Kicking mum-stress into touch!
What has talking about mum-stress got to do with photography, I bet you’re asking yourself. Well, it has as much to do with photography, especially family portrait photography, as it has to do in any walk of life, and as a working Mum, I have to deal with a good helping of stress and anxiety. But more than that, I can see the effects of stress when I look at mums through the lens of my camera: tautness about the edges of they eyes, stiffness in the way they carry their bodies, in the slope of their shoulders or the way they hold their heads up. Stress shows in your jawline and around the lips. You might use great concealer to hide the shadows under your eyes, and a glowing highlighter powder to your cheekbones to disguise the exhaustion of dragging around all that stress, but it still lurks around you.
So, let’s have a good go at beating that Mum-stress this Mother’s Day! Here are some thoughts that will help you really enjoy the start of spring, to pass onto your Mum-friends, and to help you feel relaxed and totally comfortable in front of the camera for all those Mother’s Day photo portraits you’re going to treat yourself to. Because, as they say on the adverts, “you’re totally worth it”!
I’m going to start by giving you the context. I am a mum, a working mum and a rugby mum – pretty much in that order. My stress comes from me (I am a born worrier!), from juggling all the things I need to do involving kids, school, rugby practice, rugby matches, rugby laundry (they get so muddy!), rugby events….and growing my freelance photography business. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids, my life and my photography, but like most mums, I have a tendency to try to do more than either I need to or ought to. So, I have started to learn to manage those things that cause me stress – life is too short and can be far too much fun to let stress spoil living! Here’s what I try to do to keep my mum-stress on an even keel:
Learn your stress signs
We all have our own ways of experiencing and expressing stress. My own Mum would get irritable very quickly so when she snapped at me and my siblings over every little thing, we’d know she was stressed (there were six of us and she was a working mum so it happened a fair bit!). I start to buzz. I know it sounds odd but that’s how it feels: I start to speak faster and work faster, my brain starts to think several things at once and I start multitasking like fury, and then I feel exhausted with a headache and often stomach ache too. I think I also get a bit irritable – the kids only have to take one look at my face and they know…!
Take a bit of time to observe yourself. When you are feeling stressed, just pause and think about how you are behaving or feeling at exactly that moment in time. If you can relate your physical feelings to a situation that is causing you stress, then you will be able to watch out for the signs. This will then help you to tackle the stress before it becomes overwhelming.
Learn your stress triggers
Once you know the signs that you are stressed, you can start working on observing the triggers, those things that start off that cycle of stress. We all worry about similar things – money, health, security. But some of us react more strongly than others to certain things: going to work meetings, public speaking, travelling, speaking to figures of authority. So find the things that make your heart thump, or give you that sinking feeling of worry, things that you are going to have to step up to deal with whether you want to or not. And don’t fret that these things might seem trivial – if they cause you a stress reaction, they are not trivial to you. Thinks like: trails of mud from ruby boots across the kitchen floor; sweaty kit on the floor instead of in the laundry basket; a glitch in the internet which might mean I can’t get on with editing photos; the car not starting when the kids are running late for school; any unexpected bill….actually there’s lots! But find your triggers because then you can also work on ways to reduce the stress that those triggers cause.
Take Time Out
So as a mum you give your kids time out to calm down and then come back to deal with whatever situation was causing a meltdown. Same for you. Give yourself the right to take your own time out. Hand the kids over to your partner, take a day off work while they’re at school, ask a friend or neighbour to baby sit for a couple of hours. Then pamper yourself. Book time to loll about in PJs and read or watch your favourite shows after a long soak in a scented bath; give yourself a manicure and pedicure; cook yourself your favourite meal and enjoy, savouring every uninterrupted mouthful. You spend most of your day looking after other people, but if you don’t look after yourself as well, you won’t be fit enough to care for them properly.
And if you’ve booked a portrait photography or family photograph session, make sure you plan ahead, have everything for the shoot ready (clothes, props, accessories etc) well in advance and then take some time out that evening to just unwind. You will feel and look so much better for it!
