Women’s lives have been shaped by a number of social, legal, cultural, and economic factors specifically related to the fact of being women. Historically, women have been economically dependent on men and denied equal educational and career opportunities. This has changed significantly in the past 50 years, but challenges remain. I have concentrated a great deal of my professional attention on understanding women’s concerns at many different life stages. Women are an incredibly diverse group. Some embrace traditional definitions of womanhood while others redefine what it means to be a woman in radical ways. I assist women in understanding their lives and realizing the choices that are available to them in today’s society. I also assist them in overcoming depression, trauma and other issues that affect their mental health and their lives.

Common issues women present include:

  • Self-Esteem

  • Depression and Anxiety

  • Family Issues

  • Marriage and Relationship Issues

  • Body Image and Eating Disorders

  • Mid-Life Transitions

  • Life Purpose and Direction

  • Parenting

  • Separation and Divorce

  • Caring forAging Parents

  • Non-Traditional Gender Roles

  • Breaking Abuse Patterns

  • Overcoming Addictions

  • Unlocking Creativity

  • Spirituality

  • Self-Acceptance

  • Menopause

Psychologist Dr. Firestein writes a monthly Q & A column for the Healthline magazine which is a separate magazine inserted into the Reporter Herald on the 3rd Thursday of each month.  It is called Uncommon Sense.  Here are some sample questions and answers from previous columns addressing topics of psychological interest to many of the clients she sees in her practice.

Question: I am the mother of 3 young children (7, 4, and 2) and I feel constantly overwhelmed.  My husband and I decided that it would be best if I stayed at home with the children until they are all in elementary school or beyond.  Even though I miss the adult companionship I got from being at work, I love being a mother and being home with my children.  Still, I am exhausted and never seem to live up to my own expectations.  Any suggestions?

Answer: Anyone that thinks being home to raise children is easier than having a job outside the home is quite mistaken.  The task you have taken on is a formidable challenge but very worthwhile, as I am sure you have already discovered.  Exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed are definitely part of the package, but if they are your constant and unrelenting companions you probably need to do something different.

That “something different” falls into three broad categories:  practical assistance, self-care, and changing your expectations.  In the practical assistance category I find that many mothers are really quite reluctant to ask for help or accept help, even when it is offered by people they care about with no strings attached.  They have always been highly competent and independent women and carry these traits into their mothering role.  There is nothing wrong with that, but we all need a little help sometimes and mothers can often use more than a little help.  Allow yourself to ask for and accept help from others.  In most instances they feel good about giving and it really is OK to ask and to feel OK about receiving the help. It will actually make you better as a mother, not worse.

Self-care is the hardest thing to talk to mothers about.  It’s hard to see how doing something for oneself can be justified when the needs of the children and household are so endless.  However, that is the whole point: those needs are endless. You can either exhaust yourself without replenishment, which leads to burnout and impatience with your children and partner, or you can exhaust yourself and then replenish.  Doing so can lengthen your irritability fuse and increase your patience. It also ties in with suggestion three: changing expectations.

Many mothers think changing their expectations or standards for housekeeping and other things is the same as being lazy and letting her off the hook of personal responsibility. There is another interpretation of what it means to change your expectations:  it’s called being realistic.  Exhaustion and chronic feelings of not being enough, not doing enough and not having enough are always interwoven with our expectations.  It’s fine to have aspirations, but the reality of having children is that they consume huge amounts of time and energy.  This necessitates alterations in your life patterns and in how many things you can expect to get done and do well.  By lowering some of your self-expectations you can do things and you might even feel a sense of accomplishment instead of a constant sense of failure.

In spite of the growth of whole industries to help mothers and provide gadgets that make their jobs a little easier, mothering young children never really becomes less work.  Children’s needs don’t diminish even if the tools we have for meeting those needs have become more and more sophisticated. Even at its easiest, parenting is an incredibly demanding job.  Give yourself a break and take the time to enjoy your children instead of berating yourself for all that no longer fits on your plate.

Question: When a mature woman chooses to live life on her own what are the challenges both mentally and physically she must adjust to? It is a process and an interesting journey.  How do you stay positive as best you can?

Answer: When a mature woman chooses to live life on her own, there are a tremendous number of challenges and rewards associated with this decision. Some of these challenges are expectable and anticipated; others are entirely unexpected and may be either negative or positive.

