Dealing with Anxiety as a Mom: Not Quite Trapped In the Wallpaper

In many ways, I am a remarkably average mom. Married, suburban, driving around in a white minivan carting two elementary-age kids from one activity to another. I’m juggling the snack sign-ups, endless forms, and loads of laundry that come with parenthood these days. What isn’t always visible on the surface is parenting anxiety, coupled with the anxiety and OCD I was diagnosed with pre-children. I’m constantly dealing with anxiety as a mom.

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We might have a few more tardy slips than some families. 2 out of 5 days, a hairbrush doesn’t touch my daughter’s hair. And those muffins for my son’s birthday treat to share with his class are from a grocery store.

But I drop my kids off with an “I love you” and a smile. Sometimes, friends actually ask me for parenting advice.

I even got asked to coordinate vacation bible school next summer and be room mom this year.

So I possess a bit of an aura of dependability, despite some things I might be said to “slack off” on.

Tessa with her daughter as a baby.

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Dealing with Anxiety as A Mom Is Not New in Modern Motherhood

Too damn often, though, I’m barely keeping even half the plates in my life spinning.

I am painfully aware of that fact, and that awareness only increases my anxiety and mom guilt.

Modern motherhood can feel like a constant race for even the most self assured women.

But as a person who struggled with severe anxiety pre-children, dealing with anxiety as a mom sometimes makes me feel like I’m trapped in a room with yellow wallpaper, like the lead of a Charlotte Perkins Gilman story.

In her classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman describes a woman who struggles with postpartum depression and is prescribed rest—from writing and any other intellectual pursuits—by her doctor/husband.

He pushes her to spend weeks sequestered alone with no real stimulation other than contemplating the sickly, patterned, yellow wallpaper of the room in which she is confined.

While in isolation, the protagonist begins to contemplate the yellow wallpaper of her room:

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.

The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

The Yellow Wallpaper of My Mind

This confinement, depending on your interpretation, results in the character’s descent into (or freedom through) madness.

She’s not my favorite character or even a role model, but I find all too much to understand about the spiraling thought patterns of the protagonist:

I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John [her doctor/husband] says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

After a few years of stay-at-home-mom life, I found intellectual stimulation through a series of in-depth volunteer opportunities and a curving path back to a part-time job in a school library.

This job meant returning to my much loved, pre-baby career path.

These opportunities have helped me feel more productive and satisfied, but I still struggle to find my way out of the fog of depression and anxiety frequently.

Part of dealing with anxiety as a mom is that I frequently have to stop and ask myself, “Why do I still end up in the wallpapered depths of my mind?


Modern Motherhood Says I Matter the Least

I adore my kids. I need to explicitly state that.

But all the voices piping up with the, “You’ll miss these days” and “motherhood is the most rewarding job” make women of young children feel horrible about acknowledging that life with kids is full of beautiful moments paired with monotonous ones.

Motherhood is full of brutal cycles: fixing snacks, breaking up fights, finding lost shoes, and taxi driving.

These cycles fill to-do lists as fast as you can cross items off.

Motherhood can feel like the loneliest time, and the irony of it is that you are almost never actually alone.

At the end of the day, it is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work because the pressures of motherhood come first.

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The Pressures of Motherhood

While more dads are taking on a larger chunk of these tasks (and I am lucky enough to have an involved, supportive spouse), society hands out gold stars to “active” dads. But where are the womens’ stickers?

We celebrate involved dads while judging women for their failures to complete the often competing lists that rule our lives.

The PTA, pediatrician, piano teacher, Pop-Pop and Grandma, play therapist, playground mommies, and Pinterest are telling us what we have to do in order to raise well-rounded kids today. There’s so much pressure to be a perfect mom.

Thanks to Mom Brain Therapist for this amazing graphic on the the mental load of motherhood (and, let’s be honest, womanhood!)

Add those pressures to the ones already on the plates of single moms, trans parents, foster parents, stepmoms, and anyone else who doesn’t fit society’s mold of what makes a mother, and it is no wonder that people are drowning in parenthood today.

Of course, so many of us are dealing with anxiety as moms. This is why so many moms experience an identity crisis after baby.

Mothers, especially black mothers, are given little to no grace.

Just like the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we find ourselves comparing our own ability to hold it down:

There comes John’s sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing.

She is a perfect, and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!

Turning Up the Volume of My Anxious Brain

The constant pressure of raising kids in a day and age when motherhood feels like climbing behind a magnifying glass that will highlight all the ways I am not measuring up only manages to turn up the volume of my anxious brain.

Whether we work outside the home or not, society almost always finds a way to judge mothers and find us lacking.

It is all too easy to end up in a spiral of mom guilt, shame, and anxiety that can feel like we’re trapped in our own wallpapered prisons.

The days of the “rest” cures might be behind us, but it is easy to feel just as trapped and confined in a world that rarely allows us to rest but still makes us feel like even our best efforts aren’t good enough.

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.

But John says if I feel so I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself,—before him, at least,—and that makes me very tired.


As a Mom, I’m Constantly Juggling

Despite numerous pledges to say, “No more” and simplify our family’s life, I can only reduce the needs of our household so much.

Two anxious parents have produced two kids who are fairly “high maintenance.” And our combined education and health care backgrounds have made us aware of the benefits of early intervention services and being proactive.

This is good for our kids, but it adds a lot of stress to parenting.

Our overall healthy kids have struggled to reach certain developmental milestones and had numerous rocky points in their brief school careers.

While we have not had to face some of the more complex and sometimes even devastating medical situations of other families we know, our schedule has filled with occupational and speech therapy appointments, music lessons, gymnastics classes, and tutoring sessions to help our kids find ways to thrive with ADHD, auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, and “dyslexic tendencies.”

