Mama Shaker: Sue, Reminding Us the Kids Will Be Alright

Susan Groner became an empty nester sooner than she expected when her teenage son begged to go to boarding school an hour away. After spending 17 years as a stay-at-home mom of two, volunteer and occasional marketing consultant, she found herself pondering her next chapter.

With her emerging 20/20 hindsight, Sue began coaching parents on how to find more joy in those early years as The Parenting Mentor and went on to write Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World.

“I have the benefit of the retroactive crystal ball, because now I see my kids as pretty together, functioning human beings,” she says. “All the things I worried about were worthless, and such a waste of my time and energy.”

Sue’s kids are in their twenties and thriving in college and grad school. Meanwhile, she’s relocated from Bedford to New York City, where she enjoys going to events and co-working at The Wing.

“I wish I had me 10-15 years ago,” she says. “But I didn’t and not having that was part of the impetus to start The Parenting Mentor.”

“If you could see what your four-year-old was going to be like as a young adult, and see them as a really healthy, active, functioning, kind human being, all the little things that you worry about you wouldn’t have to worry about,” she says.

It was at this point in our conversation that I got a little emotional thinking about how much pressure we put on ourselves to keep our young kids safe and healthy. To get them to eat, put their shoes on and wash their hands. And then we worry about what those battles are doing to them and what the stress is doing to us.

“Maybe just say, ‘you know what, either I accept my kid getting up and running around in between bites or they eat separately,’” she says. “Maybe dinner time just isn’t this wonderful, beautiful thing right now.”

Sue points to the example of tantrums, when our immediate impulse may be to try and stop a meltdown in its tracks. Instead, she encourages us to see our children’s outburst in a more empathetic light.

“Look what they’re going through right now,” she says. “They are so upset about something that this is what they need to do to show me how upset they are.”

It’s easy to forget that our kids need to develop coping skills and learn how to regulate their emotions, and it’s “unrealistic for us to have expectations on little kids that are unfair” she says.

Sue remembers vividly what it was like to worry that her children’s social behavior in kindergarten was indicative of their ability to make friends later in life.

“I was one of those stressed out, anxious moms thinking that how my kids were, at that particular moment in time, was a reflection of what they were going to be like as adults, which is crazy, you know.”

When you look at it objectively, or after the fact, it’s clear as day. But in the moment, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of mom guilt and feel anxiety about our role in shaping their future.

“We need to step back and look at our kids and say this is a human being,” she says. “This is a person with their own thoughts and ideas, and likes and dislikes, and feelings.”

In Sue’s case, she watched her daughter blossom from a young girl who preferred to call the shots to a young woman who now takes trips to Paris on her own.

“I wish someone had said to me, ‘it doesn’t matter—stop projecting your concerns about your child as an adult on your little child,’” she says.

“It’s not our job to make our kids happy all the time. That is a huge, huge burden that we put on ourselves.”

Sue believes that “all of that comes from a really wonderful place of love,” but “it’s the bad evolution of the maternal instinct” acting up and signaling “to protect my child from imminent, life-threatening danger.”

Trying to juggle our own emotional rollercoaster while helping our kids through theirs is a tall order. Fortunately, she says, we can work through our feelings together.

“The more that we as moms express how we’re feeling to our kids—whether it’s the frustration because you can’t find your phone in the moment, or something happened with work and it’s really bringing you down, or you were supposed to go out and the babysitter canceled—you need to be saying to your kids, ‘I’m really disappointed. I was really looking forward to going out with my girlfriends tonight.’”

She says that when they see that 15 minutes later you’ve calmed down, they learn “she felt disappointed, and then she was fine. She felt frustrated, and then she was fine. She was sad and then she was fine.”

“Then they start to see, oh yeah, these are normal feelings,” she says. “Adults have them. Kids have them.”

The other trap Sue sees parents fall into is what she describes as an “engineering project” where aspirations focus on achievement vs. skill development.

“Ultimately, what do you want for your child?” is a question she asks her clients. In response, she often hears, “I want my child to excel. I want my child to be as smart as they can. I want them to use their full potential. I want them to do well in school. I want them to value education. I want them to be physically fit and eat well,” and “the list goes on and on and on.”

“My theory is wait a minute, what if we work on raising kids who are resilient and self reliant with good problem solving skills and good coping mechanisms,” she says, “as opposed to being proficient on the piano. Those are the kids who are going to go into the world and be happy because they’re going to be able to deal with whatever comes their way. They’re going to know that no matter what happens, they have the tools to deal with it.”

Perhaps the most compelling reminder of all is that these intense years with our children are fleeting.

“I do think it’s a healthy way to look at life in terms of chapters,” she says. “As you know, 18-20 years is not that much of your life.”

“A lot of people feel their reason for being becomes their children,” she says. “And then when they’re not needed anymore—and that not needed part happens when your kids are at home, too—you feel useless. I did not want to feel that way,” she says. “And I never did.”

Sue was fortunate to take the cue to shift gears in her own life, as her children became more independent.

“Whether your kid is three, or 13, or even 23, everyone continues to grow and develop and evolve. I mean, I still am,” she says.

When emotions are running high and our worries are spinning out of control, we can pause and appreciate the opportunity we have to watch what emerges for our children—and ourselves.

“It exciting to look at our kids who are little, and say, ‘well, I’ve got the privilege to watch these little human beings develop,’” she says.

“I’m going to sit back as much as I can and just be there for love, and I’m going to see how they start thinking about things, and developing what they like, what they don’t like, and how that changes. What they’re interested in, what they’re not interested in.”

“And that it’s all okay,” says Sue. “It’s all really good.”

Mama Shaker: Jane, Helping Women Bloom as Mothers

It took having a third baby for Dr. Jane Shomof to finally ease into motherhood without the postpartum OCD that clouded the early days with her first, or the inevitable pull when her second came along.

“I feel like we’re all taken by surprise when we bring home that baby,” she says. “Like as much as we can prepare and plan for the birth, I think it’s really what comes after that’s so shocking to our system.”

Any mother can relate to those feelings that come in the middle of the night, when you’re at your most vulnerable, and desperately trying every trick in the book to get your baby back to sleep.

“I think we also have this unrealistic expectation of immediately feeling the same way about our second as we do with our first,” Jane recalls.

“They both turned out to be incredible little humans,” she says, having gained the confidence in her third pregnancy that “whether this person is going to be a boy or a girl, whether they’re going to be challenging or easier, it’s all a phase and it’s all going to be fine, and it’s all going to work out.”

Third time was a charm, and everything clicked—even breastfeeding. After recurring mastitis the first two times around, Jane invested in “the most amazing like Nespresso machine for formula” for her daughter and then “lo and behold, she ended up having breast milk for almost a full year.”

“I really was able to finally enjoy and relish in the moments of having a newborn and taking time away from my older two, if I had to, and spending the time all together.”

“It was a really lovely experience.”

Women Helping Women Succeed

No matter whether it’s a mom’s first baby or fourth, Jane created Bloome to make each transition easier.

“It was birthed from too many women that had to struggle too much, more than they needed to,” she says.

While Jane still sees clients in her private practice, moms who feel overwhelmed by the thought of the leaving the house can benefit from the virtual, on-demand programs she’s developed.

“In our society we have a tendency to wait until we’re really sick or really struggling to ask for support and I think it’s really backwards,” she says, which is why she’s taking a proactive approach with women to talk about what to expect even before the baby comes.

“A lot of women don’t know that these feelings are normal and everybody thinks they’re alone in their misery,” she says.

Mothers have the added challenge of putting our own needs after everyone else’s, and not making ourselves a priority until we reach a boiling point.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel and we’re going to help you see that,” she says. “The struggle is temporary.”

“Bloome is here to just help make this incredible life-changing, life-consuming transition enjoyable.”

Mama Maker: Dawn, Bringing Our Struggles Out in the Open

In a room full of multitalented women, Dawn Fable was struck when her accomplished friend shared when “things are speeding wildly out of control,” she wished for a tattooed reminder on her wrist to “pause,” during their word-of-the-month club gathering.

“As we went around and we started sharing our words, all of us were really, really, really struggling–whether it was with our marriages, or finances, or issues with our kids, or climbing the corporate ladder, or starting new businesses,” she says.

“But in looking at each of these women, you would have no idea,” she says about her “career-driven, family-oriented” girlfriends who she describes as “beautiful, not only on the exterior, but such cool people on the interior.”

In that moment, Dawn realized she was not alone, after living with generalized anxiety disorder for as long as she could remember, and especially postpartum after the birth of her third child.

“There’s such a stigma around that where, as women, I think we naturally try to do it all,” she says.

“We’re ashamed of feeling anxious, and so often we’re drowning ourselves in bottles of Kim Crawford or sleeping pills,” she says, while “trying to present ourselves as these perfectly put together women.”

Once Dawn swapped her prescription for a CBD regimen, she says “I started shouting from the rooftops to a lot of my girlfriends who were struggling with similar things, and frankly, complete strangers that I would run into.”

As co-founder of the Press Pause Project, Dawn is on a mission to “share and be super transparent about my very personal struggles with anxiety and postpartum,” she says.

“That’s what’s been the most rewarding part of it, is just sharing my personal experiences,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many women have been like, ‘thank you so much, because I’ve felt so alone, and I felt ashamed.'”

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While the Press Pause Project line can be found in yoga and pilates studios, clothing stores and boutique hotels, Dawn says that most of their business comes directly through online orders.

“I can always tell when people are gathered together over the holidays, or in a big group for something, because all of a sudden, we see this influx of orders,” she says.

The word-of-mouth momentum could also be attributed to quality, given that Dawn and her co-founder Torrey Benson are rigorous about “third party testing and manufacturing practices.” She adds that there are “companies out there that just aren’t doing the right thing for the industry,” as voiced by the FDA recently.

Ultimately, their goal is to give women “permission to press pause.” One of the first steps along the way is to “stop the whispering or shame around anxiety,” she says.

As a result of sharing her own experience and encouraging others to do the same, Dawn is beginning to see a shift in how open women are about what we’re struggling with.

“It’s just become this very cool time where women are feeling more vulnerable and they’re allowing themselves to not be perfect all the time.”

Normalizing the Moods of Motherhood with Dr. Alexandra Sacks

Newly crowned TED speaker Alexandra Sacks, M.D. wants moms to know that all those overwhelming thoughts swirling around in your head are to be expected when you’re expecting–and acclimating to motherhood.

“Am I cut out for this?” is one of the most common questions Dr. Sacks hears from moms who assume that such closed-door confessions will lead to a diagnosis of postpartum depression.

“I realized that part of what was contributing to people feeling like a lower mood, and feeling better after they spoke to me, is that they weren’t talking to each other,” she says.

That’s why Dr. Sacks recently took to the stage at TED Residency with an important message around the concept of “matrescence,” a transformative developmental stage that occurs as women become mothers.

“Shifting the focus from the baby to the mother is a pretty radical idea, globally,” she says.

“I’ve been getting letters, emails from people all over the world,” she says, including a mental health worker in Zimbabwe raising funds for a women’s health conference, and women in Pakistan, Malaysia, Australia and beyond.

“Matrescence” started to take off when Dr. Sacks penned “The Birth of Mother” in The New York Times in 2017. She was blown away by the response when the story went viral, which solidified the need for a broader public health push.

“I thought it was pretty straight forward stuff that everybody knew, so I was really surprised that it got passed around so much. Then I thought we have to keep going,” she says about the steps that led to the TED talk.

Dr. Sacks has also co-authored a book coming out in 2019, What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood, which features “the most common psychological challenges that we’ve seen in our patient population” along with Dr. Catherine Birndorf.

“The book is really supposed to be a how-to guide to get through pregnancy and your first year of motherhood in a way that helps you really understand the terrain of the psychological transition,” she says.

It Takes a Village

There are signs the medical industry is beginning to embrace “matrescence.” In fact, Dr. Sacks says the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology is changing their guidelines to encourage postpartum moms to see their doctors before 6 weeks.

As for those whispers of postpartum depression?

“The medical community is shifting to a broader umbrella term called PMAD (postpartum mood and anxiety disorder),” she says. “Some people feel more anxiety than depression…I don’t even think of them as two separate conditions; I think of it more as a spectrum.”

Dr. Sacks believes that treating this spectrum is a “community exercise” that requires partners, friends, family and/or hired help to allow mom to get out of the house and take a break.

“Cutting off self-care will also lead to anxiety,” she says. “We need to rest. We need to be able to relax, to calm our nervous system, to have social interaction, to not work 24/7 which is essentially what the job of caring for an infant is.”

“Sometimes people just need a good night’s sleep and then they feel better,” says Dr. Sacks. “It’s really just about sleep deprivation sometimes.”

(There aren’t enough emojis for me to convey how relevant this is for me and so many moms I know.)

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Photo credit: TED/Ryan Lash

“If you stop doing the things that make you feel like you, you’re going to stop feeling like you,” she says.

Plus, the whole family benefits when mom carves out time for herself.

“When you preserve a part of your identity, you’re also leaving room for your child to develop their own,” says Dr. Sacks, in my favorite line from her TED talk.

Women Helping Women Succeed

“I want the definition of matrescence–and what will best support a woman when she’s going through matrescence–I want that conversation to be guided by mothers,” she says.

“In order for that to happen we need to reduce shame and stigma. Talking and putting your feelings into words is one of the most helpful things you can do to protect yourself against social isolation and depression.”

Dr. Sacks wants moms out there to take up this challenge. Confess something you’re struggling with to another mom. Take time out to do something that you used to do.

For more information about matrescence and Dr. Sacks, visit AlexandraSacksMD.com.

Photos courtesy of TED/Ryan Lash.