'She's wearing the noise-cancelling headphones': 10 signs mum's about to lose it.

It seems to come out of the blue. 

One day we’re running a well-oiled machine. The kids get up on time, eat breakfast with no complaints, happily march off to school, and come home to a spotless house. We all enjoy snacks and dinner which have been expertly planned and prepared.

The next, the machine has broken down in the way of a cartoon buggy — springs poinging in one direction; gears rolling off in another — and now the simple act of preparing breakfast and lunch in the mornings feels Herculean in its might, everyone is eating crackers and anchovies for dinner, and all available surfaces are covered with soiled clothing, dirty dishes, and half-finished art projects.

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The increasing lack of control we are able to exert over the outside factors that control our lives bubbles up little by little until steam hisses out our ears and fire pours from our throats.

From the outside it might look sudden, but inside we know it’s been building for some time. This week, it feels especially imminent.

If you’re wondering if the primary caregiver in your home is suffering from the kind of anxiety which may cause her* top to blow at any moment, never fear. Fortunately, there are warning signs that such an explosion is coming…

  1. She is wearing those huge noise-canceling headphones she got the baby for his first concert.

The constant barrage of noise in the house has set Mum’s nerve endings on fire. Whether it’s the dog barking, the kids bickering, the doorbell ringing, the blender blending, or the oven beeping, Mum is surrounded by ruckus 24/7. The sound becomes less and less easy to manage the more anxious she’s feeling. If small sounds are setting her off, it’s best to turn on some soothing instrumental music and go read a book in another room. And take everyone else with you, kthanksbye.

  1. She is wearing a sign which says, “Please address all questions, concerns, and (especially) complaints to someone who is not mum.”

The average mum hears her “name” approximately 68 million times per day. Sometimes it fades into the background noise. When she’s already teetering on the brink of insanity, though, hearing her name for the 68,000,001st time might just send her over the edge. This includes variations on Mum such as “Mama” and “Mummy,” though the latter, said with a certain intonation and well-placed puppy dog eyes, is capable of softening her momentarily.

  1. Her shoulders have taken up residence just above her earlobes.

Warning: This does not mean you should touch them. In this escalated state, even a well-intentioned gesture such as a shoulder rub could spell catastrophe. Just let her finish what she’s doing, and book a massage for her while you stay home with the kids tomorrow.

  1. Her voice begins to sound less like her and more like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

They say repetition is the mother of all learning. But when the request for the kids to put on clothing so guests don’t think we house a bunch of feral children (regardless of whether or not we actually do) needs to be repeated for the forty-second time, don’t be surprised if she recruits the demon for the job. It’s easy to avoid meeting the demon if everyone just complies with requests the first time they’re made.

  1. She makes unhealthy decisions she wouldn’t normally make.

Did your level-headed partner just pick a fight with you for no reason? Did your typically conscientious mate just scarf down five slices of pizza and wash them down with half a cake and a 2-litre bottle of coke? These are signs she’s not able to control her impulses at the moment the way she can under normal circumstances. Offer her a glass of water, a smoothie, or something nice to munch. You might also offer to take over whatever she’s stressed herself out trying to do.

  1. You can’t remember the last time you saw her drink some water or go into the bathroom.

In fact, she’s been in the kitchen since before you woke up this morning. It’s probably not best to go commenting on her bathroom habits, but filling a tumbler with a cold beverage and thrusting it in her direction will help with the self-care that she doesn’t feel able to take right now.

  1. She offers to go places to pick up things you don’t need.

“We’ve only got two cases of paper towel left. I’d better pop to the shops. While I’m out, I’ll just go to Kmart for a sec. Anyone want a coffee? Snacks?”

Just let her go. She’ll be back before the house falls apart.

  1. She reacts majorly to minor setbacks.

When anxiety has reached its critical point and the lid of the pot is rattling with escaping steam, anything that does not go exactly according to the plan can feel absolutely devastating. From missing a phone call, to dropping a raw egg on the kitchen floor and needing to clean it up, these small obstacles can feel like one more thing on an already full plate. Offer to clear the hurdle for her, so she can continue down the list.

  1. Once the to-do list is complete, she still can’t relax.

There’s nothing like the guilt a parent (especially, I think, an at-home parent) feels being idle. There is quite literally always something to do, even when you’ve finally accomplished the task you’ve spent most of your day on. Offer her a drink, or a cup of coffee, or ask her about something she enjoys that has nothing to do with her children. Suggest she go for a walk and take over for the afternoon.

  1. She cries for “no reason.”

There’s definitely a reason. Likely, it’s the fact that she feels overwhelmed and thinks that any time spent talking about that fact will be time she doesn’t have to do all the things that are overwhelming her. It could also be the fact that, due in part to her silence on the matter, the people for whom she does most of these things have no idea how overwhelming and energy-consuming they are.


Or, maybe it’s the fact that she’s realising she spent so much time doing for everyone else that she ran out of time for herself. Again.

Tell her you appreciate her. Tell her your family would be lost without her. Thank her for all she does to keep the machine going, even when springs and gears are flying all over the place. And then give her the time and the space to go do something for herself.

At-home parents, stay strong. Schedule some time for yourself every chance you get. Press the release valve and let some steam escape, and take a deep breath before they come calling.

Take care of yourself for a moment, so that you can care for everyone else for the rest of the day.

*Anyone can be a primary caregiver! I use feminine pronouns due to this article’s connection with my own experience as a mum.

Feature Image: Getty.

This article was originally published on Medium. It has been edited and republished with full permission.

Nikki is a career educator from Massachusetts, USA. She’s passionate about social and educational equity as well as children’s rights and mental health empowerment. When she’s not writing at the local independent coffee house, she can be found lifting weights, playing fetch with her pup, or trying her wits at an escape room. She lives with her partner and children just outside Boston. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @NikkiKayAuthor.