Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping with Mothering Stress, Depression, and Burnout

By Kathleen A. Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC

Hidden Feelings of Motherhood is a book that speaks to any woman who feels overwhelmed and stressed.  (Isn’t that all of us?)  Dr. Kendall-Tackett describes our current lifestyles and what happens when we can’t give anymore (stress, burnout, depression).  She also gives very practical suggestions on how to get your life back on track, how to put the joy back into living.  Below is an excerpt with suggestions on how to make your life easier. 


Strategies to Lighten Your Load

Chances are you put in many hours on home and childcare.  Throughout the rest of this chapter, I’ll offer some suggestions to help bring your workload to a more manageable level.  I recommend three strategies: analyze what you are doing and eliminate any unnecessary tasks; streamline tasks that remain; and share the load with other people, including your partner, your children, and professionals.

Analyze and Eliminate Tasks

Let’s start at the beginning by examining how you spend your time at home.  Are there any tasks you can eliminate?  Before you say “no,” I’d encourage you to keep an open mind.  Creative solutions often come after a period of brainstorming when you uncritically consider all possible ideas.  Allow for the possibility that you could actually drop some tasks.

Inventory Your Activities

In order for you to be able to drop some tasks, you first need to have a realistic sense of how much you do.  Start by paying attention to all the activities that fill your days.  You might find it helpful to write down everything that you do for at least one week.  If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at the list in chapter 3 (under Impossible Job).  You may feel that your to-do list never gets any shorter and that what you’ve actually accomplished is never quite enough.  But, when you write it down, I suspect you will be amazed at how much you actually do accomplish.

Once you have your list in hand, consider each activity and ask yourself whether it needs to be done.  If you are saying yes to every item, try another approach.  Ask yourself what would be the worst thing that could happen if you didn’t do it.  The answers may surprise you.

You should also include kid things on this list.  As I described in chapter 1, you may want to let your children participate in activities that will make them well-rounded and give them future opportunities.  But, in many communities, extracurricular activities have gotten way out of hand.  Mothers can spend every night of the week driving to lessons, sport practices and games, and other activities.  The amount of time involved grows as you add children.  Consider limiting the number of outside activities your children participate in.  It will save you time and help your children learn to strike a balance between enough and too much.  Relationships in your family tend to improve when you actually have time to talk with each other instead of rushing off each afternoon or evening.

The choices you make are personal.  The solution that works well for my family may not work for yours.  I’ve even found that what worked for me five years ago no longer works because the needs of my family have changed.  Realize, too, that deciding to eliminate an obligation from your list doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to eliminate it today; for example, your children may need to finish out the season before they withdraw.  Whatever you decide, I encourage you to be flexible and experiment to find solutions you can live with.

Develop Realistic Standards: Aim for “Clean Enough”

Another area where you can probably eliminate some tasks is in housecleaning. Like anything else, cleanliness can be taken too far.  Your home is for you and your family to live in.  I recommend that you aim for the goal of “clean enough.”  What does that mean?  After a certain point, cleanliness is largely a matter of preference.  I suggest you use two criteria to hit a level that is good for you.  The first criterion is level of organization.  Can you find what you need without thrashing around?  Do bills get paid on time?  Is there an orderly flow of mail and other paper?  Do you have a way to track appointments for your family?  Can you consistently find your keys, clean underwear, or your glasses?  Are you usually well stocked on items like toilet paper, toothpaste, or milk?  If not, becoming more organized will help a lot.

The second criterion is level of cleanliness.  A certain minimum standard is necessary for health and safety.  After that, “clean” is also subjective.  If you invite people over, are you able to relax and enjoy them, or do you wish they would turn around so you can vacuum the rug?  Does it take days to get your home in shape for guests?  If so, you are unlikely to have company (and you’ll be too exhausted to enjoy them).  Think about how you can get your home to be clean enough for you to enjoy without exhausting yourself.  Don Aslett’s book No Time to Clean (2000) has a lot of great suggestions including a list of cleaning tasks you can eliminate.

If you are cleaning and organizing beyond the point of “clean enough,” you can probably do less.  I’ll give you some suggestions in the next section to get you started.  And, you might want to read my other book, The Well-Ordered Home (Kendall-Tackett, 2003b).

Streamline Your Tasks

Once you have eliminated some tasks, consider whether the ones that are left could be done more efficiently.  In most cases, the answer is probably yes.  The good news is that organizational skills can be learned.  I spent many years of my adult life being domestically challenged.  If I can learn, so can you.  Below are some steps to get you started.  I would also encourage you to read some of the books listed at the end of this chapter for more detailed suggestions.

Analyze the Situation

According to professional organizer Julie Morgenstern (1998), the first step in any organizational scheme is to figure out where you’re having problems.  Are you always losing keys?  Is your morning routine a disaster?  Do you buy duplicates when you can’t find stuff or because you don’t realize what you have?  Pick your worst situation, and start there first.  Resist the temptation to say “everything.”

Once you’ve figured out what you want to change, try mentally walking through the problem to see if you can come up with a solution.  If you lose your keys, think about what door you usually use when you come into your home.  Would it help if you had a key rack right next to that door?  If you tend to have lots of books and magazines next to your bed, would a bookshelf or end table with drawers help?  Think about what you actually do now rather than what you “should” do.  If your organizational efforts are based on shoulds, it will be much harder to develop a system that works for you. 

Get Rid of Clutter

Once you’ve identified some challenging areas, it’s time to get rid of some stuff that may be clogging your home.  Clutter can dramatically increase the time you spend cleaning.  It takes longer to clean if every surface is covered with knickknacks, and your rooms are overflowing with furniture.  Other tasks take longer too.  Working in a crammed kitchen is unpleasant and wastes time.  Trying to put clothes away in a too-full dresser drawer is a pain.  Adding more toys to the three-foot mound is frustrating.

Look around.  Is it time to get rid of some possessions?  I’m not suggesting you give away your favorite things or your memories.  But, are there items that are broken? Can they be fixed, or do they need to be replaced or even eliminated?  Are there items you don’t need that someone else can use?  Do you have clothing in four different sizes in your closet?

As you get rid of clutter, I want to alert you to a pitfall that can undermine your efforts.  Julie Morgenstern calls it “zigzagging.”  Here’s an example of what she means.  You start going through a drawer, only to find a book that belongs on the bookshelf.  You discover the bookshelf is a mess.  You start working on it, only to discover something that belongs upstairs.  So, you return that item to where it belongs.  Next thing you know, you’re working on the closet in your bedroom.  By day’s end, you have half-completed projects all over the house, but haven’t finished anything!  Instead, try tackling one project at a time.  When you find stuff that belongs elsewhere, set it aside in a box or a pile.  When you have finished the project you are working on, take the accumulated items and put them away. In the process, note any other areas that need your attention. One of these areas might be your next organization project.  There are many excellent books to help you declutter, but my all-time favorite is Don Aslett’s Clutter’s Last Stand (1984).

Respect Your Work Spaces

Respecting your workspaces will make it faster and easier for you to work, and will encourage others to work, too.  Pay particular attention to the kitchen and laundry areas, but the principles apply to any area of your home.  Respecting your work spaces means thinking through the kind of work that takes place there and then making any changes you need to make your workspaces more suited to your needs.

The first step in respecting your workspaces is to eliminate all clutter from your work areas.  This, all by itself, will make a real difference.  The kitchen is often a place that gets really decorated.  Resist this temptation, and try to limit your decorations--especially on your counter tops.  Try to keep your counters clear, and be judicious about wall decorations.  The kitchen and bath have a lot of moist heat that combines with dust to make gunk.  Everything in these rooms should be very cleanable.  The fewer items lying about, the fewer you have to clean. 

Your laundry area can also be a trouble spot.  The laundry area often becomes the depository of loose change, missing socks, odds and ends of clothing, and pocket contents.  To make this space more workable, have a trash can handy and a bin for transporting loose articles to other places in the house.  Also, try to arrange this space so you have somewhere to fold clothes if you can, it will make laundry much easier for you.

Second, make sure everything you need is at hand.  Any job becomes more onerous when it is accompanied by frantic searching.  It’s also easier to procrastinate or never do something if you have to go to another room to get what you need.  Think about the supplies and tools you need in each area, and make sure that they are available.

Third, think about your physical comfort.  Is there enough light?  We think about lighting a lot more in kitchens, but laundry areas frequently have very poor light. Adequate light will make your work area more pleasant and your work easier to do. Consider temperature.  Is the area too hot or too cold?  Your work will seem much more pleasant if the temperature is comfortable.  Also, if you are doing a lot of standing, especially on a cement slab or tiled floor, think about getting an anti-fatigue mat from a janitor supply store.  This can make a very big difference in how your legs and back feel.

