May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, so I've relaunched my "Momma Interviews" series--This time with an extra special set of moms. These mommas also work to support other moms and their families during the transition into new parenthood and beyond. I'm calling it the "Expert Edition", but I think you'll find that while these women definitely are experts in their work, parenthood has a way of making a beginner out of everybody. Even experts get surprised by the unexpected and learn new bits of wisdom while in the trenches!
This series is all about their experiences with motherhood, in the hopes that it provides you with some validation and new tips to try. Because for all the many different ways there are to be a mom (and there are definitely MANY ways to do it right), it's so amazing how much we moms all really have in common.
Mommas, I'm so excited to share this interview with Jo Muirhead with you! If you need to hear a fresh new perspective on motherhood, here it is. Jo is a working mom to her 16-year old son, has lived through divorce and postpartum depression, and has come out the other side with such a beautiful connection to her son and her family. I love the way she was able to follow her convictions and her gut even in the most trying of times, and her discovery that family is a choice to show up for the ones you choose to love is so refreshing. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Scroll down to watch the interview, read the transcript or learn more about Jo.
Watch the Video:
Catherine: Hello, I'm Catherine O'Brien at happywithbaby.com, and I'm here today with Jo Muirhead, career loving mom who didn't expect motherhood to be this way.
I'm excited that she's here today. She participated and wrote a blog for me last year, which was amazing, and I got amazing feedback for it. You should see the link below to look at that. That was such a great post that you shared Jo. I'm excited to talk to you today. I'm excited for you to share your motherhood story with everybody.
Let's start out with an easy question. What's your relationship status now? Where are you at? And how many children do you have? What your special family makeup?
Jo: It does feel like special family makeups? I'm married again. I'm married for the second time. I'm now married to John who is not my son's father. We've been married for six years, so that's pretty cool. My son was 10 when we got married, and he's now 16. I have one child. John has three adult children.
Yes, a different way of doing family. It feels different. Not at all what I expected when I was in my 20's.
Catherine: I think that's like so many ... I feel like there's no normal family, right? We all have special makeups that make our family special.
Here's my question and I feel I know you will have a lot to say about this. How do you balance [crosstalk 00:01:56]. Balance is an interesting word, and I know you have a lot to say about that, so that's why I'm excited to ask about that. How do you balance being a mom, working and then your relationship roles?
Jo: Oh god, okay. I do have a lot to say about this. I think I've been in a pursuit of balance ever since I was about 12, not being a particularly balanced personality. I'm a very much all or nothing person. In the old scale of things I'm your very typical type a) overachieving, lots of things going on at once. I will often state my opinions as though they are a fact. Then expect everybody to agree with me. Just the way I'm gifted in the way I'm wired doesn't lend itself to balance. If balance means everything is equal and has a proportion of my time and energy.
What I've actually learned works better for me is to learn about my energy, learn about when I'm at my best. Making sure that my son, my husband, my relationship and my work, I'm very passionate about my work, that they have the best of me at that time. I think for years I, especially when I was a single mom, I was working 60-70 hour weeks. I was commuting a long way. Anthony, my son, was in day care from 7 to 7 on the days he was with me. He hasn't lived with me full time since he was two because we chose to do shared care that way. I was working so hard. In the weekends I would usually have a migraine, and he learned that work made mommy sick. It wasn't until I got into this new relationship that I went, "I haven't got anything to give."
I really had to go on this uncomfortable exploration of what balance means for me. I prefer to think of balance being well integrated. I have this much energy in a day. All of these things need to have my energy and attention, and I want to make sure they get my energy and attention. There are some days when I have to call quits at 5 o'clock in the afternoon saying, "No more work," because I'm cooking dinner, and then making sure that I've time after dinner to relate. That's how we do relationship keep because everyone is a bit busy. 16 year old is different to 6. Just putting that out there.
Catherine: But sometimes more needy, is what I've heard anyway?
Jo: Yeah. It's actually quite nice because I think you build relationships with your teenage children, whereas you were shooing them as much younger children. I know for me I look forward to Anthony coming home from work or from school or from whatever he's been. It's expected that we talk about, "What have you been doing today? And what's been going on for you today?" Instead of just the taxi mom questions, "Can you take me here? Can you take me there?" I often get questions like "So what did you do that was worthwhile for you today Mom? And did you help anybody today? And what's going on with that project that you've got happening?" You don't have those conversations with six-year-olds.
