Never Good Enough: The Emotional Toll of Motherhood
You love your kids. But you hate motherhood, and all of the unspoken expectations, feelings of inadequacy, and daily stresses of the job. Here’s why mothers with ADHD struggle more than their counterparts, and how you can begin to live life on your terms.
Motherhood is challenging for everyone. For overwhelmed ADD moms, it is the job from hell. It requires top-notch organization, prioritization, and time-management skills — a perfect choreography of the brain’s executive functions, according to Dr. Ellen Littman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD. Plus infinite patience, a high tolerance for boring housework, and an almost inhuman emotional calm.
“Typical parenting advice is not written for moms with ADHD,” Dr. Littman says. “You try to do the things they suggest and you end up feeling even worse and more alone.”
What follows is not typical parenting advice.
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The Feminine Ideal
Why do mothers with ADHD report feeling inadequate? Unworthy? Sad? Perpetually exhausted? Overwhelmed? We blame SuperMom.
“The feminine ideal is crazy,” Dr. Littman says. “It expects you to cooperatively organize everyone without complaining, and look great while you do it. It’s unrealistic for anyone. There’s the part of you that knows it’s unrealistic, and then there’s the part of you that pursues it anyway.”
And that is when the unhealthy comparing, competing, and internal conversations take place. That's when you stay up until 2 am, completing cute crafty teacher gifts and banging your head against a wall.
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Girls’ Guide to ADHD
The negative self-talk and poor self-esteem that many moms battle rarely show up for the first time in adult life. They are borne in an adolescence of undiagnosed or misunderstood ADHD. If you grow up being called ditzy, dreamy or dumb, you begin to believe it. You begin to think you are lazy or "less than" others because no one’s told you that neurology and physiology are to blame. You internalize the shame and it begins to eat away at you.
“We’re only really embracing now that girls can have ADHD. High-functioning women with ADHD look SO different from hyperactive boys with ADHD that very few people will understand or will label the disorder correctly for you,” says Dr. Littman. “The most important thing for women to understand is that motherhood is not hard because you have character flaws or because you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s hard because there are neurological things getting in the way.”
Research suggests that fluctuations in estrogen impact a woman’s ability to regulate symptoms of ADHD. When your estrogen levels are higher, you can better regulate the dopamine in your brain. When they are lower — like before menstruating — symptoms are amplified.
This means that some girls don’t show any signs of ADHD until puberty hits — a much later onset of symptoms than is typical with boys. It also means that your emotions and symptoms are on a monthly roller coaster ride that is hard to plan around and recover from.
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The Dark Side of Pinterest
Connecting with not-really-friends on Facebook or Instagram means you see photos of their perfectly coiffed kids and kale-infused meal creations every darn day. You can’t escape those images of perfection (even if they’re staged and exaggerated wildly), and you can’t help comparing yourself, your microwave dinners, and your never-ever-clean house.
“You try to hide the chaos behind the façade,” Dr. Littman says. “You worry that people are going to find out you’re an impostor, so you hide your feelings — keep them pent up. You put up a wall so that no one understands your experience. It becomes very lonely.”
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It's Not an Excuse
Even when we do open up about our ADHD, and try to explain the symptoms that have defined us for too long, many people are incredulous. They don’t believe that ADHD exists in adults. Or they think we're making excuses. Or they say we're too successful to have ADHD. None of these reactions is helpful.
“ADHD is not an excuse; it is an explanation — a totally physiological explanation,” Dr. Littman says. “The smarter you are and the better you compensate, the more people will doubt you. The harder you struggle to cope, staying up late at night to pull things together, the more people will doubt your ADHD. They don’t see that the cost of your success is terrible sadness, anxiety, and burnout.”
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Where Is Your Oxygen Mask?
When moms feel chronically strung out and stressed, they don’t feel they deserve any time for themselves. They don’t feel entitled to relaxation or adequate sleep, and they put their own self-care on the back burner. This saps your resources, makes you more likely to get sick or have an accident, and exacerbates your ADHD symptoms even more. Feeling awful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“You invalidate yourself, and you accept invalidation from others who are saying you’re not doing a good job – including abusive comments from a child who also has ADHD,” says Dr. Littman. “You can fall into a cycle that is really negative.”
“Everyone is entitled to say, ‘This is what I need help with.’ Right now, women with ADHD are not comfortable doing that. So they are leading secret lives.”
“You maintain the façade of looking like other women," Dr. Littman says. "But the everyday chaos, pain, torment and struggle — that is the secret you live with. That is stuff that will undo your life, not whether your kids are 10 minutes late or forgot the field-trip permission form. Those unhealthy feelings about yourself? That is what’s going to ruin your life.”
…and how it impacts you and your family. Your ADHD is just as serious as your child’s ADHD. Its symptoms are just as wide ranging and impact your family just as much — if not more. Don’t hide it and don’t blame yourself for neurological manifestations beyond your control.
Also, acknowledge that you and your child may have very different types of ADHD. You may be gregarious, outgoing and creative while your child is hypersensitive and withdrawn. “One person is always overwhelmed by too much stimulation, and the other person is always frustrated by not getting a response,” Dr. Littman says. “It’s frustrating but there is no one to blame.”
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Step Two: Pursue Treatment
ADHD medication works wonders for some adults. Nutrition and exercise help others keep symptoms in balance. But almost everyone benefits from talking with a therapist, counselor, or support group. Find a therapist who gets what it’s like for mothers with ADHD to cope, and you will be one big step closer to validation and support.
“Many women with ADHD feel, ‘This is my sole burden to carry as an albatross.' And it’s a very heavy burden,” Dr. Littman says. “It’s really hard to go this alone, and there is no reason to.”
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Step Three: Enlist Help
Tell your significant other, friends, or family that you need help. Show your vulnerability and accept assistance and ideas from others. Be willing to give and take. Do your absolute best. But don’t ever apologize for your ADHD.
“Organizing the entire world of your family is not your job alone,” says Dr. Littman. “It is something everyone can learn.”
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Step Four: Work With Your Child
Children with ADHD are more likely to follow rules that they have a part in creating. Invite your child to solve problems with you. Ask him, “What should we do?” “How can this work better?” “What do you think we should try?” Delegate to survive, and learn to try different ideas even if you think they’ll fail. You may just be surprised.
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Step Five: Give Yourself 10 Minutes
If you don’t schedule it, it probably won’t happen. So mark your calendar for 10 minutes of daily ‘regrouping’ time. This can entail meditation, yoga, walking the dog, reading a book, painting...Whatever it is, make sure it’s just for you — and don’t let anyone drag you away early.
“You may not feel you deserve it, or you may feel too overwhelmed,” Dr. Littman says. “But you will be happier and healthier for it.”
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Step Six: Just Say No
Give yourself permission to decline invitations, skip volunteer opportunities, and generally say, “Unfortunately, I just can’t.” Your plate is overfilled. Don’t say “Yes” to one more thing.
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Step Seven: Ignore Everyone Else
“Don’t seek out normal. It’s boring,” Dr. Littman says. “Instead, focus on feeling good and happy. No one can decide for you the best way to live. And no one is judging you as harshly as you are yourself.”