Covid-19 and the Foggy Mind
I am a working mother to a two-year old active boy. I have been struggling with a pervasive sense of fatigue and exhaustion during the current COVID lockdown. A recent conversation with one of my neighbours, who is a mother of two primary school aged children and I found ourselves sharing the return of our ‘foggy’, fatigued and vague selves which to be honest we hadn’t experienced in its full form since the first few months of having our babies.
I thought it was just me, however further conversations with mothers who have dependent children have highlighted there is a triumphant return of the mummy brain. For us Mums this is a feeling we would like to leave behind, one where there is little bandwidth left to live life, and very little personal space – both in the literal and emotional/metaphysical sense. What quickly started to disappear was my capacity to nurture myself as my sense of identity as a woman cracked at the edges. What is this phenomenon we are experiencing and how can we understand it?
We are inherently social beings and we long for connection with one another. There are studies that have researched the correlation between social isolation and mental health. All such studies have found there is an increased risk of developing mental health issues when isolation is persistent. Was my level of fatigue and exhaustion the first signs of a deterioration of my mental health
Given I am not alone with this feeling, it got me wondering what the relationship between the impact of COVID-19 and our experiences of increased fatigue and the sense of losing our core sense of self might be. Yes, it is the increased isolation and the increasing experience of working mothers (and perhaps all mothers) managing higher workloads, but could it be an inevitable process that occurs when we are confined? There are a couple of ways that helped me understand this.
Firstly is Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Freud says, “The ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” The pandemic has raised questions about how we live our lives, our future and the question of whether we will ever return to what was familiar and considered normal.
The idea of confinement, as it relates to motherhood, also proved a helpful link. ‘Confinement’ is the ‘period for the body to recuperate and recover from labour and childbirth’. In the past when infant and maternal mortality rates were high, it was a practice to keep both baby and mother indoors during the period of confinement. This was meant to protect mother and baby from ill health’. Currently we are being confined to protect us from a deadly virus but I can’t help but wonder what COVID-19 might symbolically represent for us?
Combine the experience of the uncanny with the feeling of being confined and this creates a destabilising effect, and therefore can reduce our capacity to be resilient. COVID-19 has given rise to many complex emotions and many questions have arisen for working mothers. I note the paradox of my recent exhaustion but also the hope that our lives can emerge differently. I have pondered on what we might be giving birth to?
Given these experiences, Kris and I are offering a free zoom reflective session for working mothers. This session will provide a psychologically safe and contained environment where working mothers may share their experiences and explore more deeply what factors are contributing to the felt sense of fatigue. How do we capitalise on the potential opportunities and forge a new path through the fog?
Upcoming virtual Working Mothers Group
Finding our Roles Amidst the Haze and Expectation. What Insights does Liv Offer?
Over a year ago, I became entranced by a painting of a young woman hanging in my local café. It was by a local artist, Pascale Garlinge. The young woman looks out of the frame into the distance. Her gaze is strong, and humbly defiant. My strongest association with that painting, as I sat there day after day wondering whether I could buy it, was that she was comfortable with the person she was becoming. ‘Liv’ was her name, as Pascale later told me. Liv has long, blonde, windswept hair entangled with forget-me-nots. “Keep unearthing her”, Liv seemed to be telling my real self, “You have seen her. She is there. Keep going.”
After further reflection with my colleague and friend, Liz Brnjak, about what I identified in Liv, I realised that my younger self would not have been so drawn to that painting. “In fact”, I said, “the painting that I would probably have identified with years ago as a young mother, would be something like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid.”
This famous painting may be familiar to you. The young woman in it is described by the New York Times art critic, Karen Rosenberg, as a painting of a “young woman of sturdy build and inscrutable disposition. She wears a crisp linen cap, a blue apron and work sleeves pushed up to reveal thick forearms. Half of her face is in shadow, making it impossible to tell whether her downcast eyes and pursed lips express wistfulness or concentration.”
The two paintings are like chalk and cheese. And yet, they are both part of me and represent important, and valid, stages of experience from the roles that I have taken up in my life.
Roles are not something that we can see. Rather, they are observed by how we behave in a context – in our home, with our family, in a workplace etc. Roles are a lived experience. We all have an idea of what a particular role could or should be – we keep those ideas in our mind, as do others. The idea of the role that we have in our minds – the ‘role-idea’ – influences our behaviour. We learn what those roles should be like from our ‘role models’, whether from those who cared for us when we were small, to those who manage and lead us in relation to our work role. And sometimes others’ expectations of how we take up our role, combined with our own experience of that role can mean that we feel stagnant, unfulfilled or ineffective.
As a milkmaid-like figure I felt purposeful yet confined, self-controlled rather than self-possessed, and wistful yet ambitious. Liv represents how I feel and how I want to be in the world now. This change has been due to a long period of deep learning and self-growth. What paintings or images resonate with you at this stage of your life with the roles that you hold as mother, worker? How have they changed over time? Why might that be?
If you are a working mother, you can explore these and other questions using methods to understand your roles and your experiences in a series of reflective workshops run by me and Liz Brnjak here in Melbourne later this year. Through various methods we will help mothers of all ages and life stages think about the intersections of their roles as mothers and workers. Our aim is to also help participants gain new insights and practical outcomes to manage the workplace dynamics and barriers that they may face. It will also be an occasion to hear about the experiences of others and to build new connections.
To express your interest in attending please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
 The concept of ‘role-idea’ and role analysis is from the work of Bruce Reed and John Bazalgette, ‘Organizational Role Analysis at the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Studies: origins and development’, in John Newton, Susan Long, and Burkard Sievers (Eds.) (2006). Coaching in Depth: The Organizational Role Analysis Approach. Karnac: London and New York.
 Irving Borwick, ‘Organizational Role Analysis: managing strategic change in business settings’, in John Newton, Susan Long, and Burkard Sievers (Eds.) (2006). Coaching in Depth: The Organizational Role Analysis Approach. Karnac: London and New York.
Introduction to Working Mothers’ Group
Being a mother makes us real. It activates rawness in our being that has probably never been exposed before. We spend so much of our lives as mothers putting on ‘a face’ each day to go to work, to meet the expectations of other people in society and to avoid conflict with our loved ones. Being sleep deprived, having our bodies used as a machine to feed the life of another and not being able to attend to our own needs leaves little room for the construction of a false self – although we usually try, or at least we did. In this state, we are raw. We are who we are in all the glamour and awkwardness. Our emotions are real therefore the way we interact is very human and this can make other people uncomfortable.
The idea of this group came from two very real and accomplished working mothers. Kris has a background in law, leadership and organisational dynamics. Liz has a background in psychology, leadership and organisational dynamics, and we both experienced the struggles working women face each day. With our facilitation, GRA’s Working Mothers’ group is a way for working women to connect at a deeper level and explore the personal, organisational and societal structures that surround the issues relevant to working women. Please watch our first video and follow our blog on the Group Relations Australia website, Facebook and LinkedIn.