Enough with the Overwhelm and Anxiety

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As a working mom showing up to your job, managing a household, and caring for kids who need all your attention, feelings of overwhelm are bound to show up in any given day. 

We hear that how we respond to the overwhelm is what matters. That we shouldn't let it get to us.

But what if I told you that you create, and therefore you can stop feelings of overwhelm? WHAT? Stay with me...

Enough Is Enough

I maintain 3 different to-do lists: one for work, one for personal/family, and one for my coaching practice. These are lists where I jot down any and all items or ideas that I don't want to forget and need to get done, whether that's tonight, this week, this month or sometime (who knows when) in the future. Because if I don't write it down now, it will be gone in a matter of minutes. 

I'm an ambitious and creative person - sometimes a dangerous combination. This means that I am always brainstorming new ideas and thinking about new projects that I want to tackle. And because I get a lot done, my goals tend to be big and my brain sometimes over commits me to more tasks in a given day than I can realistically handle. 

I was getting to a point where my lists were giving me anxiety. Every time I would open my planner, or grab a pen to map out what I needed to get done on the weekend, I would feel so overwhelmed.

How in the world would I ever get this stuff done?

When will I ever get ahead of my lists?

Can I please stop writing the same item on my daily to-do list every. single. day?

Sound Familiar?

I would start out each morning energized, motivated and confident that today would be the day I would make a dent. Today would be the day I would work faster, make better decisions, and kick ass!

But then some time around noon or so, when I would do a quick check-in with my list, I would see that my tasks had taken me about the same amount of time as usual. That I was progressing at a similar pace to most days, and that my list was far from being crossed off.

I would start to feel overwhelmed. And then, I would start to do things like check social media, read a blog article, clean out and file the "easy" emails. Things that make me feel like I'm doing something, but aren't really "doing" anything.

Or if I was at home, I would putz around the kitchen "tidying up", or throw my arms up in defeat and watch TV (if the kids were asleep).

I got so tired of the same thing everyday. Of not really making progress. Of constantly feeling overwhelmed.

So I decided that I could either limit my lists, prioritizing only a few things each day (which I've tried before), or I could manage my mind and change my thinking.

I chose the latter.

What does managing your mind mean?

Well, for me, it's understanding and believing that however I am feeling, that that feeling is caused by a thought I am thinking.

So in the case of the overwhelm and anxiety I was feeling, those were caused by thoughts like:

"I will never get all of these things done."

"My life is one big to-do list."

"When will I ever feel 'caught up?'"

When I say those things, even right now, I get a knot in my stomach and I start feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Yuck! I hate feeling like that.

A New Thought. A New Feeling.

The reality is, the ongoing list of tasks that I need to accomplish now and in the future is probably not going to shrink anytime soon. But rather than experiencing the feelings of overwhelm and anxiety every single time I looked at what I needed to do, I wanted to feel something different.

I brainstormed what I might want to feel instead, and came up with a few ideas:

  • Confident
  • Calm
  • Decisive

Calm seemed like a bit of a stretch, especially coming from a current feeling of anxiety. I actually liked the way decisive felt the best. Feeling decisive when I look at a laundry list of things I need to get done, to me means being able to take action, prioritize, and table things that need or can wait.

But I can't look at my to-do list, think "I will never get to all of these things done" and feel decisive. So I needed a new thought.

After a recent coaching session (of my own), my coach and I came up with:

"I am becoming a person who makes strong decisions."

That feels good. That elicits confidence and action.

I'll be honest, to say that I make good/strong decisions didn't feel true to me. I could repeat that til I'm blue in the face, but if I don't believe it, it will actually bring about the opposite of decisive feelings. But to say or think that I am becoming someone who makes strong decisions, that feels like a fact. Because I am. I'm working on making strong decisions and that feels good.

So I haven't stopped writing all the things down. I still need to get them out of my mind and onto paper. And while I have tweaked things a bit in terms of planning exactly when I will tackle certain tasks and limiting my priorities for the week, I haven't changed things that drastically when it comes to the tactics of my to-do list.

