And by comparison, this woman was a sight to be seen; elegant and organized, she clearly had it together.
Or maybe not.
In my psychiatry practice, I have had the unique privilege of seeing people from all walks of life, but my area of interest and primary focus of practice is post-partum depression and anxiety. I have seen many women who come in, exhausted and totally sleep-deprived, barely crawling into my office while operating in a complete mental fog. Many of these women have mismatched socks, unkempt hair, spit up on their shirts and smeared peanut butter on their pants. Depending on how things go, I might gently point it out as she says she’s struggling, and together we laugh about how stepping out of the house in such a state is simply the new normal. I know, since I’ve been there too.
But the mom I’d really like to tell you about is the other kind. The one who comes into my office with the perfect manicure, the stellar and stylish attire, the mile high top knot piled on top of her head. Her makeup covers up any possible trace of fatigue or under eye circles. Her easy smile masks her feelings of insecurity and uncertainty on this motherhood journey. Her perfectly-coordinated attire disguises the chaos her life has now become. Then, to my utter surprise, she collapses onto my couch in a heap of tears.
How could a mother like this, who clearly has it together, be so distraught? Then it occurs to me that looks may be deceiving.
She tells me of how she used to be well-respected in a high powered company before she decided to quit to focus on being a mother. How she and her husband would share beautiful moments together, with their friends or on their spontaneous trips across the globe, but they can no longer seem to find each other now that they are in the haze of parenthood. How she is consumed by feelings of being totally overwhelmed, insecure, judged, uncertain, unsuccessful, lonely. That she spends all day everyday in her pajamas and can barely make it out of bed, except for today — the only outing she’s had in a month — when she decided to get dressed up for her first visit to see me. I then give her the permission to let go of the pursuit of perfectionism, and she graciously accepts it.
“You’re amazing,” I tell her, and she cries, grateful for the validation but unsure of whether she believes it. And then she looks relieved, and she goes on her way. I may or may not ever see her again, but I can take comfort in knowing that for a moment, she felt some peace.
This is the tricky thing about being a psychiatrist. We have to avoid jumping to conclusions about someone based on her external appearance, no matter how convincing that appearance may seem to be. The reality is that someone who may look happy and put-together might be the one person that I need to worry about the most.
The societal pressures that we put on our mothers — to do it all and to look incredible while doing it — is horrible. It makes them feel isolated, creates a sense of competition instead of camaraderie with other mothers, and shames them into not caring for themselves. Worse yet, it perpetuates a stigma that prevents them from seeking mental health treatment when necessary which, horrifically, may even drive them to suicide.
Nowadays, I am much kinder and less assuming in my views of other mothers. For example, when I see a mother out and about, I internally applaud her for even making it out of the house with her kids. I encourage all mothers, myself included, to be vocal about when they are struggling and when they need some extra help. I make it a point to point out something really positive and encouraging — “It’s amazing how you’re smiling even on just two hours of sleep” — because to someone who feels like she’s doing it all wrong, a single positive statement can make all the difference.
And I never assume that she has it all together. Because none of us ever does, really, and that is perfectly okay.