15 Apr 5 Pillars to help mothers cope under change
A positive framework can make us happier, stronger mothers especially in this most unusual of times, reports Natalie Ritchie
Even though we may have planned and wanted to be mothers, motherhood is a sudden shock for many of us. It is one of the biggest changes in life, and so different to what you may have been doing, says Kate Wilkie of Flourishing Mothers, a Positive Psychology coaching service that aims to help mothers thrive. Both Kate and business partner, Debra Close, are mothers and have Masters of Applied Science degrees in Positive Psychology and Coaching.
“A lot of mothers are not clinically ill, but are not as well as they could be. The aim of positive psychology coaching is, rather than to treat illness, to raise the wellbeing bar so that we’re more resilient when curveballs come at us,” says Kate.
“An important positive psychology theory is that there are five essential pillars of wellbeing,” she explains. Those are: emotions, relationships, engagement, meaning and accomplishment. “If you focus on even just one of those, life satisfaction can go up in a relatively short time.”
Here, Kate explains how we can use those five pillars to boost our wellbeing and improve our lives as mothers:
A great place to start is to try to regularly experience some of the 10 positive emotions that researchers say are key: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride (the humble kind), amusement, awe, inspiration and love. When we feel these emotions, it improves our capacity to think and plan.
Kate suggests you have ‘rescue remedies’ on hand to prompt one of these positive emotions. “It might be a photo, a joke, a film, a favourite song… have something on hand that will help you change your thinking.”
“If you’re feeling down, you often get tunnel vision; a sense that you only have one option. If you can tap into positive emotions, that immediately broadens your ability to think of more options to problem-solve.”
Tip: To capture positive emotions, ask yourself ‘what went well today?’.
The quality of our relationships is critical to our wellbeing, and research shows that the way we approach relationships has a huge impact on them. One way to handle relationships well is through ‘active constructive responding’.
“There is quite a bit of research to show that how you respond to positive news in others’ lives is important,” says Kate. “If people in your life share good news and you respond positively, it builds their joy and lets them re-live the happiness, but if you under-respond with a ‘so what’ attitude, it kills their buzz and the relationship stymies or deteriorates.”
“I try to be conscious of how I respond to my kids’ news. It builds their pride, the news resonates more for them and it increases their feelings of accomplishment when I respond positively.”
It may sound obvious, says Kate, but to build a strong relationship with your partner, try to share the positives of the day when they walk in the door rather than venting immediately about any issues.
“We have loads of unutilised potential to share the positives. If you’re only ever sharing the difficult things, it reinforces the negative in your own mind and can make it harder for your partner to offer support. I’ve found that encouraging family discussion of things we’re feeling really pleased about paves the way to supportively discuss any problems later in the evening.”
Quality, not necessarily quantity, counts. “Nurturing even just a few quality relationships has a definite impact on your wellbeing,” Kate advises.
Tip: Actively schedule good times together. Don’t save the times you’re together just for the hard stuff.
“A lot of mothers aren’t feeling as connected to daily activities as they could be,” Kate says, “They’re just trying to get through the day. Our clients sometimes complain that they feel life with a small child or two is like ‘groundhog day’, and that particular feeling can be a slippery slope towards reduced wellbeing for mums.”
The trick to engaging is to throw yourself into things you’re good at and that naturally interest and motivate you, she says. “You must want to do that activity for its own sake. You’ll enter ‘flow’ when the activity is just challenging enough to engage your interest and utilises your skills just enough to make you proud, but is not so hard that you’re anxious. You lose track of time. Flow is really good for us.”
Tip: Entering flow might seem a bridge too far for mothers at times, but Kate suggests you look for things that you can enjoy together with the kids. “Singing in the bath, dancing like no one’s watching, collecting flowers on a nature walk – in things you both like, you can find flow.”
To find meaning, really think about what your values are at home and at work, Kate advises. “Use those as the foundation to create goals and actions. You can also build meaning into things. For example, my family is really important to me – while I don’t find cleaning at all interesting in itself, a fresh, welcoming house for my children to come home to is important to me. I can feel increased day-to-day meaning, and an enhanced sense of wellbeing and purpose, from reframing how I live, in this case finding a new perspective on housework.”
When routine or repetitive activities get you down, ask yourself how it connects to the bigger picture of what’s important, Kate advises. “Alternatively, you may have to take a harsh look at yourself and admit ‘These things I’m doing are not in line with my values, no wonder I feel a bit weird.’ A lot of people get meaning from religious or philosophical beliefs. Finding a way to deliberately reconnect with your core beliefs can be a source of meaning.”
Tip: Remind yourself of what you’re grateful for in your life and why you do things.
“Positive psychologists prefer the word ‘accomplishment’ over ‘achievement’,” said Kate, “because it better conveys competency, a belief in our ability to do the things that matter most to us.”
“There is a link in the research between competency and hope and optimism,” says Kate. “It’s important to set goals that you believe you can accomplish as well as the goals being aligned with your values. When you believe you have the abilities to accomplish something, it’s easier to strive for it”.
“Along the way, also remember to celebrate the small steps that you achieve and the personal strengths you’ve used to make that progress. Sometimes, I advise mothers who are anxious about their lack of accomplishment to write a ‘reverse to-do list’ by listing all that they did achieve that day.”
Tip: Play to your strengths. “Deb and I are constantly blown away by how empowering it is for mums to have awareness of their strengths,” says Kate. “It creates a spiralling positive.”
Dear Last Year’s Self….
A tool Kate and Deb use regularly with their clients is the Letter from the Future. This is where you write yourself a letter, (or a voice text or even a blog post), from a significant point in the future, like the start of the school year in one, two, three or even more years from today. “The purpose of the letter is to help you create a vision for your life and set goals,” says Kate. “Write from a place where all is as you dreamed it and explain exactly what you are excited and happy about. As you read the letter, notice which of your values are highlighted. What strengths can you spot in it? What are you thrilled about? Then ask yourself ‘What concrete steps can I take to get to that point of flourishing?’ so that you don’t end up saying in a year’s time ‘Oh well, that’s another year gone.’”
Flourishing Mothers (Kate Wilkie and Debra Close) does one-on-one consultations and coaching packages for women at all stages of motherhood, working or at-home, by Skype, phone or in person. Kate and Debra also speak at mothers’ groups and events. Take their ‘Are You Flourishing?’ test