Most of the progress I have made has been with changing the way that I think. Which is crazy! But if the point of all of this, if the point of life is to feel good and be happier, then I want to manage my emotions, which means managing my mind.

Your Homework

So I want you to take a few minutes to think about a point in your day that makes you feel anxious or overwhelmed or some other less than desirable emotion.

  1. Write it down. Describe the scenario and name the feeling.
  2. Then try to get to the thought that is causing the feeling. You'll know when you've found it because you'll start to have the physical symptoms of that feeling.
  3. Now, how would you rather feel about this scenario? What feels realistic or true?
  4. Once you have a new feeling, the goal is to brainstorm a thought that elicits that feeling. The thought should be something that when you say it, it feels believable.

This is the part where we sometimes get stuck. If you need help here, reach out. I'd be happy to help you find a new way of thinking that will make you feel completely different.

No one enjoys feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Time to take control of your thoughts so you can stop feeling overwhelmed and start enjoying this crazy life as a working mom.

Balancing Time For Yourself With Time As A Family

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Unless you want to regularly hire a babysitter, or routinely drop the kids off at the grandparents' house, swapping time with your spouse is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to get some time for yourself.

I've gone in and out of a "swap routine" like this with my husband when we commit to different activities. A softball league for him, a mastermind meet-up for me, soccer season for him, voice lessons for me. You get the idea.

I'm always very aware, almost to a fault, of keeping things fair. So if I'm going to ask for an evening away to hang out with friends, take an exercise class or attend a meeting, I make sure that he has every opportunity to do the same thing and that in any given week, we are both getting time away. The only exception to this, and a tough one to come to terms with, is work travel. It's hardly ever fair. It just isn't.

I've found one activity or one night a week for each of us is reasonable and doable, but we are not always consistent with it. I know some moms who plan nights off in advance, just like a date night, and stick to the schedule religiously. That Is Great. They are prioritizing the individual each week and making sure that both parents have time and space to rest, step away or pursue something they love.

Wanting to Share

But do you ever have those times when your kid does something incredibly cute, or you're completely lost on how to react to something your kid says or you just look at your little one and cannot believe you made him or her? What is your knee-jerk reaction in those situations?

My reaction is to want to turn to my husband and say "Did you see that?", "Quick, look!" or "It's so crazy to think we made him..". I want to share it. I want someone to validate my response or agree with me at how cute they are.  

It's the reason that when I'm alone, even if it's just in that hour after work when I am the first parent home, that I reach for the phone to facetime one of our kids' four sets of grandparents. I want to share the experience with someone who will appreciate it as much as I do.

The Parenting Philosophy I Never Knew I Had

I saw a YouTube interview a while back. My college friend, who was preparing to become a parent herself, interviewed a colleague who was further along in the motherhood journey.

They talked about lots of things related to pregnancy, powering through the nausea and exhaustion, surprising things you learn about yourself as a new parent, and her guest shared some pretty awesome tips too. But one thing she said, that I think I have always thought and adhered to but never directly articulated, was this:

We do a lot of the stuff together. Which in a way doesn’t give us breaks necessarily, but it’s just way more fun than doing it by yourself.

When your partner is there and you’re doing it together, it feels like family and fun. It feels more like life.
— Rachel's English

Is that not SO TRUE?

I find that in households with two working parents, it can be easy to always be passing the baton. To cover for each other when you have travel, meetings, networking events or just want some time to do you. 

And I'm not saying you should stop doing those things. I get it. I need to network, foster my friendships and do other things that require me to pass the baton to my husband on a regular basis.

But as much as we can, we really try to do things together. Because it is just more fun. It does feel less lonely. And as Rachel said, it feels more like life.

How do you find balance between having time for yourself and sharing the parenting journey by doing things together?

I would love to know. katelyn@themothernurture.com. 

Finding Your Freeze Frame Moment

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Do you ever have a freeze frame moment? A moment where you are both in the moment and also watching the moment from the outside?

It's a crazy concept and hard to describe, but you know when you're having one. Trust me.

When I think back to some of my strongest memories from adulthood, many of them were freeze frame moments. Times when things were good, and I knew they were good.