Okay, so this is something I definitely need to work on. Simple biology – when you exercise, you release hormones that help you relax. It also gets rid of those ‘fight or flight’ hormones that cause the feelings of stress: the pounding heart, the shortness of breath. So a bit of exercise every day will help. I know it’s hard to fit it into a busy day, especially if you have a large or very young family, or if you are a working mum or single parent. But you can usually fit in some extra physical activity and make it part of your routine. Try parking a bit further away from school and walk that last ten or fifteen minutes to the playground. Or get off the bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way. Make time to take the kids for a swim or a run or a bike ride as often as possible. Or pair up with a friend, dust down your bike and cycle to your place of work. Or try an app that helps you exercise in short bursts at home. You’ll feel and look better for it.
Yes, I know we all do it, but when we are stressed our breathing tends to be more shallow and we don’t get the benefit of enough oxygen. Oxygen makes our brains and bodies function better. Learn some breathing exercises. Use these to calm yourself in moments of high anxiety. Not only will a few minutes of slow deep breathing help you to become calm, it will also help you think through what is going on in your life that is causing so much stress.
Make a little bit of time every single day for decompressing
Decompressing is like letting the steam out of a pressure cooker a little at a time. Half an hour decompressing before your own bedtime can make all the difference between a good night’s sleep (which means the morning rush is easier to deal with) and a night of waking up every hour worrying about something. Create a routine of time to just relax doing the things you love to do – listen to music, read a book, draw, sew, jigsaw puzzle, make a matchstick model…I like embroidery; it can take months to finish a piece, but a little every evening goes a long way to helping all those worries just dissolve as I concentrate on the stitches and the coloured threads).
You can, if your routine permits, do something similar in the middle of the day. Just like a tea break at work keeps you energised and going, so a half hour decompressing helps you to gather up some energy for the rest of the day’s tasks – like supper time, bath and bedtime chaos! Mid afternoon, just before I pick the kids up from school, I like nothing better than to stop, have a cuppa and do a crossword. It makes me focus for half an hour and think about something else other than work and chores.
Plan ahead and organise
A good deal of mum-stress comes at specific times, like the school run or meal times. Being organised before hand helps so much: always having the car keys in the same place, having your phone charged overnight, getting school clothes and packed lunches ready the night before, and sharing tasks on a family rota for older kids and your partner are all tactics that help. Think about each of your ‘fever pitch’ moments in your day and find ways of relieving the causes of your stress.
The same goes for big events, like a family birthday party or a job interview. And never be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. Most of us are so caught up in our own lives we genuinely don’t see the stress building up in the lives of those around us, but when we are asked for help, we are more than happy to give it. So when you need a helping hand, reach out!
Don’t even ask yourself if I would mind your bringing a friend to help out at the photo shoot – if she or he is there to support you and help out, then great! And if it means you are relaxed, enjoying yourself and looking great in front of the camera, then even better.
Take time to laugh
That’s not always easy, but make sure you smile at people on your way to work or have a ‘telling jokes session’ with the kids on the school run. You might feel like you are having to paint it on but the more you do it, the more spontaneous it becomes. And like exercise, smiling simply automatically makes you feel better. It also means that you will smile more readily and more naturally for the camera! Everyone, but everyone, has a beautiful smile. Smiling lights up the face, sprinkles sparkles into the eyes in a way that no amount of high end make up, good lighting and photo editing can! Smile lots, laugh more and your photos will be stunning!
Reach out for help
Sometimes we need extra help. We’re only human, we can only cope with so much. There is never ever any shame in asking for help. For some reason, society seems to expect mums to be good at everything, but we are mums not Superwoman! Find a support group nearby, build up your social contacts – perhaps mother and toddlers groups or through a parents’ association at school, or in the workplace. Keep close to your friends and family. And don’t forget, we might need to ask for help one day, but when that help makes us strong, we will be there to help those that need us another day.
Mum-stress is real, especially when you’ve just had your baby and all those hormones and conflicted feelings are flooding your body. I hope my tips help; I want all my mum clients and friends to love every minute of every day this spring!
As for me, I am so lucky that I work doing something I absolutely love and doesn’t feel like work. And I’m going to be taking my own advice this spring and when the kids are at rugby, I’m going to head for the pool for a long, relaxing swim. Afterwards, they can sort out the laundry and learn to clean their own boots while I organise my work equipment. And then all those photography sessions will be a breeze – for me and all those mums!
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Jessica Richardson Photography
Medway, Maidstone and Kent