Creative, hilarious, silly, sweet kids, they need a bit “more” to navigate their days.

And we have the privileges of time, education, economic stability, and being a white, Anglo-Christian, heteronormative couple to give them a multitude of advantages.


Parenting Is a Balancing Act

Every day is a delicate balance of giving my kids the right amount of academic and physical stimulation so that they make progress, while not overloading them and spending our evenings with a visit to meltdown city — for them or me.

I too often reach a point of having no more to give and find myself withdrawing from my husband and kids. Dealing with anxiety and burnout as a mom often means insufficiently using take out and Netflix to try to cover the gaps I leave.

I yell when I wish I could coax and soothe, ignore when I wish I could engage, and resort to electronics when we have a new stack of library books and unopened craft kits filling our shelves.

And no one judges me more than I do when I can’t climb off this rollercoaster of guilt for both the things done and undone.

My anxiety and OCD are often the loudest voices in my head, telling me not only have I failed yet again, but also that I need to spend the evening beating myself up about it. Because I am well aware of the fact that I have a privileged and fairly “easy” life.

As such, I cannot seem to turn off the anxiety as a mom, even though I don’t have nearly as much to worry about as many others raising children today.

I don’t feel as if it was worth while to turn my hand over for anything, and I’m getting dreadfully fretful and querulous.

I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.

Of course, I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.

Out of the Wallpaper: Dealing with Anxiety as a Mom by Recognizing Privilege and Helping Others

Tessa and Katy, best friends from college, revisiting their former stomping grounds

So, how can I find my way out of the wallpaper without just giving up and tearing everything down in a fit of mom guilt?

I recognize that I, with all the privileges and access that I have, fight the demons in my head this much on a regular basis, so many other women who do not have these advantages must be struggling so much more than I am. 

It would be easy to become overwhelmed in that knowledge, but taking action to help others also helps me feel more in control of my own life and less alone.

As such, I need to use my money, time, and resources to help other people struggling to raise their kids in safe, financially stable homes who don’t have the same level of privilege.

Supporting Other Mothers

Through grassroots actions like Southerners On New Grounds (SONG) Black Mama Bail Out program and other efforts local to me, I can give back to organizations that support other mothers.

Southerners on New Grounds’ “Black Mama Bail Out” program aims to end money bail and pretrial detention of black mothers. Why? Because these programs keep black women in debt long past the incarceration period and rip families apart through pretrial detention when it is not necessary.

SONG also works to give families the day together on Mother’s day, along with many other initiatives that support incarcerated black women with children.

Learning from and supporting efforts from the amazing people behind Raising Luminaries Books for Littles and Mamademics is also a way to lend support. These sites seek to dismantle the racialized realms of children’s books and parenthood.

If you value teaching children the importance of diversity, supporting efforts like these is a great way to show that. As a school librarian and a mother, I find their work professionally and personally invaluable but donating through Patreon and purchasing books through their referral links help support their work.

Undefining Motherhood also has some great articles about children’s books about diversity, empowering books for girls of all ages.

I cannot control everything, but I can control how I react to at least some of the wounds that linger in our world.

By supporting mothers who do not have the same advantages I do, and by teaching my children to value diversity (both racial and gendered), I know that I am working to create change and empower the next generation–who just happens to be living in my home.

Practicing Openness and Brutal Honesty Regarding Motherhood

Inspired by writers and speakers, especially Glennon Doyle, I am working on practicing openness and brutal honesty writing and talking about how binding the pressures of motherhood can be in our modern society.

These pressures are especially strong if you’re someone who is prone to anxiety, depression, OCD, or other mental health struggles. Dealing with anxiety as a mom is hard work, and in many ways, it is simply the work of being a mom.

I grew up in an area and in a family that struggled to talk openly about mental health, and too many people struggled silently, feeling isolated and unknown. I don’t want anyone I know to feel like they are completely alone in the fight against the wallpaper – against whatever negativity dominates their headspace.

Open and brutal honesty means having the humility and the courage to show up as my authentic self in therapy, at church, in the observation area of the gymnastics class, to class parties, and on social media.

And while I know that my candor and openness about mental health struggles might be too much for some people, I am exactly the friendly ear that some other parent needs today.

In many ways, there is community in discomfort.


Crawling Out from the Wallpaper Can Change the World

Open and brutal honesty means being honest with my kids and my spouse that I need time to pursue my own interests, friendships, and professional life. And admitting that sometimes, I just need time by myself.

I don’t want my daughter growing up thinking that she has to please everyone at the expense of her own self-worth.

I don’t want my son believing that women need to sacrifice everything to be worthy of love.

Open and brutal honesty means loving my kids, my friends, my husband, my family, and myself. AND trying to grant myself even half the grace and forgiveness I give to others.

Sometimes, this means cereal for dinner in front of the TV, and just being happy for the cuddles and the fact that my kids are alternating cartoons with a few episodes of The Great British Baking Show and Nailed It.

In my kids’ eyes, I’m already loved, even if I’ll never nail this whole motherhood thing. At the end of the day, that’s enough reason for me to crawl out from behind the yellow wallpaper.


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Have you ever felt like dealing with anxiety as a mom has left you trapped behind the wallpaper? Tell us your story in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Dealing with Anxiety as a Mom: Not Quite Trapped In the Wallpaper

  1. This was one of the most beautifully articulated articles on motherhood I have ever read. I, also, have anxiety and OCD. I have never really made the connection that mom guilt compounds these preexisting conditions. Thank you for writing this ❤

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