Written by: Natalie Fuertes
How many of those “perfect, Instagram” moms do you follow on social media? You know the ones. They seem to have it all - their house is spotless, their toddler is eating a professionally plated gourmet meal full of the beautiful vegetables they grew in their perfectly manicured backyard, and they’re always stylishly dressed in white linen that somehow manages to stay immaculately clean, even as they tend to their vegetable garden.
You sigh, click off your phone screen, and are shocked at your reflection, impressed that you’ve been able to go about your day, looking the way you do, and somehow not have been arrested. Horrified, you look up from your phone, and observe the rest of your reality - you look at your daughter’s fingernails which, for some reason, are full of flour and glitter; you notice your son, who desperately needs a haircut and has already outgrown the tee shirt you bought him last week; you survey your apartment and note all of the visual reminders of the chores you can never seem to get to in one weekend.
This isn’t Instagram. This is life. And now you feel like crap.
We live in a society that tells us we need to hide our struggles. That you need to make it seem like you’re doing it all - working a full-time job that you love, spending quality time with your kids and your partner, putting a healthy dinner on the table every night. And doing it with a big, beautiful, Invisalign-ed smile on your face. However, that’s not real life. And it’s time we start being ok with just being “ok”.
I’ll start by letting you in on a little secret. I have anxiety. And, ok, fine, who doesn’t have some kind of “anxiety”? What I should have said is that I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I suffer from fairly frequent panic attacks, and I cycle through bouts of depression. Do you think of me differently now?
Here’s my reality: I’m a worrier by nature. I look for emergency exits whenever I enter a room. I catastrophize everything. I take notes during post-apocalyptic movies. Should the world ever suffer some sort of global emergency, I have a plan. And a back-up plan. And a back-up plan to my back-up plan.
But here’s where it gets taken to the next level: simple, everyday tasks give me anxiety. I can’t go into a new coffee shop to get a cup of coffee because I need to know their exact ordering process before I go inside. Why? I Because I don’t want to be that annoying customer that asks the barista for milk in my coffee when I’m actually supposed to pour it myself. I will walk miles through the aisles of Target looking for Command hooks. Why? Because I don’t want to be the idiot who bothers the employees with my stupid questions. I struggle to book doctors appointments if it isn’t as simple as clicking a button on their website. Why? Because the thought of talking to someone on the phone and going back and forth while we try to find a date that works sends me into a panic.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental illness represents the biggest economic burden of any health issue in the world. Of the 450 million people worldwide who suffer from mental health conditions, the majority (60 percent) do not receive any form of care. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I want us to start taking small steps to breaking down the social stigma of living with mental health issues. Part of that means talking about it openly. And I’m slowly finding the courage to share my own story.
Here are the three biggest things that I’ve learned about anxiety:
I’m the queen of saying “I’m fine”. I push through even when I feel like crap and I hate making excuses. It’s taken me years to get to the point where I feel like it’s ok to say “I don’t feel ok today” or “I need a break”. If you have the flu you rest, right? It’s the same thing with anxiety. You need to listen to your body and you need to treat it the same way you would any other medical condition - whether that means taking medication, going to therapy, or learning how to self-manage with mindfulness techniques.
My biggest one is “mom guilt”. I work well over 40 hours helping to run LIC Kids Gymnastics. I absolutely love my job and love that I get to give back to my community, but I’ve got to juggle that with raising my two kids. Managing my work/life balance is tough. There are days when I want to put blinders on and just focus on work, but I’ve got to pick up the kids from school and make dinner. There are days when I just want to be a mom, and spend time lounging on the couch with the kids after school, but then there’s a fire that needs to be put out at the gym and I’m back on “work mode”. Most days I feel like a failure at work and at home. I always feel like I’m dropping the ball somewhere. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night wondering if I work too much, if I get frustrated too easily, if I’m not cooking enough vegetables. It’s a terrible feeling.
So how do I deal with this on a regular basis? Truthfully, I don’t have the answer yet. But I am learning how to ease the guilt a bit so that I’m not in a constant state of depression. I have to remind myself that I’m doing my best. Did the kids eat? Great - it doesn’t matter that it was a bowl of cereal or microwaveable nuggets. I know you think you have to live this perfect ‘Instagramable’ life for your kids to be happy, but I’m here to emphatically tell you that you don’t. If you are measuring your life against a social media fantasy, you will always come up short. At the end of the day, here’s your reality: your kids are loved, they’re safe, and it’s you that they run to when they’re upset.
On the days when I feel like a complete failure I remember this anecdote from a reader of one of my favorite sites, A Cup of Jo: “...my absolute favorite dinner was a ‘plate of little things.’ My single mom would slice cheese, apples, crackers, hot dogs, dry cereal, whatever and we would eat it in front of the TV. I told her that recently and she gasped, ‘What? Those were the nights I failed. I didn’t cook a thing and was too tired to talk to you guys. That’s ridiculous.’ Goes to show, it may be JUST when we fail that our kids feel most happy.”
This is a tough one for me and one that I’m trying my best to practice more often. I grew up with the mentality that asking for help was a sign of weakness. Admitting that I needed help meant that I wasn’t “capable” or that I was somehow “less than”. I’ve started with baby steps and, for me, that means simply admitting that I need help. I can’t do it all alone and I’ve come to realize that I have people around me that are willing to lend a hand.
I’ve gotten better at talking to my husband and verbalizing how he can help me. My husband is a “fixer” and is very task-oriented - you point him to a problem, and he’ll solve it. By telling him the things which trigger my anxiety (i.e. making appointments for the kids), he now knows what he can do to help (i.e. making appointments for the kids).
And on the days when I have a lot on my plate at work and simply stepping out of the office to pick up the kids from school is too stressful, I’ve gotten comfortable with texting my crew of mom friends and asking for help with pick up. I’ve come to realize that “It takes a village” isn’t just a saying. It’s the only way that I’ve been able to get through some days and no one thinks any less of me because of it.
There was a time before my diagnosis when I just felt like I was a terrible mom, a horrible wife, and a useless employee. Everything felt out of control and I felt like I just wasn’t doing enough. I was failing at everything because I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I know now that, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I give my all to everything, everyday. Even when it means that my “all” is making breakfast for dinner three nights in a row and missing a work deadline.
Some days I feel great. Other days, I can barely get myself out of bed in the morning. Some days I can tackle every item on my to-do list. Other days, just getting the kids to school and getting myself into the office is all I can muster. It’s life with anxiety. It’s my reality. And it’s ok.