Blink, and you'll miss her. Or so she hopes. She stealthily exits her car and walks briskly down the street. She wears dark sunglasses and avoids eye contact with others, prepared with an excuse if someone she knows happens by. When she feels confident that the coast is clear, she ducks into the building, looks behind her one final time, and opens my office door.
My office isn't in a dodgy part of town, nor am I running an illicit business. I'm a clinical psychologist. This woman is my patient. She sees me because I specialize in working with moms with stress and anxiety, and she's a mom with stress and anxiety.
Why the Stealthy Mom act, you ask? Because she is terrified that someone in town will recognize her. The idea that someone she knows will catch her in the act of seeing a therapist is too much for her to bear. The whole seeing-a-therapist thing flies in the face of the image she is desperate to project . . . of the mom who has it all together: calm, cool, collected, and yoga-pantsed. She devotes inordinate amounts of time to expertly crafting this image, both on social media and in real life. She can't let it be sullied by an admission that she is struggling.
As a psychologist in the suburbs, I've met a number of Stealthy Moms who are ashamed that they are seeking treatment. There are also countless other moms who are so concerned about how being in therapy will make them look that they avoid treatment altogether. (I'm not referring here to those moms who do not seek treatment because they do not have access to good mental health care. That is a different important problem, worthy of its own article).
Why do parents expect themselves to navigate the parenting journey without any outside support? The journey is a perilous one, even for parents with "easy" kids. There are no shortage of issues to worry about, from childhood illnesses to tantrums, from cyberbullying to school violence. Parents are also under enormous pressure to helicopter their kids into the most prestigious schools and the most exclusive extracurricular activities.
A mom patient once confessed to me that she'd avoided therapy for years because she felt that getting help was a "sign of weakness." To me, acknowledging that you need help and seeking it out is an example of true strength. Because let me tell you: therapy is hard work. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (the type of therapy I practice), for example, demands that you engage with anxiety-provoking situations and emotions rather than avoiding them.
Here's what strength looks like to me: Deliberately using the pens at your kids' pediatrician's office when you are secretly terrified of germs. Taking a few mindful breaths and then letting your kid get on the bus to that field trip in another state. Purposely posting an unflattering photo on social media when you are consumed with worry about how others see you. Strength means getting up every day and committing yourself to practicing strategies that will help you navigate your parental anxiety and worry. Strength means modeling effective coping mechanisms for your kids, who will see how you manage stress and follow suit.
I often wonder what would happen if parents committed even a fraction of the time and energy to strengthening their coping skills as they do to cultivating their online personas. As I often say to patients, if you can spend hours each week expertly crafting your image on social media, you can devote 50 minutes each week to learning how to manage stress. The truth is you'll never be able to look your best on the outside if you're crumbling on the inside.
Moms and Dads, if you're struggling, now is the time for you to seek treatment. Take as much care with your internal life as you do with your external life. Acknowledge that having kids is hard and life is hard and sometimes everyone needs outside help.
No one expects you to go it alone. Leave the dark glasses at home, step out into the sunlight, and get support. I promise you'll be stronger for it.