The other thing that I have figured out about my freeze frame moments is that they typically involve regular, nothing-special, daily-grind moments of my day. They're never the moments when I've planned some picture perfect outing or when I feel like I'm being a rock star mom. That's what makes freeze frame moments so special. They have no expectations tied to them so they have every opportunity to exceed expectations.

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Take last night: I was standing in the kitchen throwing dinner together, drinking my wine, and listening to my husband and kids play in the other room. Music blasting, baby squealing, toddler talking, and I was...smiling. I was thinking, man this life is good.

I was soaking up everything about that moment while also looking in on the scene, capturing it all and filing it away for the future. For a day when things maybe don't feel as good.

It got me thinking about appreciating those small moments. About being in the moment so deeply that it's unlikely you'll forget it.

What Really Matters

I read lots of articles about quantity of time versus quality of time with our kids. About staying at home versus working. And what I realized from my own freeze frame moment was, it doesn't really matter. 

It doesn't matter if you work or if you stay home. What matters is that you are present in THE moments of your life with your kids. That you appreciate life when it is good. And when it doesn't feel as good, you draw on your freeze frame moments to get you through. Because you recognize that you will come out of it tomorrow, or next week, or next month. You will. And there will be more freeze frame moments. 

So as my freeze frame moment was coming to a close, as I was coming back to reality, to the pan that was heating on the stove top, Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" started playing on the record player. Like a scene out of a movie. Because not only is this song part of another freeze frame memory I have with my dad, its lyrics perfectly complement this concept. 

So I'll let Stevie take it away...

If it’s special...
Then with it why aren’t we as careful
As making sure we dress in style
Posing pictures with a smile
Keeping danger from a child.

So, if it’s magic...
Why can’t we make it everlasting
Like the lifetime of the sun
It will leave no heart undone
For there’s enough for everyone.

How Do I Figure Out What My Priorities Are?

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pri·or·i·ty : a thing that is regarded as more important than another.

I talk a lot about getting your priorities straight, about making time for what's important to you. The topic of priorities is woven through almost every piece of content I create. I even have an entire coaching worksheet devoted to identifying what your priorities are.

What is the big deal? And what does this have to do with being a new mom or a working mom?

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Think about it. Before kids, you probably had a lot on your plate. We all did. You had work, family, a social life, volunteer activities, a household to maintain, deadlines, projects and more. Then you became a mom and suddenly you have even more to do each day, from nursing or feeding, changing diapers, and doing laundry to washing bottles, going to doctor's appointments (for you and baby), googling things you never thought you would google, and on and on. There is just no way to maintain everything that you used to do, AND do all of this.

So you start to let things go. You replace going out with friends with going to bed early. You replace early morning workouts with nursing sessions. You replace reading with soothing a crying baby. It's what you have to do. You have a baby who is completely dependent on you, and not just that, you want to be with your baby. And you know it's just a phase. As a first-time mom, you may not entirely believe it, but everyone tells you it goes by quickly and so you are trusting that eventually, those things you used to love will come back to your life.

Whenever that time comes, whether it's soon or whether it's months down the road, you start to get into a rhythm. You find some routines, even if they change frequently, and you feel ready to get back to 'you'. But what do you do? Where do you start? 

Is it spending more time in the kitchen cooking, or going to the gym? Is it going on a date night or attending a local meet-up group?

There are so many options. You probably feel some combination of desperation and nervousness. Longing to get back to the world of adult interaction and interests, but hesitant because of how much has changed.

Be Purposeful

This is exactly the point where I would encourage you to pause and take a little extra time to purposefully decide how you want to spend your precious time. Identify your priorities and then experiment. Test your hypothesis. Put your plans into action and confirm whether or not you were right.

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How do you do that? Well, for starters you could work through the priorities worksheet that I have created specifically to facilitate this process. Or you can work through a series of questions:

What Am I Missing?

I know you've been busy adjusting to motherhood, learning your baby, getting back to work even, but you've probably caught yourself in moments here and there thinking about things that you used to do: life before baby. What are those things you remember fondly? Do you miss seeing your friends? Do you miss creating? Do you miss breaking a sweat? List them out, as many as come to mind.

