Motherhood Gave Me a Nervous Breakdown

When does the "work-life balance" debate turn into a public-health crisis?

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I was one of those women who seemed to “have it all”: a loving husband, beautiful children and a fabulous career running a department for a Web-design agency. It was a lot to juggle, but I was determined to make it work. Like so many women in my position, I became hyperefficient. I learned to complete 10 hours of work in five and make dinner in less time than it takes to watch a PBS cartoon. I learned to make fundraising calls for my daughter’s preschool while pumping breast milk in a conference room, and eat dinner while washing the dishes. I learned to delegate, prioritize, negotiate and, when necessary, give up seeing friends, alone time with my husband and — hardest of all — sleep.

Unfortunately, years of unceasing activity — and the attendant stress and exhaustion — have a way of catching up with us. One day, on the way to Target to buy diapers, I broke down. Not my car. Me. What followed was weeks of panic attacks, insomnia and profound depression, followed by months of medication and therapy. I had to quit my job. It was a year before I was able to work again.

(MORE: There Is No Such Thing as the Traditional ‘Male Breadwinner’)

During my slow recovery, I began talking to other working moms. How did they do it all? Turns out, many of them too struggled with anxiety and depression. Often they suffered more exotic maladies, like vertigo, heart palpitations and lingering coughs. They were teetering on the line between “everything’s fine” and total collapse.

While researching my book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, I received e-mails and blog comments from more than a thousand women around the country who struggled to meet the demands of work and family and keep themselves healthy in the process. Many confessed that they had “hospital fantasies” — the desire to get in a minor accident so that they could be relieved for a few days from their to-do lists. In one survey I posted for working parents, 88% of the nearly 500 respondents said they had suffered stress-related health problems (like anxiety and depression) since having kids and going back to work. One woman told me that at the peak of her working-mom stress, she started having seizures at night. (She quit her job; she’s fine now.)

These stories are shocking, but they shouldn’t be. Studies like “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict” explain that America may be the most hostile country in the developed world for working parents of all income levels. Low-wage workers contend with rigid schedules, no paid time off and a lack of affordable child care, while professionals are often expected to work grueling hours and travel for business. Although we experience the problem in different ways, the result is the same: chronic stress.

To be sure, this is not only a women’s problem. As men become more involved at home, studies show that they too are struggling with work-family conflict. And often they work longer hours than women do. But mothers still do more housework and child care, even when both parents work. Mothers multitask more than fathers and enjoy less leisure time than fathers. And mothers experience more guilt about working full time than fathers do.

It makes sense, then, that women are more at risk for the health effects of stress. We are 60% more likely to suffer an anxiety disorder and 70% more likely to suffer from depression than men. Women may be four times as likely as men to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. Women are also more likely to suffer from eating disorders, sleep problems and substance abuse as a result of workplace stress.

(MORE: It’s Not Just Sexism — Women Do Suffer More From Mental Illness)

It’s time to recognize that by refusing to give parents — and especially women — some basic support to meet their competing obligations, we have created an impossible situation for them, one that has the makings of a serious public-health crisis.

Is it better that women don’t work? Of course not. Most of us want — and need — to work. But we can’t keep going at this pace. We need more fathers to share the work of raising a family (which means, for many men, working less). We need employers to offer options like telecommuting, flexible scheduling and better part-time jobs to protect all workers from burning out. We need better government policies: things like paid sick leave and paid parental leave, something every developed country in the world except the U.S. offers its citizens. The bottom line is this: we have to stop making mothers choose between financial stability and their own health.

25 comments
FaytesEnd
FaytesEnd

Wait, so we fathers are working more hours, helping more, and yet... 'we' need to do even more?

'We' didn't create this situation. Women altered the social contract. I have enough on my plate already, and enough of my fellow men have already opted out of fatherhood.

abbylane1111
abbylane1111

This is exactly why, men should work and women should stay at home.  I am a 33 year old woman saying this and I am damn mad at all the feminist who think they spoke for all. 

gidsimple
gidsimple

Some good points but a few items that also need to be taken into consideration are natural tendencies of some people to put too many un necessary items on their plate, in addition to over complicating how to get things done. Keep it basic and make a distinction of items that need to be done versus wants and plans for excessive recreation. Yes, it is important to have fun times with kids but they can be happy with things at a much more basic level than a lot of parents imagine is necessary. And meals...many tasty healthy options that can be done in half the time that many over process.

