I can’t count the number of articles I’ve seen this year discussing the difficulty of motherhood. I’ve even written about it myself, so I absolutely understand the need to feel like you’re not alone in your struggles.
It can feel really good to be validated and hear someone else say, “Yes! It is so hard for me too!” We shouldn’t keep silent when we are having a hard time, and I’m happy that we feel like we can collectively exhale and admit our struggles. But I worry about how this could quickly become a negativity trap.
There’s a difference in acknowledging that there are dark days and deciding to dwell in the dark.
Saying “Yes, this can be difficult, but I’ve got this” is profoundly different than being stuck in “Ugh, this is so hard. I can’t even.” I think we need to be really careful to not cross the line from acknowledging to complaining, because research in neuroscience tells us that complaining quite literally damages our brains.
A study at has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus which is an area critical for long-term memory and emotional responses. Complaining also releases cortisol which can affect your mood, blood pressure, blood sugar and immune system, just to name a few.
Neuroscience teaches us that “neurons that fire together wire together.” What this means is that each time you complain, it’s going to be easier to complain again because your brain will create a pathway. The more you complain, the more you will feel like complaining, and the more negative you will become until darkness is your reality.
It doesn’t just affect you and your health. Much like second-hand smoke, complaining affects everyone who hears you, thanks to a process called neuronal mirroring. Our brains unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, which has probably been evident to you if you’ve ever been in a group with a downer. You can almost feel the energy drain away.
Jeffrey Lohr, psychology professor at the University of Arkansas says that venting anger is similar to “emotional farting” in an enclosed area. Yikes. On the other hand, spend a little time with a happy, positive person, and you feel happier and more positive yourself.
But wait, you’re probably thinking. Isn’t it good to vent sometimes? Not necessarily. The more you talk about your problems, the more emotionally charged they become. Let me introduce you to the term experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Each experience causes neurons in your brain to switch on and fire.
Karen Young of Hey Sigmund writes , “Every time we have an experience, the corresponding neurons are activated. Every time they are activated, they are elevated a little in the order of importance. Everything you experience will alter the physical structure of your brain in some way. The things you do, the people you spend time with, every feeling, thought, and automatic experience will influence the wiring of your brain to make you who you are and to influence who you can become.”
It’s just like the saying goes—what you focus on grows.
We have a choice as to how we perceive our motherhood experience. By constantly complaining about how hard parenting is, we are setting ourselves up to keep seeing and feeling the difficulties.
Here are two remedies for a happier motherhood:
1. Move quickly from complaining to problem-solving.
If you find yourself discussing with your partner or friend (or a random stranger) about how hard motherhood is, move to find a solution so that you don’t stay there. If you’re struggling because you are sleep deprived, brainstorm ways to get more rest. If overwhelm is the problem, work together to lift the load. Don’t remain stuck. There is too much to be grateful for, which brings me to my second remedy.
Yes, the simple act of looking for and appreciating the things in your life that you have to be grateful for is a powerful cure for complaining. Here’s happy news—just as negative thoughts rewire your brain to be negative, positive thoughts rewire your brain to be positive! You can create new pathways by looping thoughts about what you have to be grateful for. You’ll quickly feel a lift in mood and happiness, and your joy will be contagious to others.