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7 'Shoulds' That Feed Stay-at-Home Mom Depression

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistSeptember 23, 2019

If you’re a mom who stays home to care for your kids, you know that full-time parenting can take a toll on your well-being, no matter how much you love your kids. The work itself is emotionally demanding, and you might sense that society undervalues maternal care compared to having a career. You may be socially isolated, as well.

If you’re feeling down and discouraged in your role as a stay-at-home mom (SAHM,) you’re not alone. For many women, these feelings can develop into full-blown clinical depression, with recent studies finding that SAHMs are more likely to be depressed than are mothers who work outside the home.

(Stay-at-home dads also face difficulties, but here I’ll focus on moms since women are more often the stay-at-home parent, and are about twice as likely as men to experience depression.) 

Depressed or not, SAHMs often feel that in some way they’re not doing enough, or are “doing it wrong.” Many of these thoughts show up as “shoulds,” as in, “I should be able to figure out why my toddler is sleeping so badly.” These shoulds can wear you down, even contributing to depression over time.

While many of the factors that can lead to SAHM depression are outside your control (like whether your teething toddler wakes you up at night), your thoughts are one important area where you can make a difference. With practice, you can retrain your mind with thoughts that serve you better.

Here are some of the common shoulds you might be telling yourself as a SAHM, and how to deal with them.

I should want to be with my kids all the time.

Being with children—even when they’re your own and your love them more than life—is hard work, especially when you’re in charge of their care day and night. It’s perfectly natural to want some time away from your kids—everyone wants a break. In fact, many moms choose to work even if they don’t need to financially because they prefer to have regular breaks from full-time parenting.

I should have it all together like other moms do.

You might compare yourself to other mothers—including those who work outside the home—and feel like you’re failing miserably. You might tell yourself, “I don’t even work! I should have a home that’s always tidy and should be able to organize nicer birthday parties for my kids.” But in reality, nobody really has it all together.

It can be very helpful to talk with other moms, especially ones who are willing to be open with you about their own struggles. Moms get it like only moms can, and without the potential complications and defensiveness you might find with your partner. I know my wife finds it tremendously helpful to talk with her fellow mothers about things she’s dealing with—even more helpful than talking about the same issues with her husband (imagine!).

I should find complete fulfillment in being a mom.

Full-time motherhood is often depicted as an exquisitely gratifying job, which it can be. Exhortations from older parents to “enjoy every minute—it goes by so fast!” add to the sense that being a mom should provide the ultimate sense of satisfaction. You might think something is wrong with you if you feel like something’s missing.

In reality, motherhood is an important role that doesn’t entirely define you. You were a person and a woman before you were a mom, and it’s easy to lose other parts of yourself in the unending demands and expectations of being a SAHM. Look for ways to reconnect with life-giving activities that are a part of your true self.

I should feel happier.

A related belief is that you shouldn’t have spells of feeling down, even depressed. Moms in advertisements are always smiling (unless it’s an ad for antidepressant medication). The truth is, your mood makes perfect sense based on your circumstances, mindset, energy level, and so forth.

Feeling better can be a worthwhile goal, there’s just no need to beat yourself up for feeling a bit beat up. Remember to extend yourself some grace, wherever you find yourself. If you have been feeling down, is there one small activity you could plan this week that might bring you some joy?

My kids’ needs should always come before my own.

Being a parent involves sacrifice—no doubt about it. Just bringing a child into the world takes a major toll on women’s bodies, and is fraught with risk even with modern medical advances. Whether or not you bore the child yourself, you’ll sacrifice countless nights of good sleep. Even your own activities of daily living like showering and making yourself a meal generally take a backseat to your child’s needs. 

In the process you might forget that you even have real needs. You may be so in the habit of giving that others forget Mom has needs, too. But even Super Moms are human, and eventually will suffer if their needs go unmet.

What comes to mind when you think about your own needs? What could you use more of, that would not only fill your cup but allow you to sustain the work you do?

I shouldn’t feel like this is so hard.

Parenting is hard work. It can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting, and there’s no paid vacation or sick days. Even raising “easy” kids is like running an “easy” marathon. So if it feels hard, that’s because it is.

That said, there may be ways to lighten your load a bit. For example, if your kids are old enough, maybe you can have them do more chores. Personally I found it so helpful when our kids were old enough to start clearing the table, unloading the dishwasher, and taking out the recycling, freeing me up to do other parent work.

I should be more grateful.

Gratitude has all kinds of benefits, but saying you “should” feel more grateful sounds like a condemnation—that you’re doing something wrong. A simple shift in language can be much more helpful—for example, “I would like to be more grateful.” Stating a preference rather than a judgment not only removes the implied guilt but makes it easier to make the desired change.

Here’s an invitation to start letting go of the shoulds: Notice today when you’re telling yourself you should be different in some way. As you identify the shoulds, start to question them—is it really true that you “should”?—and even let go of them. Begin to reframe your shoulds in a way that’s friendlier toward yourself.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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