What Do I Want?

Next, take a minute or two for each of the items you listed above, close your eyes, and picture yourself doing that activity. Pay close attention to your body during this exercise. How do you feel? Do you feel excited, relaxed, anxious, nervous, stressed? The physical response that you have to an idea or a scenario, is a very telling sign about how we truly feel about that activity. It could be that too much has changed and that thing will no longer bring you joy the way it used to. It could be that the logistics are too stressful given your new schedule with a baby. Or it could be that you were only doing that activity because you felt like you should. The goal is to find the activities that provide a positive response - a smile, a sense of relief, excitement (even if nervous), a deep exhale. Those are the activities that should make the short list.

How Do I Make It Happen?

Hopefully, you've narrowed your list down to just a few. Now comes the part of putting those ideas into practice. If getting back to working out left you feeling excited, think about how you can incorporate a workout class or visit to the gym into your schedule in the next week or two. If reading sounded relaxing, start asking around for book recommendations, pick up a copy from the library and commit to just 10 pages or one chapter this week. Just start. Try the activity once or twice to remind yourself of what it actually feels like. Don't over-commit. Don't set a huge goal. Just start.

Does This Fill Up My Cup?

I work with a business coach who encourages me to take a scientist's approach. To always pay attention and make adjustments when the outcome isn't what I was expecting. It's about the experiment and what we learn from that, more than it is about the final outcome. So when you start re-introducing some of these activities and priorities back into your day-to-day, pay attention. Do you look forward to them? Do they leave you feeling more energized, more relaxed or more confident than before you started? Or do they feel like a chore, leaving you feeling more stressed? New things, changes to schedules and routines take a little time to feel comfortable, but if the results are stress, anxiety and feeling depleted, then you probably are not doing what's truly important to YOU. You're probably doing what you think you SHOULD be doing and not what you actually WANT to be doing. This is much more common than you think. If you find yourself in this camp, you are not alone. You will find it eventually. Keep experimenting.

It's Up To You

It's the reality of a working mom that we can't do it all, as much as we like to think that we can. Time is limited. Attention, focus and energy are limited. So with limited resources, we have to be extremely focused on the activities and areas of our lives that will fill us up the most. If you're going to take the time to do something for you, you want it to be something that will make you feel better. That something, that priority, is up to you to find.


This article is part of a series where I answer reader questions about working motherhood. I'm an open book and happy to answer any and all questions I receive, no matter how small. Have a question you'd like to see answered here? Send it to katelyn@themothernurture.com. 

Read other Q&A articles in this series:

How Do Working Moms Find Time to Workout?

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Exercise has been proven to have benefits way beyond just the physical health and maintenance of our bodies. It helps with mood, productivity, energy levels, focus and on and on. We KNOW this. And more than likely, we've experienced this.

So why, as a new mom who desperately needs things like energy, focus, and elevated mood, do we find it so hard to make exercise a priority? Maybe it's because...

If working out means going to the gym, or to a class, or anywhere outside the house, that means leaving your baby when you already think you do that too much. It means feeling guilty the whole way there, worrying about whether he is at home crying or missing you, and then racing home frantically to minimize the time away.

If working out means doing an exercise video in your living room while the baby sleeps, that means rushing through the exercises, not truly focusing because you're worried that at any second the baby will start crying and then you'll be angry because you can never get in a full workout! So why even try?

Or if working out means pushing the stroller around the block a few times, that's great and all but what about the weather? And will you ever lose the baby weight with just walking?

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I get it. I have made each and every one of these excuses to myself over the years as I've had young babies and now even with a toddler. I KNOW and have experienced the huge benefits of exercise. It is one of the best treatments for the cloud of depression that sometimes hangs over my head. And for that reason, I have forced myself and retrained my mind to look forward to and crave exercise, so that now, it would be one of the last things to go from my daily schedule. But it wasn't always this way.

