How to reduce anxiety and depression as a working mom
From the outside looking in, it may seem as though Nathalie Walton has it all—a flourishing career; a supportive husband; and a beautiful family. But having it all isn’t always enough, especially when it comes to mental health.
“I have help and I have everything covered, but it’s still really stressful because it feels like if one thing goes wrong, the entire system breaks,” says the CEO and cofounder of Expectful, a holistic wellness app that was recently acquired by Babylist.
“There were so many times last year where my child was sick and when that happens, your whole foundation breaks. Because you have to keep up with work and you don’t have the chance to recuperate,” Walton says. “It can really take a toll on your mental health.”
Walton is far from alone. A Harris Poll data commissioned by CVS Health last year found that 42% of working mothers surveyed were diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression in 2022, compared to 28% of the general population and 25% of their coworkers without kids. Moreover, working moms are more likely to report that their mental health had worsened in the last year.
The growing mental health crisis isn’t necessarily shocking. According to a recent report from Calm, 50% of employees say that work stress is impacting their personal lives and their relationships with their family members and friends, as well as their relationships with themselves.
Inevitably, family mental health care tends to fall more on women than men. In the same Calm survey, women also said they “take less care of their own mental health after becoming a caregiver, while men take better care of themselves.”
It’s a sentiment that Walton can certainly relate to. After being told she was at a higher risk for preterm labor at her 20-week prenatal appointment, her mental health began to plummet. She credits meditating regularly with helping her to reduce stress and anxiety, and make it to full term.
“Becoming a new mom is such a shock and depending on your circumstances, it can be an even greater shock,” she shares. “You question a lot and you’re asking yourself, ‘Is this normal?’”
But it’s going to take more than meditation apps to help combat the mental health crisis for working moms. For starters, Walton would like to see better paid leave policies for parents overall.
“I had a 20-week maternity leave, but I don’t feel like that was enough,” she says. “For me, personally, I felt like I needed much more, but a lot of women don’t even get that type of maternity leave. Some of your identity shifts and you don’t really have time to process it.”
In addition to paid parental leave, Dr. Elizabeth Kagan Arleo, radiologist, mom of three and author of First, Eat Your Frog: And Other Pearls for Professional Working Mothers, encourages employers to offer more flexible work options to accommodate parents and those who need it.
“The workplace wasn’t necessarily super friendly to working parents before the pandemic started, but having the flexibility to work from home can make all the difference for some families,” she says. “Employers and managers should also think more about the fact that goals and criteria are met rather than focusing on where or when the work is done. Flexibility on both of these aspects can go a long way to relieving people, especially working moms, of workplace anxiety.”
And on the employee’s part, Arleo recommends implementing and practicing boundaries. Every Friday, she turns on automatic replies for her email stating she’s stepping away from work until Monday morning.
“Using an out-of-office reply helps give me permission to disconnect knowing that if it’s really urgent, someone will call me,” she says. “There’s a time for work and there’s a time for not working and focusing on yourself and your family.”
Walton also invites working moms to build out a support system, one that includes a therapist and business coach, where need be, to help determine what can be delegated and what can be eliminated altogether. She also stressed the importance of asking for and, when possible, hiring help.
“At this point in my career, I have a lot of successful mom friends and the way that they’re successful is they have a lot of help around them and I don’t think people talk about that enough,” she says. “I wish we did because it is possible to have and do it all, but you have to be at a certain point where you can afford to have help.”
Ultimately, it’s important for mothers to lean into the old adage of filling their cups before pouring into everyone else—along with systemic change on behalf of companies and federal laws protecting and providing the right to paid family or medical leave.
“On an airplane, you’re supposed to put your own oxygen mask on first and then your child’s,” Cara McNulty, DPA, president of behavioral health and mental well-being at CVS Health, says in a press release about the report on working moms’ mental health. Women inherently do the exact opposite. They’re taking care of those they love before they prioritize themselves.”