Can a stay-at-home mom be a workaholic?

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Debra Borys, Ph.D., a clinical and health psychologist in the West Los Angeles with particular expertise in trauma mentioned an intriguing and disturbing trend amongst a growing number of former professional women:  full time moms who have fallen into workaholic lifestyles.   Could someone be a workaholic without a job outside the home?  Dr. Borys, a mother of two herself, gives the following case example:

Tracy is a full-time mom of an 18-month-old daughter, with a spouse who works full-time but is very involved in Stella’s care as well.  Before having Stella, Tracy managed human resources for a major corporation.  As a stay-at-home mom, she finds herself venting to friends (whom she now only sees for joint play-dates) that while she adores Stella, she always feels tired, trapped in her schedule, and overwhelmed by a never-ending list of tasks.  She feels herself to be a prisoner of her to-do list and is compelled to try and complete it (which we all know as parents is impossible).  While at work she could at least eventually leave the office, now that her home is her office the mind-set of work never ends.

Tracy gets pulled into a pattern where she makes things harder for herself than they need to be, for example meticulously researching and comparing gymnastics classes that are months away.  Her never-ending workload, coupled with her perfectionism, has become mentally intrusive and has also disrupted her sleep (which is already enough of a challenge when one has young kids).  Tracy is plagued by guilt when her kid cries because she’s left the room, and thus cannot brook leaving the house… and yet she’s not really fully there when she’s with Stella.

While Tracy fantasizes about going back to her yoga class, which might help with a literal pain in the neck she’s recently developed, in her mind she cannot find the time… even on days she has a sitter.  Meanwhile, when she’s zooming through her list and checking things off she feels productive and in control, riding the “high” of being effective (as measured by completing tasks). 

Increasingly, however, Tracy notices that she’s impatient when feeding Stella, rushes through the times that ought to be about bonding, having fun and hanging out—always in a hurry to get on with the “planned” (or should we say over-planned) activities.  Tracy finds that she often puts off eating (and then grabs whatever is quickest, and typically unhealthy) because she can’t break away from her “work” as a mom, and seemingly no matter how much she accomplishes, she’s left feeling empty and like a failure because she can’t get ALL caught up.  In her futile bid to be the perfect mom, Tracy is coming apart at the seams—and probably failing to be her best Self as a mom.

Dr. Borys believes that this pattern qualifies as workaholism, and that it puts such a parent at risk for serious depression, anxiety disorders, marital distress, substance abuse, physical illness and deteriorating relationships with their kids.  As this is more about an attitude and obsessive approach to parenting, moms who work part-time are not immune:  as one mom who is a part-time academic observed, “I realized I was living like I was a full-time mom AND a full-time college professor, and that adds up to TWO people!”

The first step for a parent who may fear that their parenting has become a form of workaholism is to identify that their approach to caring for their child may have slipped over the line and be missing the point (which is not to get everything done, but to serve their child’s needs—i.e. for attention, patience and a calm and nurturing environment).  While therapy might be ideal to support such a parent in making their way toward a deeper understanding of why they are so driven, and to in turn forge a more balanced life, a few things to consider include:

  • Realize that being a “good enough” mother (to use Winnicott’s term, meaning that we are human and make mistakes) is actually healthier for our children than being perfectionistic, which creates anxiety and models an unhealthy example.  Remember, children develop through the optimal frustrations they face when we do our best and then fall short.
  • Feeling that we are inadequate models low self-esteem for our children.  This links up with the notion that if Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.
  • We need to come to understand the societal and personal factors that lead us to believe that our worth is so powerfully linked to our achievements (a particularly bad set-up for parenting where we don’t get a lot of thanks, validation or rewards such as some companies give out to motivate staff).
  • Our children can trigger unconscious memories of our own childhood, and it’s important to contemplate whether there is unresolved pain or fears from our own childhood that a workaholic style helps keep buried (and which threatens to rear up in “empty spaces” or relaxed moments).  [In Tracy’s case it turned out that her own mom’s painful periods of depression and withdrawal from Tracy when she was a toddler colored Tracy’s feelings about leaving her daughter with a sitter.]
  • Just as children need limits to feel safe and secure, parents need to set realistic boundaries on how long we will work and about what is reasonable to expect to accomplish in any given day.
  • A workaholic parent (or a stressed, depressed or anxious parent for that matter) benefits from developing strategies to soothe themselves and regulate their emotions; when the defensive function of driven over-working is no longer needed, the pattern is free to release and for work and play to come into healthier balance.
  • Mindfulness practices such as yoga, therapy, etc. can help a work-centric parent transition from the “adrenaline rush” of speeding through tasks in order to “check them off”, to the subtler but deeper pleasures of enjoying the process of parenting, connecting more authentically in various relationships and finding small windows to be creative or simply have a little fun
  • Through greater mindfulness we might better read our own cues when we are reaching our mental or physical limits and listen to our bodies to slow down and take a break.
  • If one does go to therapy, it is useful to identify, and relinquish, catastrophic beliefs about what might happen if tasks are not completed on any given day.

Overall, Dr. Borys emphasizes how moms who successfully make the transition from a workaholic approach in parenting toward greater balance invariably express amazement at how they end up feeling happier and more productive, and have better relationships with their child, even though they end up spending more time than before relaxing, sleeping and doing adult activities for their own enjoyment.

So let’s dedicate today to what the Tibetans call “all accomplishing wisdom,” being truly present to the moment, and particularly to our children themselves rather than the clouds of tasks that can end up as a barrier between them and us.  This is precisely how we can let go of the self-flagellation (it doesn’t help anyone anyway) and accomplish more in the end (at least of what matters) by seemingly doing less. 

Namaste, Bruce 

p.s. Debra Borys welcomes readers to contact her at dsborysphd@sbcglobal.net or (310) 208-8992

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2 Responses to “Can a stay-at-home mom be a workaholic?”

  1. Beth Says:

    Your list of things to consider is very helpful. I sometimes fall into the trap of sacrificing quality of experience for quantity, putting too much emphasis on checking items off my list.

  2. Betsy Says:

    This sounds all too familiar. I never would have figured the connection with this common mothering malady and workaholics. Interesting.

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