Summary: get back to basics and keep it simple.

DonnaTate
DonnaTate

As an African-American nanny I can tell you that women can be the worst at respecting other women as mothers. So many nannies are mothers and yet their employers won't allow them to bring their own children to work with them.

anie_ke
anie_ke

I am a stay-at-home mom and there have been many days where I've felt completely drained and overwhelmed, triggering several mental breakdowns.  Motherhood on its own is a deeply demanding and severely constant job.  Whether one has an additional job or is a full-time mom, moms with limited support rarely get breaks from the day-in day-out demands... such relentlessness makes you crazy and completely exhausted of strength, depleting any form of health you once had.
Even though many mothers nowadays work at additional jobs, there is little support for them in the workplace.   Stay-at-home moms are also left with very little support at home.   With less moms around during the day,  that sister-network of moms has been diminished and spread thin... and more and more people are being pulled away from the supportive network of family and community with career and jobs.  Also with higher and higher demands and stresses upon moms, we are less able to be supportive to one another.  We are all drowning.  All moms, no matter if they work elsewhere or are at home all day, are having more and more demands placed upon them with little sight for uncostly relief.

Mothers are definitely the least supported in our society and I think that needs to change.  At  stores, restaurants, and many public areas, Family and Parenthood seem to be an afterthought...   We need to have a better structure that supports mothers and fathers and family.  We need ways of depending on one another with limited cost.  Too many of us are drowning in demands of this world.  I am hopeful that love, creativity and innovation will bring us to better ways of lessening the burden on mothers, while also empowering them.  
I think probably the biggest step we can take is by losing the heavy judging eye so often placed on mothers and change it to an eye of upliftment and support... seeing motherhood as something to be honored, celebrated and reverenced, not to be diminished, condemned, or overlooked.  
Thank you for this article!

olasson
olasson

"The bottom line is this: we have to stop making mothers choose between financial stability and their own health."

So just get pregnant with a random guy and you deserve 18 years long welfare program?

A lot of people should wake up maybe they are not able to keep up the living standards they are used to.  The world is chaging and while some will always get rich, also some wealthy will eventually become poor. You just have to adapt that and work on what you have and can.


"Financial stability" sounds like a great excuse to demand benefits.

GerardVanderLeun
GerardVanderLeun

"Who is the “we” that created this impossible situation for mothers?  How did it become the norm? Few ask the questions. Most accept that the impossible state is just how it is if women are in the work force and unless fathers contribute more. Fathers, however, already take on levels and types of household duties that would stun our grandfathers, yet women find the work and life balance harder than ever to achieve. Many call, as this Time piece did, for government action of some sort."

Supportforchoices
Supportforchoices

Katrina Alcorn describes a reality that hits home.  For someone to suggest that she did not seek appropriate medical opinions (endocrinologists, etc) is presumptuous.  What she describes is a reality that I have personally observed.  In a culture that has changed in many ways over the past 50 years, there are ways in which some things have not changed at all. Society is evolving VERY slowly.  Meanwhile, women such as Katrina are running to keep up the race.  Let us seek to understand rather than condemn others for their choices and the results that can spin outside their control.  We all bring our biases; into marriages/relationships, into parenting, into whatever it is we choose to do with our lives.  A little empathy is a good thing even when standing on opposite sides of an issue.

LaurenZB
LaurenZB

Wow. A lot of anger in these comments. I understand people are upset that a woman of privilege (compared to most, worldwide) would have the audacity to complain or want more. So let's think about this. Are we really saying, that in the modern, conscious world, a woman should only have children -- or as some insist, have sex at all -- if she can drop all else to raise them? Is that the best we can hope for? For men and women? 

Yes, it's a gift living in the modern day US. As Warren Buffet says, we have all essentially won the lottery to be born here. But are the fruits of that gift really lack of choice? Lack of balance? Insane working hours, whether to support basic needs, or a higher need (on the Maslow scale) to make a contribution to the world? Should we be able to raise children and meet all levels of needs at the same time? Shouldn't we be able to find that balance? Perhaps we can not think of this as "entitlement" but as a step forward in cultural evolution.  

