Being the “Hot Mess Mom” IRL Isn’t Nearly as Funny as the Movies Make It Seem

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A stressed, "hot mess mom" bends over a sink full of dishes with her head in her hands.
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I can still remember the shame I felt during my first year of parenthood, when I noticed a wet patch on my leg one day while holding my daughter, and realized I’d forgotten to change her diaper. For hours.

I mean, I was her MOM! How could I forget to do something as basic and essential as a diaper change?

I wish I could say it only happened the one time, or that it never happened with my son, several years later … but the truth is, I’d be lying.

Of course, that shame pales in comparison to what I felt many years later, when I showed up to my son’s kindergarten orientation night — only to learn it had taken place two days prior. I immediately asked the office staff why there hadn’t been phone call reminders, and the secretary was apologetic, saying she couldn’t understand why no one had called me.

But then she looked up my son’s name and saw that I’d RSVP’d “yes” several months before. I’d just forgotten the date and time.

As I walked away with tears in my eyes, feeling like a total failure as a parent, I couldn’t help but think those same staff members must have been shaking their heads and rolling their eyes once I left. After all, it’s not like that was the first time I’d messed up at my kids’ school.

In some ways, though, none of this should have come as that big of a surprise. Almost 20 years ago, a psychiatrist assessed me for ADD (now commonly referred to as ADHD), and ultimately came to the conclusion that I had at least a mild version.

There was a time when I fully embraced the ‘bad mom’ persona … Caring a little less about being perfect was what saved my sanity. For a little while.
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At the time, I decided to say no to medication and try my best to cope, which was a successful strategy for a while — until my kids came along. It was one thing to manage my own life, but once I added another into the mix, and then another, it became clear pretty quickly that this would be a challenge.

There was a time when I fully embraced the “bad mom” persona. I read the blog posts with Pinterest-worthy activities, tried them out with my kids, and got mad at myself for bothering when I saw the clean-up that was necessary. I’d let them eat macaroni and cheese instead of sneering at the homemade chicken nuggets I would otherwise spend forever making to just then throw out.

Caring a little less about being perfect was what saved my sanity. For a little while.

But the problem is, as my kids grew older I noticed that I wasn’t just caring less about being perfect — I had no idea how to keep track of the most basic things. I soon realized that this wasn’t actually about embracing the “hot mess mom” persona that Hollywood has been glorifying for years now. When those moms messed up, the movie ended before everyone saw the true repercussions. Me? I got a front row to seat to those repercussions every single day.

Nellemarie Hyde, a Toronto mom of two kids, 11 and 14, can relate.

“I feel so bad every time I am late, or my kid is late, or I forget to call the school when my kid is sick, or I forget I have a dental appointment, or I forget I have a client at 9 AM (and I am still in my bathrobe when I get the call at 9:15),” she tells me. ” … but no matter how damn hard I try, organization and time management still seem to evade me.”

If we were to see a character in a movie express this type of shame and regret, the moment of redemption wouldn’t be an improvement in her serial tardiness — it would be a night of drinking to forget about trying to be perfect.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem at all with cutting ourselves a little slack. What I’m tired of seeing though, is this fantasy scene as the solution to someone’s problems.

“This mom keeps messing up and letting down her kid! Don’t worry, messed-up mom! Go out with your friends and drink your worries away, it will all work itself out!”

But that’s not how life actually works. Real moms wake up with a hangover and the same problems that need to be solved as the day before.

“As a mom [with ADD] raising a kid with ADD, it often feels like the blind leading the blind,” Hyde told me. “How can I teach her structure, routine, time management … if I can’t figure it out myself?”

Those are great questions; ones I have often asked myself. My daughter appears to have some kind of attentional deficit, though we’re still in the early stages of her assessment. Her struggles last year in 1st grade and my struggles to keep on top of permission forms, applying sunscreen every morning, brushing her hair, and even getting her to go pee before leaving for school have reminded me of my own diagnosis that I’d let go untreated for years.

My friends and I often joke about it. They all reassure me these are common struggles; that I’m doing a great job. But inside, I feel like I’m failing my kids nearly every single day.

I’m far from alone, though. According to a British study from 2011, 45% of parents of children with ADHD showed symptoms of the disorder themselves. Add to this the fact that only 1% of the research on ADHD has been female-specific, and it’s easy to understand why there are moms like me feeling like disorganized failures without truly knowing why. So often, we’re taught that ADHD has more to do with hyperactivity and paying attention that the idea of staring off into space for a second (that turns into 10 minutes) or always being late doesn’t feel like the same thing.

Cindy Jobs, a certified Organizer Coach and the owner of Organize to Simplify, has some great tips to help parents who struggle with some of the same classic symptoms Hyde and I do — whether or not they have ADHD.

For those of us who are constantly late, Jobs says that “understanding why … is key to breaking the cycle.”

“Connecting to important events, identifying key transition points, and creating support structures to remind us of those transitions will go a long way to being more available and reliable,” she shares with me via email.

Plus, there’s the issue of getting yourself (and your kids) out the door on time.

What’s really concerning to me is a lack of understanding by professionals — still — who will misdiagnose women especially as having depression and miss the ADHD.
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“There are many reasons my clients express for not being able to get out the door on time,” Jobs explains, “but most of the time it is a misunderstanding about how long things take … When we underestimate our processes, we start the day late and stressed.”

Terry Matlen, a psychotherapist and author of the book The Queen of Distraction, shared her insight with me, too.

“What’s really concerning to me is a lack of understanding by professionals — still — who will misdiagnose women especially as having depression and miss the ADHD,” she told me over the phone. “They see a woman coming in fatigued, overwhelmed, crying, depressed, and that is all they see and that’s what they treat. And the women aren’t getting better. They’re on antidepressants, they’re in therapy, and maybe it gets a little better, but the crucial problem is not being addressed, and that’s the ADHD.”

Matlen’s advice for moms who are struggling is surprisingly simple: First, she suggests making time for daily cardiovascular activity, which has been reported to help ADHD symptoms. Second, try incorporating some mindfulness meditation, to help calm your scattered mind. It may seem challenging, Matlen says, but there are many different types of meditation.

“Mindfulness meditation is just being mindful of what you’re doing in the moment,” she notes.

And finally, take advantage of online communities dedicated to moms who are struggling with the same problems. Not everyone can afford a private ADHD coach, but groups of women who support each other can make all the difference.

The bottom line is, when you’re a parent struggling with time management, organization, or literally just getting your kids from Point A to Point B without forgetting a million things along the way, the day-to-day hustle is hard. We don’t all need to be perfect PTA moms, but we also don’t need to continue feeling ashamed for forgetting when our kid’s permission forms are due.

There’s help for us; we just need to look in the right places.

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