Most women who choose to live on their own do so because of their decision to leave a marriage or other committed relationship. For women who have not actively been in the workplace for a number of years, this involves a shift to supporting themselves financially, which can be quite difficult. On the other hand, this change also creates the opportunity to live your life on your own terms rather than having to compromise your needs to live with a husband or partner. You no longer have to give up significant parts of yourself to be in the relationship.

The adjustment challenges are numerous and often quite challenging mentally and physically.  Pragmatically, this is often the first time a woman has lived alone or on her own for many, many years.  I have also heard many women speak of the challenge of dealing with a quiet house—whether the partner they were living with was positive or negative, noisy or quiet, it is different to become accustomed to being the only person moving around in a house after coming home from work or an evening out.

Many women have been in relationships where the many activities required to run their lives were shared between the partners. They feel overwhelmed by the need to figure out how to accomplish these necessary household tasks on their own without someone with whom to share those responsibilities. Limited financial resources also frequently complicate the challenge.

You are right in thinking of this transition as a journey. Here are a few ideas that can help you along the way: First, if you have the luxury of truly being able to choose the timing of your transition, it is very helpful to learn and practice some of the practical skills you will need before moving out on your own. Make a point of learning about the finances of running a household, how to fix basic things that go wrong in your apartment or house and who to call if you can’t fix it yourself.  It is also really important to connect with other women and men on a social or friendship basis so that you have people to call to do things with socially.

As you mentioned in your question, this is a process and a journey. Don’t expect everything to run smoothly or to be immediately rewarding, although some parts of the process might be really freeing and joyous immediately. While every day will not be joyful and satisfying, feelings of happiness will occur more and more frequently over time.  The shift from feeling stressed and overwhelmed to feeling satisfied and fulfilled  comes about as a result of recognizing your likes and dislikes and creating your life both in and out of the home in a way that reflects your needs, interests and tastes.  It isn’t always an easy journey, but it is a journey well worth taking.

Question: Guilt runs my life and I hate it!  I feel guilty if my neighbor invites me to a neighborhood gathering and I don’t want to go. I feel guilty when my child gets a bad grade because it means I’m not a good mother. I feel guilty if someone gives me a present at the holidays and I haven’t thought to give them one. Is there anything I can do to get rid of this guilt? It’s making me miserable.

Answer: women, guilt seems to run our lives.  If there is one issue that every woman in my practice seems to struggle with, it is guilt. There are two kinds of guilt: One is rational guilt—you feel guilty because you hurt someone’s feelings or yelled at your children or forgot an appointment at the doctor’s office.  Guilt is the message from our conscience that tell us we’ve done something wrong and need to take ownership for our mistake, apologize, or at least try hard not to do that thing again.  That is what I call “rational” or “appropriate” guilt.

The other type of guilt is what I call “irrational” or “inappropriate” guilt. This is guilt that does not have a realistic basis. For example, let’s say you do turn down an invitation from a neighbor to a neighborhood party. You haven’t done something to hurt someone, but they disappointed and when they show their displeasure, you feel guilty. Women have been trained to feel responsible for everything, especially for other people’s happiness.  We have been taught to feel responsible for everything that goes wrong in our families or in our households. We feel guilty and responsible for other peoples’ misfortunes, even if their misfortunes have nothing to do with us. This is inappropriate guilt and probably accounts for 80%-90% of all the guilt we feel.

What I try to do is help women sort through and determine which feelings of guilt are actually appropriate guilt and which are irrational or inappropriate guilt.  When we feel appropriate guilt, there is something we need to do about the situation: apologize or perhaps just change our behavior.  When we identify that we are having inappropriate guilt, we need to not do something about it. We need to disentangle the feeling reaction from the facts of the situation and re-train our emotions to discontinue the automatic reaction of guilt.

If you find that guilt runs your life and a lot of your decisions are based on guilt, this is a problem. It is important to give some thought to the things that make you feel guilty. What are the biggest triggers for your automatic guilt response?  How many of your reactions are just old habits from years of being made to feel responsible for everyone’s well-being and happiness?  As you identify these inappropriate guilt responses, work on noticing them when they arise and label them for what they are: “This is appropriate guilt” or “This is inappropriate guilt.”

It’s difficult to do, but once you recognize that some guilt feelings are irrational, you can begin to avoid falling into the guilt trap. It takes practice to go against your long-standing tendencies to respond to everything by apologizing and thinking it’s your fault. But with practice you can definitely move toward freedom from irrational guilt and your life will be happier because of it.

Dr. Firestein is here to help the women of Fort Collins, Loveland, Greeley, and the rest of Northern Colorado. Also visit our pages for marriage counseling and family counseling.