Heading back to school after a fun summer can be a bummer for kids, and the transition can also put a huge burden on parents. “Moms may struggle with the invisible labor involved in getting everyone settled—things like getting the kids to doctors appointments for required physicals, purchasing school supplies, getting to know a new teacher, and coordinating rides to extracurricular activities and even paying for after school care and packing lunches,” says Dr. Jennifer Okwerekwu, a Harvard-trained reproductive psychiatrist.
These days, bullying and even threats of tragic events like school shootings may add additional stress on parents. Moms in particular may face “mom guilt” as they toggle between the increased needs of kids in school and the expectation at work that, after a slow summer, the fall will be “all hands on deck.”
Dr. Okwerekwu notes that cell phones and social media aren’t helping the situation, either. “Parents may feel compelled to pack the perfect bento box lunch, for example, because that’s what the ‘good moms’ do on Instagram,” she says. “During times of transition and high stress our phones, and all the addicting apps we use, offer an easy escape. But the more time we spend on our phones the worse our mental health becomes,” she adds.
So how can moms center themselves and be at their best for their families?
Below, find 5 suggestions from Dr. Okwerekwu that will help this year be your (and your family’s!) best:
Don’t wait until December to lay down some resolutions for yourself. “Intentions help us center the values we hold most dear and help us refocus them in our lives. For example, choosing to focus on ‘balance’ this school year can inspire you to prioritize rest in a busy schedule or focusing on ‘community’ can help you connect with other moms in your kids’ class,” says Dr. Okwerekwu.
Start Your Day Off Right
Waking up before the kids can be a challenge, but well worth it. “Use the quiet time to meditate, read affirmations, journal or make a quiet cup of coffee. Carry this calming energy to wake up your kids,” says Dr. Okwerekwu. Starting the day off with a cuddle instead of nagging can make all the difference.
Put Things on Autopilot
Decision fatigue sets in when your cognitive battery runs out of energy from constant daily decision making. “Set up systems so you don’t need to exhaust your battery thinking about every. single. detail. For example, eat the same thing for breakfast on Mondays, lay out your kids’ school clothes for the week, tape a backpack checklist to the door. Set up a monthly delivery of household supplies like toilet paper or even adopt a drop-off uniform and wear the same thing every day,” suggests Dr. Okwerekwu.
Build Some Boundaries
“I tell my patients that a good life is about disappointing the right people at the right time—your kids included,” says Dr. Okwerekwu. She says to let intentions, not mom guilt, drive your decisions, and everyone will be better off for it. “Just because you feel guilty, doesn’t mean you made a poor choice. It means you’ve made a hard choice. Learning how to strategically say no can free you up for a much more meaningful yes,” she adds.
Reach Out For Help
If you try these strategies, and you’re still feeling mentally and emotional exhausted (aka burnt out), don’t let your symptoms slide. “Left unchecked, burnout can lead to the development of mood and anxiety disorders. Busy moms can suffer from high functioning depression and anxiety—meaning you’re able to externally perform at home or work, but your inner life feels tormented or unfulfilling,” says Dr. Okwerekwu.
If you’re feeling less able to experience joy, numbness, or like you’re on autopilot, or even neglecting your basic needs or withdrawing from your support system, those are signs to enlist help from a therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health expert. (She urges anyone feeling like they are a danger to themselves or others, to get help immediately at an emergency room or by calling a crisis line.)
Bottom line? Don’t suffer in silence. Small changes through medication, therapy, or even small steps like exercise, stress management, eating well and getting outside in the morning, can go a long way to improving your mental health. Says Dr. Okwerekwu: “A mental health professional can help you navigate transitions, pinpoint your values to better define the compass of your life’s direction or even help you troubleshoot situations that leave you feeling overwhelmed.”