The Mothers Load

By Sarah Gentry, LMHC

Moms are expected to be selfless, caring, and happy – but those qualities can present unique challenges for women who are fighting addiction and mental illness.

By putting herself first and connecting with others, any woman can succeed in sobriety.
Take a moment to think about the qualities you associate with a good mother. If you’re like most people, some of the first words that come to mind might be selfless, giving or caring. While these qualities can make the people around a mom feel very loved, they can sometimes mean that the mother forgets to first love herself.

Understanding this is the key. As a therapist, I have heard countless women share with me the messages that they give to themselves regarding willingness, surrender, and acceptance. Women say things like, “I can’t go to treatment because my family depends on me,” and “I can’t be an alcoholic; I am a mother.”

Stigma often keeps women from getting the help they need. Women are still taught to behave in ways that are “ladylike” and acceptable by social standards. Our culture tells us that women should drink in moderation and not in excess. They should handle all of the demands of motherhood, careers, and relationships with grace and without stress. And if they do experience a sense of feeling overwhelmed, they must cope with it in private.

Give yourself permission to take care of yourself by following these steps:

Make a list. Finding support people takes courage. Start by making a list of any family or friends that you feel safe confiding in. If you’re not comfortable reaching out to your circle, tap into your community – twelve step meetings are a great place to start.

Reach out. Find people who understand what it feels like to not want to pick up the phone, not want to leave the house. Motherhood can feel very lonely if you do not have other people around who understand your experience and are supportive of your journey. Asking for help is key to finding a community of people who “get it.”

Allow others to be present. There are people who may not have had the same exact experiences that you have had, but who are willing to “hold the space,” and just be there with you, without trying to fix or solve the problem.

Invest in yourself. Developing safe, healthy coping skills is essential for sobriety, but finding time for self-care as a mom can seem impossible. Scheduling time for self-care can make you feel more capable when stressful situations do arise.

Put it in writing. Write a letter to yourself reminding yourself of how precious you are and how much you need this.

Banish excuses. Be conscious of when you are putting everyone else’s needs before your own.

Keep trying. Remember not everything works for everybody and that’s ok. Find out what works for you and develop your commitments and goals around it. Surround yourself with people who support your intention to be good to yourself.

Stay accountable. Ask your supporters to hold you accountable and cheer you on.

Honor your experiences by affirming yourself.

As a treatment professional whose job it is to help women recover, I ask women to do the very thing they have been taught not to do: put themselves first. In order to help themselves and learn to accept support from others, they must ask for their families’ understanding.

These women must surrender to the fact that addiction is one thing that they cannot control and cannot fix. They must come to an understanding that someone or something outside of themselves is able to help them. They must recognize that there are elements of anger and resentment, fear, and shame. They must gain insight into who they are as women, not just define themselves by the roles they play – mother, daughter, sister, wife or worker.

Women tend to get help much further into their addiction than men. By the time they do get help, their addiction has often progressed to the point of major physical, emotional, and mental health problems. Women hide their disease for fear of ridicule, often believing that the shame of admitting they are chemically dependent is greater than the pain of their addiction.

Women need a sacred place to heal. They need a staff that understands the importance of safety, respect, validation, and empathy. They need a place where they can be challenged in a loving way and allowed to share openly. They need a place where they can begin to mend the wounds from addiction.

Sarah Gentry, licensed mental health counselor and certified addiction professional, is the owner of Gentry Counseling, Inc. Sarah has presented nationally on gender-specific issues and addiction treatment, creative healing techniques, as well as, passion, purpose and ethics in counseling and treatment. She is well known in the industry as a leader for her integrity, ethical treatment, and clinical excellence. Sarah specializes in working with clients and families with chemical dependency, eating disorders, codependency, trauma, and family-of-origin issues.