I have many clients who are intelligent, educated married women in their 40s and 50s. They are financially stable and often have high-earning husbands. In fact, many of them started therapy with me by reaching out after reading this article of mine online. These women usually have kids who range in age from ranging from middle school to post-college. Many of them decided at some earlier point in their lives to take a hiatus from work in order to focus on taking care of their kids full time.
A high percentage of these women struggle with depression or anxiety, which is not surprising, as in their lifetimes, approximately 20-26% of women suffer from depression, and about 33% of women suffer from anxiety. Although these clients may have always dealt with these issues, they are generally surprised that their flexible and “easy” lifestyle doesn’t ameliorate these problems. In fact, these women often decided to stay home in the first place due to feeling overwhelmed by the demands (or the potential demands, if they quit working when their first baby was born) of working full time while caring for kids. Some of them wanted to be able to give more attention to their children than they may have received themselves from working mothers in the 70s and 80s.
When their kids were young and they were first starting the SAHM lifestyle, these women were often highly involved with the PTO, mom’s groups, and the kids’ activities. They may have been frustrated with the never-ending nature of being a SAHM, or with husbands’ lack of involvement or criticism, but overall they usually staved off more severe depression or anxiety while the kids were in elementary school and younger. They felt fulfilled by their role, although they may have had nagging anxiety about what the future would hold for them as year after year ticked by without them rejoining the workforce. At the point that I see these women, when they have older, more independent kids, or kids who have flown the nest, their depression or anxiety has returned with a vengeance, worse than ever before.
It is fairly taboo for women to say to each other that they regret having stayed home with their children, but this is not an uncommon thing for therapists to hear. It is not that these women don’t have warm and loving memories of the time spent with their children, but rather that they didn’t realize until it was “too late” that they derived a lot of their sense of identity and self-esteem from their work, as well as from contributing financially to the home. Many other variables come into play at this stage of life as well, including:
- This is the age at which many women have hit menopause or peri-menopause, and their self-esteem is taking a hit from their perceived loss of their looks and sexuality (many married women report virtually no sex drive after menopause; this is a case of monotogamy exacerbated significantly by hormones)
- Many women, having gone through menopause, change how they view themselves. Their “caretaking” hormones decrease. Often, it is hard for them to remember on a deep emotional level why they previously felt it was fulfilling to devote themselves entirely to their family, to the exclusion of external types of work. They often become resentful, thinking about these years when they “gave and gave” and didn’t get much back.
- Adult children now tend to move further away from parents than in previous generations, fewer people are having kids, and people are having kids later in life. This means that a 50 year old woman used to feel very valuable and essential in a grandmother/matriarch role, without needing external work to fill her days. Nowadays, many 50 year old women have kids living far away without grandchildren on the horizon for a decade or more. (The disconnect between the role of a grandmother/mother-in-law now versus a generation ago also leads to many battles between women and their moms/MIL’s.)
- Their husbands’ financial success leave these women feeling torn between many conflicting emotions: appreciation, jealousy, self-loathing for complaining about “first world problems,” and insecurity. They feel that if they can’t obtain a certain “level” of financial success or prestige themselves, they shouldn’t bother with work, because it will take them away from their role of making things run smoothly in the home.
- Often, since they have been out of the job market for so long, it is hard to get together a resume and to even conceive of what sort of job would be fulfilling and/or would hire them. Sometimes this fear is overblown, but many times there is real validity to it.
- If a child has turned out difficult to deal with, and your connection isn’t what you’d have hoped, it is even more heartbreaking for parents who have devoted their entire life to childrearing without any respite for self-preservation.
- These women may have idealized how their relationships with their husbands would look at this stage. They may have hoped for more time spent together, and more deep emotional conversations than they ever expected from their husbands before. For many husbands, this time is very confusing, because they feel like their wife was always satisfied with them until her stressors (children around and taking up a lot of her time, financial insecurity) went away, at which point she now feels dissatisfied.
There are many ways to work on addressing these issues. Often, they involve a woman deciding to take a leap of faith and immerse herself in a new job (even if it doesn’t utilize her degree or past job experience) or a new hobby. Many women begin creative pursuits, like writing or starting an Etsy store, although they often need to psych themselves up for this, as they often feel they are out of practice at creating at well. Many women start therapy, which is wonderful at helping people figure out what they want from life, and/or couples counseling to work on strengthening their marriage in this new phase of life.
It is also important for younger women reading this post to think carefully about what it means for them. I have never heard a single person say that, in retrospect, they regret spending 10 or 15 hours per week away from their kids. (This doesn’t mean that never happens, but it must be rare.) If your husband makes enough money that you don’t have to work full time, and you want to focus on your children, that is an admirable pursuit. Still, I believe that it is essential for the mental health of many women, particularly those who already struggle with depression/anxiety, to keep a foot in the door of the work world and/or to remain involved in a hobby from which they derive meaning and self-esteem.
While kids are young, it feels they will be young forever, but the years they are home and fully dependent on you are actually fleeting. Some women realize this, and pour themselves into their kids heart and soul; this is more common in the US than in other countries, where women maintain alternate sources of selfhood (read Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman for more on this). While that is commendable, it often ends in emotional burnout. It may be better to devote yourself to your kids while also keeping your eye on your alternate sources of self-esteem and identity, including work, leisure, social relationship, and creative work. Share this post with someone you know who is struggling with these issues! And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, You Can Love Your Kids With Your Whole Heart But Only 75% Of Your Time.
Learn about Dr. Rodman’s private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.