Make It Easy to Clean

Since cleaning can occupy a significant portion of your time, you owe it to yourself to make it as easy as possible.  One strategy is to keep your cleaning supplies where you need them.  If, for example, you have to make a special trip to the cleaning closet, guess what happens?  You put it off.  But, if you have your supplies handy, you can take a quick pass and be finished in a few minutes.  Having your supplies where you need them will help you use little odd bits of time, like during commercials, rather than needing to dedicate special time to, say, cleaning the bathroom.  Similarly, keep vacuum cleaners near where you need them.  If you live in a multistory house, you might consider a vacuum cleaner for each floor.  I also keep cleaning supplies I use for my car in my car. I can use little bits of time to keep the inside of my car clean and rarely have to set aside a special time for this purpose.

Having your supplies handy is only one half of the equation.  The second is to use good quality cleaning supplies.  Good-quality cleaning supplies make an amazing difference.  For very little money, you can get supplies that will save you hours, including concentrated cleaners you mix yourself, window squeegees, a good vacuum cleaner, and decent cleaning rags.  This is another way to respect your workspace.  Your time is too valuable to waste it using substandard tools, especially for tasks you do every day. Fortunately, well-made cleaning tools are relatively inexpensive in janitor supply or home improvement stores or online (try Don Aslett’s Clean Report, www.cleanreport.com) and they will pay you back many fold.

Finally, consider whether you really need to clean as much as you do.  Truth be told, cleaning too much is generally not our problem.  But, there might be areas where you do too much.  Sometimes, the best solution is not to clean at all or to do it less frequently.  You might even think about replacing things in your home that seem to require a lot of care.

Is Housework Beneath You?

One final barrier to becoming more organized at home might have to do with your thoughts about housework.  A century’s worth of denigrating domestic work has had an insidious effect; many young women I meet are of the opinion that housework is beneath them.  They assume that housework is not for “smart” women, and one way to show that you are smart is to be domestically challenged.  These young women rightly reject the image of the woman at home who obsesses about whether her sheets are white enough. Yet, they overlook the fact that everyone needs to eat and have their clothes cleaned occasionally.  Unless you are very wealthy and can pay for all of these services, it is in your best interest to develop at least basic proficiency in domestic tasks.  Having a home that runs smoothly can have a positive impact on every member of your family.  In her book The Time Bind (1997), Arlie Hochschild observes, with some alarm, that many women she interviewed were working longer hours to avoid going home!  A smoothly running home can even increase your willingness to be around members of your own family.

And, there are other benefits.  Let’s think about your morning routine.  Instead of frantically running around and looking for lost keys/schoolbooks/shoes, how would it be if everyone ate breakfast and calmly went out for the day?  Do you think that this might influence the quality of your children’s day?  How about yours?  A smoothly running home can do this.

Order also makes it easier, and more likely, that your family will clean up after themselves.  People are more apt to put things away when there is a place to put them, and if they don’t have to fight with the contents of a drawer or cupboard every time they open it.  Even young children can learn where to put things away if you clearly mark locations (such as drawers or shelves).  And with that said, we now move to my final suggestion: sharing the load...

Resources for Streamlining Home Care

For helpful books on how to cut down on cleaning, Don Aslett is king. These books can save you hours. They are inspiring, funny, and very practical. He also has a mail-order cleaning-supply business (The Clean Report), and you can order his books from there, too.

Aslett, D.  1984.  Clutter’s Last Stand.  Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.Aslett, D.  1992.  Is There Life After Housework? Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books

Aslett, D.  2000.  No Time To Clean.  Pocatello, ID: Marsh Creek Press.

Aslett, D., & Aslett Simons, L.  1995.  Make Your House Do the Housework.  Cincinnati: Better Way Books.

Don Aslett’s Clean Report: www.cleanreport.com


Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett is a health psychologist, researcher, writer, lecturer, and lactation consultant.  She has written or co-authored a variety of books and articles, including Breastfeeding Made Simple, The Psychoneuroimmunology of Chronic Disease, and The Well-Ordered Home.  To find out more about Dr. Kendall-Tackett, her many interests, and her speaking schedule, visit www.uppitysciencechick.com.