Tanya looked like a busy but successful mum. She was in her mid-40s, had a long-term partner and three children in their teens. As her children have grown, she had gradually been increasing her work hours as a teller in a building society.
However, Tanya lost her mum just over a year ago and misses her. She had been feeling overwhelmed, anxious and exhausted a lot of the time. Tanya had also increasingly struggled to sleep. She would wake up very early in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. Yet, in the midst of busy life, she has just got on with it.
It all really hit her when she was offered a promotion at work. Tanya felt she ought to be excited, but instead she just felt overwhelmed. Until this point, Tanya hadn’t told anyone about how she was feeling or about her issues sleeping. There just wasn’t time to voice it in ordinary life.
However, when a friend talked to her about her own struggles, she felt able to open up. That friend recommended counselling at Relate Northamptonshire. Tanya also discovered that Relate’s National Partnership with The Bank Worker’s Charity meant she could get free counselling. So she took the first step and booked her first session.
Skills in Sleep Hygiene
During Tanya’s first session, it quickly became clear that lack of sleep was the first hurdle to feeling well. We talked about the idea of sleep hygiene: cleaning up the hours before we go to sleep to help us sleep well.
We spent some time exploring some simple skills in sleep hygiene:
- Turn of electronics an hour before bed.
- Develop a consistent bedtime routine.
- Listen to a sleep app – there are many free and premium apps available.
- Don’t drink caffeine.
- Reset process – if awake for more than 20 minutes, get up, have a warm drink then go back to bed and practice breathing techniques.
Tanya decided which of these ideas she’d try first, and we practiced the breathing techniques together. I also set her a task: to pay attention to when she felt most overwhelmed.
When Tanya came back to her next session, it was clear that her sleep had been better. The breathing techniques had worked well. She also listened to sleep music on her headphones to help her drop off again. Tanya also tried a few sleep apps until she found one she liked.
Being more rested had really helped Tanya to notice her emotions. She identified that the morning rush to get out the door and the dinner-homework-bed routine completely overwhelmed her. She felt panicky and out of control.
As we explored her feelings further over the next few sessions, we identified together a voice in her head that said she must be supermum, and if she’s not she’s a failure.
We named this voice the Internal Supermum. Tanya told me about what this voice said about being a supermum. It was clear that Internal Supermum was very critical of Tanya, saying things like:
- Everyone else’s needs have to come first.
- If you get it wrong you’re a failure.
- Supermums don’t have needs, because they always think of everyone else.
- Everyone else can be forgiven, but not you.
Tanya realised that Internal Supermum was very mean to her. This internal voice was driving a lot of her panic and anxiety.
The Kind Voice
We explored where this Internal Supermum came from. Tanya talked about her past – she was raised by her mother after her father died of a heart attack. Her mum went to work, looked after the two children and made their clothes. Tanya felt like she should cope, just like her mother did.
When I asked Tanya what she thought her mum would say to her if she was here, listening to the conversation, it took her a few minutes before she could answer.
Her mum would say she was important too. She would say it’s important to take time for herself. Her mum would want her to look after herself. Her mum was not Supermum.
Tanya remembered some of the things her mum used to say when the children were young. She would come over to help, and tell Tanya “go and have a break – don’t clean or tidy, just rest.”
For Tanya, the loss of her mum has meant the loss of that kind voice – an external justification to take time out.
Kindness in Community
After a very emotional journey, Tanya began to wonder what other mums think and feel. She decided to ask a few, and found that many of them find the morning rush and the after-school chaos hard. It felt good to know she wasn’t on her own.
We talked about the need to tell her partner how she felt. This was a releasing moment for Tanya, bringing into the open the turmoil she had been in. When her partner heard how Tanya had felt, he was very supportive about making practical changes.
They decided that, as a family, they all needed to help with the morning routine. She didn’t need to do it on her own, because her children aren’t little any more. They were reluctant at first, but soon the children got used to sharing out the jobs between them. This was a fairly simple set of tasks:
- They made their own lunches.
- Her eldest likes cooking, so cooks one night a week.
- They set up a washing up rota.
They also decided to get a cleaner, to release Tanya so that she could take the promotion.
Tanya talked about how all these little changes were like that kind voice to her. Every time someone else did their job, it said to her that she didn’t have to do it all.
In our final session, we spent time looking back at the journey Tanya had been on and reflecting on what she’d learnt about herself.
Tanya realised that she didn’t want to be Supermum! Her children are growing up and there is capacity to be so much more. She’s taking the promotion to be a team leader at work. She’s started to meet friends, to exercise, to plan holidays.
Her Internal Supermum had isolated her into one role. But she is many things: a partner, a mum, an employee, a friend – and, first and foremost, a woman in her own right. She needs to be kind to herself and give herself space so that she can do all these things.
There were two moments that Tanya felt showed how much she had grown. She had noticed a few days ago that she was feeling overwhelmed. So she listened to some sleep music while she prepared the dinner. That moment of kindness to herself would never have happened a few months ago.
The second one came from her daughter, who asked what was going on because she seemed so much happier and more content. Tanya suddenly realised that this change wasn’t just about her own wellbeing. She was also modelling a better kind of motherhood to her kids – showing her daughter a balanced way of being mum.
Tanya was well on the way to taming Internal Supermum. She could turn the volume down on Internal Supermum, and was finding her own internal, kinder voice. She shared how equipped she felt from the counselling – given the tools and knowledge she needed to continue her wellbeing journey.
This fictional story was told by Caroline, a clinical supervisor at Relate Northamptonshire.