“Sometimes I just wish I could be hospitalized,” says a 40-something mom. “Not with anything deadly, but something that would give me an excuse to drop out of life for a little while so that I can catch up.”
Most of us have had this thought at some point. Or, worse, some of us even go further, and fantasize about getting cancer, being hit by a bus or getting in a terrible accident. This is not a joke. We don’t really want to die, but we desperately need a break, and we feel so stuck in our lives that we see the only way to take a break is to have something catastrophic happen to us.
If you’re one of more than half of 40-something moms who are stressed out, it’s very possible you are clinically depressed. If you had the time and energy to take yourself to a therapy session, you would probably talk about being “stressed out,” and worry that you’re complaining about “first world problems,” but your therapist would respond with a prognosis of depression.
How did this happen?
If you have a child who has an eating disorder, it is very likely that you are extremely stressed out and even depressed. This is not just because of the eating disorder diagnosis. The eating disorder may just be the final straw that pushes you over the edge because we live in a society that puts moms in a perpetual state of stuckness that sucks the very life out of us.
We are the most educated moms in history, and we are increasingly the primary breadwinners in our households. We pursue our careers with gusto, yet we are still expected to do the majority of household labor. Our work is endless. It’s not just about the time spent at the grocery store. We also spend time thinking about what we need in the house (to serve 3 meals and 2+ snacks every day), making a grocery list and configuring our schedules to accommodate the actual act of shopping.
This pre-work requires a tremendous amount of energy but is seldom recognized as part of what we do to keep our households running. Our partners may take out the trash, but we’re the ones who buy the trash can and make sure there are trash bags in the pantry. Our partners may cook a meal, but we’re the ones who buy the frying pans, wooden spoons, cutting boards and ingredients.
We are a highly-educated and capable generation of women. We have made huge strides in our careers, and yet many of us feel stuck and uninspired at work. The constant demands of work and at home reduce our performance and chances of promotion.
Our expectations as mothers have ballooned. While our own mothers rarely played with us or supervised homework, we feel compelled to fill our children’s hours with fulfilling enrichment and feel personally responsible when our children get C’s.
While our mothers slapped together bologna and American cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread, we feel we must provide a variety of healthful options. We feel that sandwiches should be on sprouted grain bread and made with organic, locally-sourced ingredients, all of which we must purchase, of course.
We are doing this all. And we are angry. We are furious. We are overwhelmed. We are stressed out. We are filled with rage. We fantasize about catastrophe because it seems like the only way out. We are depressed.
And then our child is diagnosed with an eating disorder, which means that for all of the efforts we put into those enrichment activities and sprouted grain sandwiches, we still fucked up. We still have more to learn as mothers. Our attempt to be great has resulted in a shocking realization that our child still needs more from us.
So, because we are moms, we devote ourselves to our child’s eating disorder recovery. We take time off work to help our child. It is usually the mom who takes time off, and it’s often because we feel deeply compelled to fix all of our family’s problems. Statistics have shown that when a woman takes time off work in service of a sick family member, she stands to lose an average of $324,000 in lost wages and Social Security benefits.
And now the real kicker comes in. We were raised with the belief that we could do anything, which has pushed us to attempt to do everything and do it perfectly. So we start to question our whole purpose in life. The thoughts go something like this: “I’m miserable in my career, my daughter is sick, I feel fat and unattractive, and my sex life sucks. Why did I make such bad choices in life?”
You see, even when society has failed us. Even when numerous individuals have set us up for our situation, we still blame ourselves. It’s insane, but it’s true.
And then we feel even more depressed. And our feelings of hopelessness and loneliness and stuckness snowball and trigger changes in our brain, and we become clinically depressed. That means we don’t just feel sad. We feel empty and hopeless.
Knowing that we can’t possibly afford to be depressed, we desperately seek ways to fix ourselves. Social media shouts at us all day about the benefits of meditation, yoga, exercise, whole foods, sex, and sleep. So, since we are good girls, we try to do all those things. But we still feel empty. And then we feel like we are failures. We can’t even care for ourselves. We are total losers. We grab for quick fixes like chocolate and alcohol to feel better, but we don’t.
We have fantasies about running away. We consider whether we could drop out of society and live off the grid. Maybe we can live off the land and never have to commute an hour each way to work, then pick up our kids, squeeze in attentive homework help, plan a healthful meal, take our child who has an eating disorder to therapy while madly running around to the grocery store, pharmacy and pet store to finish all our chores. Then we come home, cook the healthful meal, connect meaningfully with our children and … what … have sex?
Sex starts to feel like just another task on our to-do list. Even if we really like our partner and enjoy having an orgasm, the energy it takes to get in the mood, and the sense of giving one more thing to one more person is a total turn-off. So we may “call it in” and agree to half-hearted sex once in a while, but we begin to resent our partner for having sexual needs when we can barely meet the needs of everyone else on our backs.
As our fantasies of dropping out increase, we find small ways to rebel. We emotionally break down in our cars mid-commute. We sob and rage in between meetings. We drink too much. We smoke furtively when nobody is watching. We flirt with strangers or reconnect with old flames. We have affairs. We binge-watch television. We stop having sex with our husbands. We develop online shopping habits or online gambling habits. We are miserable. We are depressed.
We feel as if we will never, ever catch up. We are on a perpetual hamster wheel.
This article is about acknowledging the depression our generation of mothers is living with. Perhaps if we begin acknowledging what is going on for all of us, we can build self-compassion for ourselves individually and as a cohort of women.
Perhaps if we acknowledge that we are depressed, we will seek treatment and support. This will require changes in our lives, as well as those of everyone for whom we care. This will be hard. This is not easy. But we cannot sustain this hamster wheel forever. Something has to change.
Sending you love, today and always.