Maybe the best gift for mom: Give her a break

May 10, 2023


Brenda Volling
Brenda Volling

Mother’s Day should serve as a reminder to mothers to be good to themselves and to celebrate their accomplishments, a University of Michigan researcher says.

In other words, the greatest gift moms can give themselves is self-compassion and kindness because “their best is more than good enough,” said Brenda Volling, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and an expert in children’s social and emotional development, parent-child interaction and family relationships.

Has anything changed over time in the role of motherhood?

Moms have always been carers and nurturers of their children—that role hasn’t really changed. Mothers are still involved and engaged in those responsibilities. Some of the biggest changes that we’ve noticed in the past couple of decades are the variations or types of family circumstances that mothers find themselves in. The prominent family form decades ago was the stay-at-home mom and breadwinner dad. This has changed drastically over the years … the role of moms is so varied from stay-at-home moms to full-time workers and everything in between.

Although moms still typically do more child care and housework than fathers, one of the things that has changed for families and mothers over the years is an increase in fathers’ involvement, not just in terms of availability, but more in terms of taking the time to establish a social and emotional connection with their children and spending quality time with them. There is a greater expectation by society that fathers are also nurturers and carers of their children and moms and dads are in this parenting-go-round together.

With moms doing more both inside and outside of the home, what impact is seen with their own well-being?

It is definitely the case that in working-parent families, there can be increased stress in trying to balance work and family obligations. We are also seeing more discussions about parental burnout which involves chronic stress and feeling completely exhausted trying to fulfill parenting responsibilities. Parental burnout can lead to distancing from one’s children and finding no fulfillment whatsoever in parenting.

Instead, what we want to see is a means for moms to manage stress, with significant others—even children—helping out in the family so that not all the child care burden or house care burden is on the mom. If she is trying to do it all and is burned out, it’s not going to help her with her own mental health, but it also is not going to help her be the mom she wants to be and have the relationship she wants with her children. Figuring out how to manage the stress between work and family roles is essential.

What can mothers do to be kinder to themselves and to be happier?

One of the first things I would recommend is that moms need to believe they are worth having a few minutes to themselves or even asking for help. I think as mothers we believe we have to do all of these things for all these different people all of the time. We think, “I don’t have time to do these things, to engage in self-care, be kind and compassionate to myself. I have things to do.” But if you don’t take that time, in some sense you’re saying you’re not worth it. The first thing is telling yourself “I’m worth finding time.” We’re not talking about elaborate laid-out plans here, but finding moments of kindness and reprieve when you can take a breath and center yourself again from the grind of working and being a parent.

Another thing I would recommend is to speak up. If you want help and want some relief from being stressed and burdened, you have to ask those around you for help. Ask your partner. Ask a family member, a friend, even your children. There’s no reason why mom has to be responsible for everything. Others can do laundry, clean the house, do chores, take the kids to school, make dinner.

When you have a minute to yourself, do some things you really love to do. I would recommend you make a list of 10 simple things that you really enjoy. It could be going for a walk or sitting down having a cup of your favorite tea, listening to a playlist that is yours on Spotify—or do you just have the kids’ playlist?

Try stretching or doing yoga, journal, read, nap, call a friend, whatever is important to you. Just close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Why make a list? Because when these moments come, you will already have in the forefront of your mind 10 possible things you could do for yourself. Otherwise, you’re more likely to fill up those moments with the umpteen things on your list to do for everyone else.

It sounds as if significant others and kids must be perceptive about mothers needing a break. What can they do?

Yes, if you’re an adult living in the same household, you know what the tasks/chores are. You see what she’s doing every single day or week. There’s no reason why you or others can’t see or have the insight into what needs to be done. Just ask, “Is there anything that I can do?” or “It looks as if you could use help doing the laundry. I’ll take care of that today.”

It’s also amazing what children can actually do—making their beds, fixing their lunches, vacuuming, folding their laundry. They can have chores. But the notion that mom has to do every little thing down to a tiny detail is just not realistic or sustainable.

Maybe the greatest gift for Mother’s Day isn’t a card and flowers, but picking up the laundry basket or opening the dishwasher.