Dear Doctors: I'm a mom of three great kids and have always been healthy. But after eight months of working from home, being the teacher and keeping everything going, I've started getting sick. Plus, it feels like I'm failing. Can being stressed out make you physically ill?
Dear Reader: As working mothers ourselves, your letter resonates deeply. Even before the pandemic upended everyone's lives, the division of labor among working spouses was lopsided. These days, we're asking moms to do more than ever. On top of the usual workload of a job, cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry and organizing, which are just the tip of the mom-duties iceberg, we've added a daunting list of pandemic-driven tasks. These include supervising kids doing remote learning, keeping them engaged without access to friends, extended family or their usual activities, and working to keep everyone safe and healthy.
The upshot is we're switching tasks and roles multiple times per day, if not per hour. Each shift of focus eats into reserves of energy and endurance that, no matter how hard you try, are finite. That you've made it this far before feeling like you might fall apart is a tribute to your strength and determination.
We understand why it feels like you're failing, but the plain truth is it's not possible to manage a workload this large in the long term. Not only have the demands of parenting during the pandemic led to widespread anxiety and exhaustion, particularly among moms and women of color, the resulting stresses are indeed affecting health. In our practices, and among our friends, we've seen an increase in a range of health problems, including headaches, colds, migraines, upset stomachs, hair loss, eczema flares, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
It sounds counterintuitive when caring for children and a spouse, but one of your priorities has to become self-care. We can't fully give to others if we're not well ourselves. Start small, with at least a 10-minute break every hour — time that's just for yourself. Do 10 minutes of deep breathing alone in the bathroom, 10 minutes of meditation with your bedroom door locked, a solo 10-minute walk around the block. Try outsourcing some of the daily chores to the kids, even the youngest ones, and try to be OK with results that are less than fabulous.
Involve the whole family in talking about the challenges they're facing, and also in finding silver linings. It sounds corny, but it really does help to count your blessings, even when they seem few and far between. When we look outside of our households, we can see that others are struggling with problems much bigger than our own. And, yes, Zoom is weird, but it's important for mental and emotional health to stay connected to family and friends.
We're in the thick of it now, but this pandemic won't last forever. With treatment advances and an effective vaccine, we'll return to a more normal world. So, focus on the big picture. Children won't remember the granular details of this time; what they'll remember is how the home felt.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. They can be contacted at Ask the Doctors c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA 90024, or by email at AskTheDoctors@mednet.ucla.edu.