Feeling Scattered:The Mother Muddle

"I feel like my life is one big tornado,” says Kristin Freeman, mother of two energetic girls, ages 2 and 4. She's juggling family, career, household, hobbies and friendships, and laments that she “barely has a moment to think” at day’s end. Freeman is not alone in her feelings. Many mothers attest to never feeling quite as ‘together’ as in their pre-baby days. But those who seem to barely miss a beat amidst the whirlwind of activity say it all boils down to flexibility, planning, and support — and a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Understanding "Mother Muddle" For at least the first six months after delivery, new mothers can blame on hormones the forgetful, flighty behavior and feelings of self-doubt, what Dr. Paula Elbirt, calls "mother muddle”, on hormones. A New York City mom and pediatrician, and author of Dr. Paula’s House Calls To Your Newborn, she says hormone levels drop immediately after delivery, then take about six months to reset themselves. But thereafter, Dr. Paula says external pressures and inner conflict, the aftermath of the women’s movement, cause worry and stress to continue to muddle the mind. She says women are fraught with questions like, "Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Should I return to work? Does my conversation reflect the education that I have?" "Suddenly you have a corporate VP who can’t remember her area code and zip code," she says. And while Dr. Paula points out that slowness to recall this information doesn’t make the mother any less capable of doing her job, it certainly compounds any feelings of self-doubt.

Be Flexible, Be Focused Carolyn Mirando, who co-chairs a new mothers’ group, says this sense of being discombobulated is of particular concern to women who were very ‘together’ before baby. Too often, she sees new mothers trying to resume their old schedules, she says. "But the unpredictability of this newborn throws them off altogether.” The key to adjusting, says Mirando, is to be flexible. Remember that the baby’s schedule will change throughout infancy, and will continue to change throughout childhood. In addition, Mirando says that new mothers often neglect their own nutrition and are sleep-deprived with the all-consuming hyper-focus on their baby. The result can be trouble focusing and forgetfulness. In addition to taking better care of herself, she suggests the new mom re-think the knee-jerk reaction to drop everything when the baby cries. There may be times when it’s OK to finish the task at hand, then tend to baby’s needs.

Get Ahead of the Game But being flexible doesn’t mean being disorganized. Whether it’s planning ahead, or having a certain place for everything, a sense of organization can go a long way toward alleviating the feeling of free-fall. For instance, the few seconds it takes to return something to where it belongs can save hours of searching later. Diana White, who manages a full-time job, household, and her three kids’ active schedules, has learned to expect the unexpected during the week. On Sundays, she gets a jump start by taking care of the essentials: she chooses and irons her work clothes, shops for her family, and cooks any big meals planned for the week, which allows them to "grab and go" as needed. On days when her son is sick, or her daughter has a special event, she says having a freezer full of prepared food helps keep things running smoothly. Other mothers swear by a daily planner or to-do list to stay organized. Kristen Cavallaro, a part-time database administrator whose children are ages 3, 5, and 7, says her ‘To Do’ lists, both at work and at home, help keep her life in order. "Even simple things, like sewing a button on, make the list," she says. This not only helps her keep track of what needs to get done, but also helps her group tasks to make the most or her time — for instance, pairing the laundry with meal preparation. But she jokes that some things have been on the list for almost two years. "Obviously not a high priority," she laughs.

Don’t Do It All Dr. Margaret Paul, who teaches "Inner Bonding", a six-step process that includes healing aloneness, and is the author of Do I have to Give Up Me to Be Loved By My Kids, says that while many women do find ways to do it all, it’s an unfortunate product of our culture. She says that in communities where woman are able to put all their focus on their baby and do not have to deal with other more mundane aspects of life do not generally experience the same scatteredness. "Women have to realize that they can’t do it all by themselves," says Dr. Paul. While some mothers may feel this is admitting failure, Dr. Paul feels it’s more of a failure if she doesn’t get the help she needs. Not only is she failing to be loving to herself, but she is modeling the behavior to her children. She suggests finding some way to get help, whether it’s an adolescent helping after school, networking with other women, or asking help of other family members. Claire Heavey, a mother of five boys ages 5 months to 7 years, grew up in a family of 15, so sharing the load is not a foreign concept for her. She says having a husband who helps out with anything from dinner, to the boys’ activities, to cleaning up makes all the difference. But, she admits, even with help it’s easy to over-commit, especially when it comes to the various committees that ask for her time. She found a way to be actively involved but also avoid the stress that results from being stretched too thin: "Instead of volunteering once a week for school activities," she says, "now, maybe it’s once a month."

Find Time for Yourself Glade B. Curtis, M.D., an OB/GYN in private practice, and author of the best selling Your Baby Week by Week and Your Pregnancy Week by Week, suggests seeking out women in similar situations. He says networking is critical to staying centered — a lesson he learned by watching his wife with their five children, and now his daughter with her children, seek out and find other mothers to help be successful. "Find someone who does it well, and copy them," he says. Most moms, especially those perceived as "SuperMom”, agree that there is no real SuperMom to copy: only days that are better than others. Coming to grips with that is the first step toward being the calm at the center of whatever storm blows your way.