Catherine: That's cool.
Jo: With a 16 going 17 year old you can. I just enjoy it. I really do. I must admit I didn't do the whole newborn thing very well. I didn't like that.
Catherine: That's okay, every stage isn't for everybody. Okay so curiously-
Jo: I'm happy to be pregnant, give birth but I'll have them when they are three.
Catherine: Yeah. You're not the first person that I've heard say that by any means.
Catherine: My next question is most mom's I speak to say their moments when they're ready to throw in the towel. Can you describe a time when you felt this way and how you got through it?
Jo: Yes, I can think of a couple of incidents where I wanted to throw in the towel. Anthony wasn't a tantrummy kid. His family life got disrupted at quite a young age. He doesn't remember his father and I and him all living together. He was around two when we separated. I remember I was on my own, he was just not having a good day, and I didn't understand that he was not having a good day. He was tantrummy. We would call it a tantrummy. He was screaming and banging his fists. ... No, he would have been four maybe. I ended up locking him in his bedroom because I'm like, "I'm going to hurt you or hurt myself or somebody is going to get hurt," because I don't know what this is and all there is, is this emotion. I had to put this door between us as a bit of protection.
It only ever happened once. I sat by the door. I could hear my son distressed and I just didn't know what to do. That was hard. I didn't know who to talk to. I certainly couldn't talk to his father about it. That's where I'm crap, I'm horrible. I'm awful. I don't deserve this great little person in my life. Then you spiral out of control there.
The separation with his father wasn't easy for any of us. It was something unexpected by his dad. It was the best thing now that could have happened. I was being accused of being such a poor mother and a poor role model. There was discussion that I was unfit because I had a history of post natal depression. That time for me was "I'm not good enough, I can't do this, so maybe my son needs to be elsewhere. Maybe someone else should care for him. Maybe I'm not cut out for this thing called motherhood." That was probably throwing in the towel.
How did I get through it? I think the inherent belief I knew that the relationship I had with Anthony's father was bad and it was bad for everyone. It was bad for me. It was bad for dad, and it was bad for Anthony. I didn't want him growing up thinking that the way his father and I related was love. I kept coming back to that conviction, that okay if I knew I could make that decision and knew that was the right decision then surely I know what to do next.
For a long time, it feels very foggy now. I do think I was coming back to that, what do I want to teach my son?
Catherine: Right. Wow. Yeah.
Jo: That made sense to you good.
Catherine: Yeah. No, sometimes it is like one thing, right? Like we can do one thing different, because I think it can be overwhelming when you look at everything.
Jo: Yeah and oh my God the comparison. That's recently come up for me again. I don't think anyone is immune to that. I hadn't had it for years. You see all these other people who look like they've got it together. Seriously I remember taking Anthony to his day carer with nothing but a nappy on and just went "Deal with it" and walked away. That wasn't a good morning obviously.
You see all these other people, everybody is dressed and pressed and hairs done and makeups done, and the house is immaculate. You never run out of fuel, and there is always nutritious food in the fridge, and no one ever eats junk food ever. I can't live up to that. That isn't me.
Catherine: A lot of us can't live up to that. We all have our gifts. We all have our unique gifts, right? Sometimes that's not where it lies.
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed, overstretched or less then?
Jo: To be honest, I escape by going to sleep.
Catherine: Yeah. Then you wake up feeling like "Okay now I can do this. I needed a break until now."
Jo: Yeah. It's usually I needed a time out from all of the emotional stimulation. My thoughts are usually racing. I'm usually fatigued when I get to that point anyway. I'm overstretched. Sometimes it's 20 minutes, sometimes it's three hours. It's just a matter of interrupting that cycle for myself.
I know in previous incarnations of this life overwhelmed would mean I would go for a run or I'd go do a boot camp, which was great for the happy endorphins in my head, but it really didn't help. All it did was made me pursue more, do more, pursue more, do more. I needed to break that cycle. That's not healthy for me.
Catherine: Yeah. That's great that you could recognize that. You started talking about this, but my next question is I've had parents tell me one of the hardest things about being a parent is the comparisons and judgments from other parents. How do you cope with that?
Jo: It's all in my head. I caught the comparisons when I chose to leave my marriage, "Good Christian girls don't do that." I got that the whole time. I lived in a fairly small community, and my mother-in-law's friends would change the side of the road they walked on to avoid me. It was fairly in your face ugly stuff.
When Anthony was little, social media was only just starting out. I don't think I had as much in my face as what I think new moms have to put up with today and need to learn to filter out. I think that was helpful. It was more ... copping it from my mom and grandmother just in terms of what they did, "You get the baby up, and you wash the baby by 10 a.m. and then by 12 a.m. it's doing this and by 1 p.m. it's doing this and 5 p.m. your husband comes home and the house is immaculate and everybody is happy." I don't think that happened once.
Catherine: Yeah. Me and my husband are still waiting for that to happen.
Jo: The comparison not just for me back when Anthony was really young was coming from family relationships in the way everybody thought it should be done. Recently ... We've got an exchange student staying with us. I met her family last year. Her mom stays at home and looks after the family. They have a beautiful home. Mom does everything for everyone. For the first week that this gorgeous girl was with us, I felt like I had to do the same thing.
Catherine: Oh yeah. How did that go?
Jo: I don't think I slept because I was so wired. I didn't change anything. I didn't evaporate anything away. I just did more. I did all the meal prep, all the food prep, all of the washing. I was just like "Brr, yeah." That lasted a week. Then I went, "What is feeding this?" And she's fine. She's having a great time. Silly, in my head.
Catherine: Right. A lot of it is in our head what we think other people might be thinking. In fact, I was talking to a mom the other day. All of a sudden she's explaining the way her child was dressed. I didn't even think anything, and I thought "Oh I remember doing that." I know I do that sometimes even still, where its like I think other people are going to think a certain thing about how my kid is acting. Or how they're ... You know, all of a sudden you're like "Oh they didn't get much sleep last night because of dah dah dah. They don't normally act like this." Most of the time people are probably are not because I wasn't thinking anything about how her baby was dressed. I found it interesting. I know we do that. I know I do that. I know other people do that. I think a lot of it is in our heads.
What do you think your greatest personal struggle with your experience of motherhood? I guess maybe you shared some of that already, but I don't know if there's-
Jo: Expectations I think ... What I perceived everyone's expectations of me to be. What I thought my expectations ... I had really high expectations of being a mom. I thought I was going to have three children. A white picket fence and master's degree by the time I was 30. Instead, I had one child, a divorce, and a property settlement. I lasted six weeks in academia. I just did not cope well with that. It was a whole redefining of myself.
The biggest struggle ... The depression doesn't help ... I'll just put it out there. Not knowing ... Motherhood is hard. It's a beautiful gift, but it's hard. Having a depression when you don't know the gift of motherhood without it, is just like the black hole that I talked about in blog post. That's not the reason why I chose to not have more children. I chose not to have more children because I don't want to have more children. I'm not scared of the depression or anything. I just think that whole blackness and the scales that feel like they're in front of your eyes. You just feel like you are moving through mud every day. Everything becomes difficult. Then all these expectations that your child is fed. Your child is bathed and it's bathed at this time. It's wearing these clothes. It has this immunization. It's made these milestone gains. Your husband is happy, and there is wine uncorked on the table.
The best advice I ever got was "If you and your baby are fed today, then you've done a good thing."
Catherine: Yeah, our basic needs, right?
Jo: Yeah, that was it. Once I started to believe that that was okay, things got a little easier. Depression didn't lift, but it was the functional task that's all I needed to do today. It actually made things harder in that marriage, but it worked for me.
Catherine: Yeah. I could see that happening. What's something that has surprised you about being a mom? Maybe something you realize you'd enjoy or something you didn't know babies or kids did. Something that you didn't know could bring you so much joy.
Jo: Something that totally surprises [crosstalk 00:17:13] you is they become the mirror. The first thing is little people are mirrors of you. Don't be surprised when you're listening or watching your child, and you're going "Oh that's me." They'll point their finger at you and or something, and you go "Holy crap, don't do me to me. That's not fun." Wow, is that what I look like. That's a horrible thing.
Catherine: I don't know where they learn that.
Jo: Yeah. For me the most surprising thing ... Like many parents of teenagers, I was told that it gets tough and it gets hard. It gets awkward, and it gets weird. I haven't experienced any of that. I feel like I fall in love with my son every week again. Amazed at the young man he is becoming and wants to be. I'm excited by his future and the way he has built an incredible relationship with his dad that doesn't rely on his dad and I getting on. His dad and I function okay. We respect each other now, but he's grown into "This is my dad and how I relate to my dad. This is mom and how I relate to my mom. If I need them both to do something, then I'll orchestrate that, and they will help me with that." I think that's been a real pleasure.
He's not a secretive kid. My husband and I, John and I, who's Anthony's stepdad we've always had to rely on Anthony being honest with us. We can't control everything. If Anthony does something that breaches trust, we talk about that, and we bring that up. That really hurts, but it goes both ways. If Anthony feels like I've broken his trust, then he knows to bring that up with me, and we talk about that. Despite the fact, that's really ugly and uncomfortable. It's helped create this foundation in our relationship. I think we truly believe that we've got each other's back.
If anyone has seen the size of Anthony he's huge, so you want him on your side.
Catherine: I need him to like me. He's bigger than me.
Jo: Yeah, pretty much. If anyone is going to be mean you [inaudible 00:19:40] take up arms against you.
Catherine: Yeah, Yeah.
Jo: Cool. Does that answer your question? What was the question anyway?
Catherine: Yeah, it did. It almost answers maybe my next question, which is how has your relationship with your partner changed? Or how has it stayed the same? I know you are not a partner with your ex anymore, but you're still a partner as a parent. Now you have John as well, so that's another dynamic as well.
Jo: We've all had to learn as we go. There is no rule book for co-parenting. If there is I hadn't read it. If someone wants to write one that would be pretty awesome.
Jo: I guess because Anthony wasn't a new ... Oh, gee thanks.
Anthony was 10 when we got together, and there were other influences in his life, being his dad and what have you. I think how our relationship has changed or how it's stayed the same is building this common platform of "We don't know the answers here, so we need to make this work. We want family." One of the unique differences is Anthony, John and I all have a different surname. So most families will share a surname. The three of us actually have a different name. For me once I realized that was a unique thing that made us powerful. "We actually choose to be in this family guys, and there's no obligation here. No one has to be here." I think that for us was a real breaking open of "Hey, I choose you. I choose to have you in my life. I choose that you're my family." That was really empowering for me. I don't have to earn anything or perform. I could let go of all that, needing to perform in the family unit. Or be the person that made it all happen, because I took that on for years.
"Yeah, mummy guilt." I think that's allowed my relationship with John to grow deeper and more meaningful. We now have conscious conversations about his grandchildren and how we want them in our life. His children and how we want to have them in our life. Other people's children ... So we are hosting an exchange student. I guess for us this whole being parents or quasi-parents is actually a choice. We actually make the choice to do it.
I didn't realize that until I was preparing for this interview. That was quite profound. Thank you.
Catherine: Yeah, that is. How was your relationship with friends and your family and other support systems changed? Or how has it stayed the same? I guess it's probably changed a lot over the 16 years.
Jo: Yeah, it has changed. I have a couple of close friends that stick by you. I think everybody's got those ones that you learn to trust. You've got the ones that come and go for seasons. I think I had to learn the ones that were seasons and be okay with that. For me, because of my conviction about I had done the right thing. That helped my family get over what they perceived to be the shock of "Oh my God, there's a divorce in the family, and good Christian girls don't do that."
This is the best thing for Anthony. Everybody seemed to be very concerned about what was going to happen for Anthony and what was going to be going on for Anthony. Once I could assure them, and they could see, "Actually his life isn't going to be that interrupted and his father has got 80% custody because his father is best positioned to look after him and his father wants to do this." That's when it was like "But you're the mom, shouldn't you be doing this and blah blah blah." I'm like "Okay, I can't win."
Jo: "We aren't living together, so let's look at our options."
Catherine: Right, right.
Jo: Having people in your world who don't add anything to you well they are sucking things from you. We actually get to choose who we have in our life.
Catherine: Yeah. Good. What is the greatest lesson you've learned as a mom, so far?
Jo: I am the best mom for Anthony. I'm the best mom for him. There's no one that could be a better mom for him than me.
Jo: That's my gift.
Catherine: Awesome. I love that. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you as a mom?
Catherine: Okay, do you want to share it?
Jo: I will. It's, "I can do all things through the one who strengthens me." It's a biblical quote. If anyone needs the reference for it, we can put that in the show notes. "I can do all things through the one who strengthens me." That just makes me go "Okay I'm not in this alone."
Catherine: Yes. Absolutely, even if you don't have that religious background like I think that's true. We're not in this alone. There's support. There's people around. A higher power whatever. Okay, how about a favorite song that inspires you as a mom?
Jo: [laughter] It's actually Superwoman by Alicia Keys.
Catherine: Oh I love that.
Jo: I can't sing like her, and I certainly can't hold notes like her, but gee whizz when that goes on in the car, and I'm by myself, look out, I'm belting that out.
Catherine: Here's a question that's been recently added to my Momma interviews questions that I ask because I think it's fun. Is there you can't live without it gadget or product that has made mom life easier or better for you? I love the gadgets. Anything?
Jo: In terms of making mom life better for me. I'm a bit scared to reveal this. I had to schedule everything. When Anthony wasn't with me during the week, I would forget to communicate with him. Yeah I know, awful mother of year. So I would put an alarm on my phone, 7 p.m. call Anthony. Even if it was only for 30 seconds where it was "Yep fine. Yup, I'm fine mom," and that was the end.
Catherine: Which is a typical son conversation.
Jo: Yeah, it was for a while. It just helped me to know that I had connected with him and that he had connected with me.
As smartphones came along, we turned it into text messages and FaceTiming and things like that. For me, if it's not in my schedule it doesn't get done. I don't have any other magic gadget apart from I had to schedule when to remind myself to call my son.
Catherine: I tell parents that all the time. You have to schedule the meeting with your partner to make sure you're looking at each other's calendars, or you have to schedule in the date nights. I think when you have kids now you, you've got stuff you're doing. Your partner has stuff they're doing. Your kids have stuff that they're doing even from young ages. It's like these things aren't going to get done I think unless there are often put them in a schedule. I think that's a really good one.
Jo: Oh good.
Catherine: So final question.
Catherine: What's one piece of advice you would like to give other moms?
Jo: Okay, so "Mom, you are the best mom for your child, and no one else can do it the way you're going to doing it and that's exactly what your child needs."
Catherine: Awesome, I love it. That's perfect.
Jo: Yeah, good. Thank you Catherine.
Catherine: Thank you for joining us. I love your pearls of wisdom, and I think seeing that you have an older child and I know that a lot of people that follow my blog and stuff have younger kids, but I think it's nice to know what's down the road and how being a mom makes a difference later on. So thank you for sharing your story. I'm so glad that you could be here with us.
Jo: Oh, my pleasure. If I can just say as somebody who didn't understand postnatal depression. If there's anybody on this interview that's thinking, concerned about a friend or family member or themselves, please reach out. We have amazing resources these days that weren't around even 16 years ago. Please don't suffer in silence. You will do yourself a massive favor if you can even get some words put to whatever it is you're feeling. Sorry, Catherine if I've just usurped your interview.
Catherine: I love it. Thank you for that.
Jo: My pleasure. Thank you.
Catherine: Thank you. Bye.
About Jo Muirhead:
Jo is all about connecting people to purpose through inspiration and innovation. She is the Founder, Director and Principal Consultant of Purple Co, a team of specialist allied health consultants dedicated to helping people who experience injury illness and trauma reclaim their lives through work. Jo is passionate about the health benefits of work and truly believes that everyone has the right to meaningful and rewarding employment. Purple Co grew out of this belief as a truncated form of PURpose for peoPLE.
Jo and her team also provide a range of career development and coaching services to professionals who are ready to explore change in their career and find the map towards career fulfillment.
Jo is uber passionate about private practice. She loves to empower clinicians to build profitable and sustainable businesses through doing more of the work they love, the way they love to do it.
Jo also contributed this guest blog post in May 2016 for Maternal Mental Mental Health Month.
Connect with Jo: