The toughest job in the world


Do you ever have days when you feel like staying in bed and not getting up for your job? In my ‘before kids’ job, some days I’d call in sick (because I really was), or, because I was fortunate/unfortunate enough to have worked incredible overtime hours, my boss would be understanding and let me take a ‘mental health’ day off. If we’d all been working intensely for a period, they would also give days off at the end of a deal or a case.

That doesn’t exist in motherhood. Your ‘bosses’ (the kids) don’t give you days off no matter how hard you’ve been working. If they are young, they might well be part of the reason your mental health suffers. This is, and isn’t a joke, because wherever you are in the world, being a full-time, stay-at-home mom (or dad) is a tough gig. Being a full-time working mom is also a tough gig. Being a mom, period, can be the toughest job in the world.

The ‘Groundhog Day’ feeling, the isolation, it can become too much, especially if you have been ‘someone’ before, a person in a workplace or community. Now, you are just ‘so and so’s mom.’ Does that happen to you? I get called ‘x’s mom’ all the time. I hear “x’s mom, can I have some water?” It’s funny and cute now. But, if I didn’t have other identities that I can roll with, my kids’ social life would be ruined because I’d send all their friends home for not knowing my name. Now, imagine going to live in a place where you have no support systems, friends, family, or anyone you can trust, such as here, in Shanghai. Whatever your self-esteem, Groundhog Day-ish feeling or lack of identity is now doubled or tripled, which raises the question, “What can you do?”

I don’t write about this blithely, because I think as a mom (or dad or primary caregiver), we all have faced situations that led us to question this ‘toughest job in the world.’ People tell you it’s the most important one, but this doesn’t resonate if you’re stuck with complex feelings that you have you asking, “If it is so important, why do I feel so darned unsatisfied?” or “Is there something wrong with me?”

If you are living in a foreign country, this feeling can be even harder to bear, as loneliness also plays a large part. According to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization, more than 330 million people are now living with depression worldwide, 54 million in China alone. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Many people have different perceptions of suicide, but the most important thing is to take these thoughts and feelings seriously, consider it essential, and to try and recognize warning signs. People take their life because they want an end to the pain they are feeling, not because they desire death or, (as some believe) are selfish individuals, unthinking of the suffering it brings to their family.

Jami Ingledue, a blogger for the Huffington Post, uses the term high-functioning depression to describe her feeling. “We get out of bed in the morning because there are small people completely dependent upon us. We can’t just ignore the crying or the “mom, mom, MOM!” We get the kids ready for school; we feed them, we do what needs to be done. But it is all a sham. We feel dead inside, like a shell of a person. We can sort of ‘fake it’ for the kids, but no one else. We are completely sucked dry. Still functioning on the outside but paralyzed on the inside. No hope, no light we can see at the end of the tunnel.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, this brought back memories of when my kids were young. Domestic chores bore me to no end, and at one point I told my husband that I didn’t see the point of a life that centered around feeding and naps, collecting the dry cleaning, going to the grocery and pediatrician visits He replied, “but this is what looking after little people involves, that is the job.” I wanted to tell him that maybe I didn’t want my job, but that wasn’t ‘politically correct.’ Also, it’s not like I didn’t love my kids, I just didn’t like the mind-numbing boring-ness of it all. I don’t even know if these are actual words, but I hope you know what I mean.

I was lucky in that this feeling didn’t last forever. I found playdates (with wine), and other moms who were doing different things, also wanting to break the mind-numbing boring-ness that they felt. That’s how I found this writing job. I was on a playdate and met a mom who was about to launch a magazine in the town I had just moved to. She saw my eagerness/desperation when I asked her if she needed writers and took a chance on the ‘nobody’ that I was (‘xxx’s mom’). And, eight years later, it is still my ‘mom-job.’ In truth, I owe her my sanity. We are still friends, and while now we live in different countries, I will be forever grateful to her.

Sometimes, that is all it takes. For someone to ‘see’ you. Not as somebody’s mom or dad (or somebody’s wife or husband, especially if you’ve moved to Shanghai for your partner’s job). You don’t even have to step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, you also have to ask, to make a connection to something you find meaningful. I was lucky, undoubtedly, but I was also desperate enough to ask, demand even, to be ‘seen.’

On this, Ingledue also writes, “Stay-at-home moms are at risk for depression. The isolation of being home all day with no adults; the monotony of doing the same damn things over and over again and never feeling like you’ve accomplished anything; the lack of time and energy for the most basic hygiene; the sometimes complete lack of positive feedback; the mind-numbing endlessness of it. There is never a break, and even more so if your child isn’t a good sleeper. Always on call, 24/7. I used to fantasize about being back at work so that I could take a 15-minute coffee break and talk to other adults. There comes the point where you must stop and put your oxygen mask on first. Not just for ourselves, but also because we are completely ineffective if we don’t take care of ourselves. We are no good to anyone, least of all our kids, if we are a shell of a human being. And support is the very first thing. We can’t do this alone.”

Ingledue is open about remedying her situation with antidepressants, therapy and reaching out to friends. “It can be hard to make yourself so vulnerable, especially with the lingering stigma of mental illness. But allowing vulnerability is what makes us strong,” she writes. “I am very lucky to be surrounded by wonderful women in my community, but it’s on me to make the connections.” She follows on to tell how she made a connection with a support group for women going through similar issues as she was, and has found this support invaluable.

Shanghai isn’t the easiest place to live, and sometimes there is the pressure to ‘appear’ that you have it all in control, or to put on a ‘brave face.’ Whatever your situation, whether or not you’re a parent, it brings me back to what can you do? Reach out, talking about your feelings in a supportive environment does help. While the stigma of mental health remains, getting help by talking to someone and putting on ‘your own oxygen mask’ is of utmost importance. If you’re in a good place, also reach out and ‘see’ people and their need. If you’re in a position to give them a chance or shot at something, do it. Even just having a coffee or offering time to talk can make all the difference. In this way, we can all help each other with ‘The toughest job in the world.’

Need someone to talk to?
Reach out to Lifeline Shanghai.
Their Lifeline helpline is confidential, anonymous and open 10am-10pm 365 days a year. If you need assistance, please call (021) 6279 8990 or start an online chat via their website.




This article originally appeared in Shanghai Urban Family magazine, and permission was given to Shanghai Mamas to reprint the article. To keep updated on amazing events and essential news to make the most of family life in Shanghai, please follow Urban Family on WeChat, by scanning the code below