I think what she's asking for a change in culture. Not to empower women to be more lazy or entitled, but to support and encourage them in living balanced, healthy lives so they can model and provide that for their children too. You know, so the next generation can grow up to be creative and productive, but also nice, kind, conscious people. Even on the internet.

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

Raising a child is a hard, rewarding, and long-term job. With most 'real jobs' today demanding insane hours if you are to earn any money at all, it's virtually impossible to do both and not go insane.

One of the parents needs to stay home and tend the lil ones. Since women reject any man who does not work as a 'loser' and promptly divorces him, this has to be the woman.

Learn to live on less, buy a smaller house, own a single car, clip coupons, and accept your fate as a stay-at-home mom.

Feminists have pushed the idea that you can have your cake and eat it too. That's impossible for 99% of us. You can do whatever you want, but not everything at the same time.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

gizmomonster
gizmomonster

Katrina, I don't think you had a nervous breakdown. You really describe the symptoms of Adrenal fatigue or Hashimoto's syndrome, or some other autoimmune disease. If you weren't properly diagnosed, the issue is that this can happen again, and there are other long term effects if its not treated, it's not a once in a lifetime thing. Obviously work/life balance in the user experience design field don't lend itself to motherhood and being ill. I think really you should go see an endocrinologist rather than calling it a 'nervous breakdown'. 

smile3141
smile3141

There's other more important issues, than having it all. My best friend stayed home to raise her kids after years of abuse and divorce she went back to work, she later found out she has MS. Because she doesn't have enough work credits she wasn't able to receive Social Security Disability Benefits. She receives about 500.00 a month frm Medicaid . She has days she can't walk and her room is filling up with medical equipment , she's offered to do ironing or other odd jobs because she needs a few hundred dollars a month to make it. She's not worried about having it all, she just wants the basics.

pendragon05
pendragon05

If you cannot handle children - do not breed them. I pity women who do not know their limitations, then complain about their burdens to the rest of the world.

lilboa
lilboa

I never tried to do it all because I know better.  

I don't envy Marissa Mayer, I don't wear 4 inch heels, and I don't let the status quo dictate my decisions.  

Women finally have power, and much of it goes to waste as we imitate men.   We have different brains, hormones, behaviors, but we bought into the idea that doing everything a man does plus bearing children was a good thing.  Why?  

If someone offered you a job and said - you get to be the CEO, the EA, the accountant, the janitor, the nanny, the doctor, the engineer, the cook, and the delivery driver - would you say - sure - sounds great?  We are too busy trying to prove that we are equal; but thousands of women already have, so we don't need to anymore.  We know we can.  Now lets get busy improving the paradigm instead of trying to fit into it.

I feel for the author who is a casualty of our growth process; many women can relate.  I am thankful to every single women who came before me and tried to be and do more.  But I think it is time - we're finally evolving - we are moving from knowledge to experiential wisdom and realizing  - we don't want absolute equality - we want balance.

notmyusualusername
notmyusualusername

The commenters here forget there are scores of people living in between public aid and Land Rovers/ski resort vacations. The only bitterness and resentment and whining I've read on this page comes from the comments. 

tightywhitey
tightywhitey

Wow. A lot of Estrogen flowing in that article. A lot of whining. If you can't stand the heat, the f out the kitchen. Stop spitting out kids. That's the real problem that this article fails to address. People who can't support kids, whether that be emotionally, financially, etc, simply shouldn't be having them.

But if all you want to do is address the symptoms and not the problem. Instead of being bitter about how, according to you, men don't do enough, why not take a page from the men's playbook. If doing something less than 50% of the work means that you're 60% less likely to suffer an anxiety disorder and 70% less likely to suffer from depression and four times less likely to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. I'm not sure why you through this non-sequitur in there: "Women are also more likely to suffer from eating disorders, sleep problems and substance abuse as a result of workplace stress."

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you don't realize it's a non-sequitur because the spell check on this website doesn't recognize it as a word.