My Routine

What does exercise look like for me? Well these days, and keep in mind my kids are 3 1/2 and 15 months old, it's a morning exercise video in my living room. I have sampled a variety of trainers, program styles and workout lengths to figure out what I like and what is going to keep me motivated. And right now, it's a 30-60 minute strength workout before everyone else is awake. I do that 6 days a week (Saturdays I do the workout with the kids crawling all over me) and then I take Sunday off to rest, stretch and soak in some Epsom salts.

Now, was I doing this much in those early months postpartum? Absolutely not. With baby number two, I didn't get back into a regular routine until she was almost 8 months old, and even then it was 30-minute workouts only and with no set schedule. I did them when I could, where I could. I've found that the morning works for me, and the majority of the working moms I know, who are committed to regular workouts, also get them done in the mornings whether they enjoy getting up early or not!

Creating Your Routine

But this article is all about finding time to work out and finding what works for you. So here are some things to consider when trying to make exercise a priority, and remember, I'm not a personal trainer. This is just one working mom's tips based on experience and a LOT of trial and error:

Why do you want to workout?

  • Are you serious about losing the baby weight?
  • Do you want to train for an event or hit a milestone?
  • Is it about the mental health benefits that come with exercise (and feeling better all around)?
  • Is it because you feel like you should?
  • Is it a social outlet?

When you've worked out in the past, how were you successful?

  • This really comes down to are you self-motivated or do you do better with some sort of external accountability.
  • I've worked with moms who know for a fact that they could never do at-home workouts. They are not self-motivated or focused enough to put on workout clothes, go to the living room, hit play and not be distracted by the laundry or chores waiting for them. And that's ok. Those are the moms who know they need an accountability partner or the structure of a class to be successful.
  • I like a bit of a hybrid. I work out at home but am part of a virtual accountability group. Logging my workout every day to check a box on my calendar and share with others who are doing the same workout is motivating for me.

What options do you have?

  • Are you already a member of a gym or is adding a gym membership financially feasible?
  • What classes are offered during times that could work for you or in locations that are convenient to work or home?
  • Are there any places that offer affordable on-site childcare and what ages do they take?
  • Do you have space in your home for a yoga mat, exercise ball or other workout gear that could support what you're interested in doing?
  • Do you have friends or acquaintances who are interested in exercising and if so, what do they want to do?

From here, the options are endless. Search any moms' Facebook group and you will find all kinds of suggestions - from trendy classes like Cyclebar, Pure Barre or Orange Theory, staples like yoga and Zumba, to the many on-demand workout videos - there is absolutely something for everyone.

Once you've figured out the what, the question boils down to how. How can you make it a priority? Here are some questions I asked myself when I was ready to recommit to working out:

How can you make it a priority?

  • Do you need to tell those closest to you that this is something you want to do (spouse, family, friends, coworkers)?
  • Can you take advantage of your childcare scenario to fit in exercise while your little one is being cared for?
  • If you have a partner, can you trade off throughout the week so you each get the chance to workout while the other is watching the baby?
  • How much time do you actually need each week to workout? It's ok to start small.
  • Are you willing to give up something else in order to fit in a little bit of exercise each week?

Something is Better Than Nothing

The key is starting. You need to start to be able to remind yourself what it feels like to exercise. Proving to yourself that something is better than nothing and the benefits of exercise really do exist. Because at this stage, you've probably forgotten what it feels like.

Why not start with a walk? Depending on what you used to do before baby, it may not seem like much but just move your body. Tell yourself you're going to take a walk, and then do it. Once you've kept your commitment a few times, try something else. Maybe that's a few minutes of yoga in your living room or a drop-in class somewhere with a friend. See how it goes.

You're not looking for the perfect solution, you're just looking for something that will work for now. Experiment. Figure out what you like. Have fun. And don't be surprised if you need to change things up along the way. As your baby gets bigger, your routines will change and so it's good to have an attitude of flexibility. It's good to have options that let you keep working out.

Because once you start, I'm guessing you won't want to quit. 


This article is part of a series where I answer reader questions about working motherhood. I'm an open book and happy to answer any and all questions I receive, no matter how small. Have a question you'd like to see answered here? Submit it to katelyn@themothernurture.com. 

Read other Q&A articles in this series: