How to Tell a New Mom to “Step it Up”

A spouse asks: How do you ask your wife who is a stay-at-home mother to “step it up” without being insensitive?

Kathryn answers: I think I can explain what’s happening with your wife and how to navigate it with compassion and sensitivity. The simple answer to what you are witnessing is: anxiety is overwhelming her.

Taking care of young children 24/7 is an exhausting task, but not in the way we can always observe directly. Nursing a baby and simultaneously watching a 4-year-old requires that she be relentlessly engaged in the external world. Because young children are not entirely predictable, monitoring them takes a presence of mind that doesn’t allow any mental breaks to reflect. To take attention away from attending to children in order to do anything else — even wipe the countertop or run to the bathroom — feels the same way as deliberately putting children in danger would.

Most of us have moments during the day when we can zone out and complete a mindless task while thinking about something else. This reflective processing time is actually an essential part of mental health. (I think of it as similar to how computers in the 90’s would sometimes stop working for a few seconds and just churn and process information before they could receive keyboard commands again.) I call these moments neuroreflective pauses, and your wife has a real deficit of these breaks in her day.

So, what looks like her watching lots of TV is really her brain desperately needing to turn off, but not being allowed to do so both from a biochemical and a responsibility perspective. She’s not ignoring the household chores, in fact, she probably thinks about them constantly and it likely causes her a lot of stress that they’re not being done.

What looks to an observer like apathy is actually a kind of intense anxiety that has no outlet. Irritability, confusion, emotional outbursts and hypervigilance are the symptoms.

Here are a few things that may help:

  • Ask her, at a time when you both feel rested, if she is feeling depressed and/or anxious. If so, encourage her to see her doctor. There are many excellent treatments to help with postpartum depression.
  • Understand that you, too, may be overwhelmed and need some off time. When you’re not getting it — and parents of young children generally don’t get much — you feel less patient overall and are more prone to resenting any situation that demands your presence of mind.
  • Consider that some of the feelings you are experiencing may come from missing your partner’s former undivided attention and care toward you. This may be something to express to her. Strategize together about how to reconnect.

So, in sum, the situation you observe has more to do with mental health challenges than laziness. She may need some help seeing this too. Also if you look these early parenting years with a long-term perspective, it’s a big hill in the marathon, but if you can find patience with yourself and your partner, address any medical concerns, and keep going, it will smooth out in time.

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