By the way, you can't do 10 hours of work in 5 hours. If you worked 5 hours, you did 5 hours of work. You can't arbitrarily assign an hour value to how long you think something should take and then stick with that guess after you completed the work in some other amount of time. If you assessed that the work would take 10 hours, yet it actually took you 5 hours that just makes your 10 hour guess incorrect. And if you did trim 5 hours off of something that typically takes your 10 hours, then it just means you were doing it wrong those times it took you 10 hours.

The problem is, the Mom's you talk about think that the universe owes them something. Guess what, the universe is indifferent and doesn't owe you anything. You're not the first person to have children and you won't be the last.

Hypothetical: The carpet should be vacuumed but if you vacuum it you'll have no time to watch your favorite soap opera (that's what women watch, right?). Will vacuuming the carpet make you happier then watching your soap opera? If the answer is yes, then vacuum the carpet and be happy that you've made the correct decision. If watching the soap opera will make you happier, then watch the soap opera and leave the carpet for another day. If neither will make your happy, then you need to do something else that does. It's so simple.

The men have apparently already figured this out (according to you, they're happier). So do as the men do or stop whining and suck it up.

ObsessedAmerica
ObsessedAmerica

In most societies in the world, people grow up in overcrowded housing settings, exposed to relatives' and neighbors' kids every day, and participating in raising them every day. Americans grow up in the luxury of separate homes, with their parents only, and are deprived of this valuable experience. They start learning how to raise a child only when they have their own, and so often fail terribly. 

All around the world people have kids and work. They have more kids, much less money and often higher prices than in the U.S, but raise those kids much better to be polite and respectful. They spend much more time obtaining food, yet they do not have these problems Americans have.

Americans should stop being so oversensitive about themselves and start disciplining their spoiled, entitled kids. With a decent level of discipline they will be much easier manageable.

http://kidobsessedamerica.com/why-are-americans-unable-to-raise-children

veronicalodge2010
veronicalodge2010

It is an important distinction that there are two very different groups of people discussed in the article:

-Yuppie, white American females (perhaps the most privileged group found anywhere in the modern world)

-Working class men and women who have few choices or options about work

The first group deserves far less (if any) sympathy.  They have choices.  When you opt-in to try to "have it all" you can't whine nearly as much (though they do) as those can't opt-out.  You certainly have no right to demand that others pay the costs of your flex time and paid leave.

The latter group doesn't have choices.  They are men and women who have to work - not for a newer Land Rover and the annual family ski trip but to pay the rent.  

If the yuppie loses her web designer job it might mean shopping at Target for a few months.  If the laborer loses his or her job it will mean months or years of unemployment, food stamps or foreclosure.

Don't try to hobnob with the great unwashed to get your policies through Congress.  They're invisible to you every other hour of the day.

Supportforchoices
Supportforchoices

@LaurenZB Well said.  Throwing around anger and stereotypes in an anonymous way is not the way to reach the hearts and minds of those one may hope to impact. 

abbylane1111
abbylane1111

@XiraArien1  I am 33 year old woman and I so agree!  especially with your last three sentences. I hate feminist.  They tricked me and now I am paying the price.

nicole.monday
nicole.monday

@JohnRaducci On that note, I pity the woman who has to put up with you. By the way, this is called a discussion, there's no need to freak out about it. 

Try to think about it like this: modern society needs women who work and it needs happy functional families too, so it's definitely worth discussing.

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

@smile3141 

We sure don't take care of our needy in this country, do we? Poor, abused stay at home moms, disabled, anyone with any kind of crazy, all of them suffer so the 0.1% can have a bigger bonus this year.

DonnaTate
DonnaTate

Amen sister! I have workered over 25 years as a nanny and I experienced a breakdown trying to advocate for the overscheduled, stimulated kids of mothers that do not respect the people that care for their kids. I feel like a lot of children are on someone's bucket list.

Supportforchoices
Supportforchoices

@ObsessedAmerica I take personal offense to your blog which contains many posts that stereotype American parents and kids in a certain way.  Stereotyping is never a good thing.  Your post doesn't even address the issues raised by Katrina Alcorn.  Talk about your non-sequitor.

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

@ObsessedAmerica 

Sure, you let me spank my kids without going to prison and I'll see what I can do about instilling discipline.

The mother in this article sounds like the kind of gyno-fem who would call the cops at the first raised voice. Sorry, girls, talking quietly about your feelings doesn't cut it, especially not with boy children.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog