Written by: The Circles Team

October 24, 2021

Today we’re putting the spotlight on Dr. Catherine Schmidt, a licensed clinical psychologist working with women and children in the San Francisco Bay Area. Additionally, Dr. Schmidt’s research explores the relationship between romantic attachment and stress during motherhood.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and why you decided to pursue psychology with a focus on women’s mental health?

I’m a licensed clinical psychologist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I help women improve their relationships, manage anxiety, and cultivate fulfilling lives. I’m also a wife and mom myself, so I know first-hand how complex being a woman can be!

One of the reasons I decided to pursue psychology was because of the profound experience I had going to therapy myself. There is something incredible about having dedicated time to slow down and have someone witness your story, listening with empathy, identifying patterns, and helping you build self-awareness and strength. It changed my life.

Also, I studied cultural anthropology in my undergrad and fell in love with how our cultural systems intersect with so much of our experience. How do we derive meaning? What informs our patterns and habits? How do the conditions we grow up in impact our existence? I didn’t realize it, but this was laying the foundation for me being in the mental health field.

I later realized these topics are a big part of therapy and mental health. Becoming a psychologist was a natural next step, and after completing my dissertation focusing on mothers, focusing on women’s mental health made perfect sense.

Your research explores the relationship between romantic attachment and stress during motherhood. Can you elaborate as to what you’ve found so far?

This was such a fascinating topic to explore! The biggest takeaway from the research – both previous studies as well as my own interviews – was just how important getting support is when trying to manage stress during motherhood.

Stress is what we experience when we perceive our challenges as being bigger or more powerful than the resources we have to deal with them. And what feels more overwhelming than creating and raising a tiny human while also trying to integrate them into your life?

Over and over again, mothers said in their interviews that tapping into their community and getting support from friends, family, and/or their partners (specific tasks such as meals or help with laundry, to more emotional support such as listening to them vent or providing advice) was the most impactful way to effectively mitigate stress.

But what’s interesting is who was able to tap into that resource of help and support.

Women that are more securely attached feel that their needs are valid and they anticipate their loved ones will respond with support and care. Intimacy feels safe, rather than uncomfortable and they end up reaching out for help (and subsequently lessening their stress upon getting support). This makes sense, right? If we feel worthy of attunement and care, we are more likely to identify we need help and advocate for it by reaching out.

Women that are more anxiously attached might be driven by insecurities or a fear of rejection and abandonment, whereas more avoidantly attached women might feel discomfort with intimacy and seek more independence. Both of these instances might not foster a sense of confidently reaching out for help with clarity and openness, and leave these women without the support they need to more effectively manage stress.

Women that presented with these attachment patterns didn’t receive as many resources (in the form of social support) as others and therefore didn’t have as many tools to manage parental stress.

So what real-life, actionable tips can we gain from this?

Support and help from people around us are some of the main ways we can manage stress during motherhood. There is zero shame in not being able to do this alone (none of us can!)

It’s helpful for us to understand the ways we relate to others – do relationships feel safe and do we anticipate that our needs will be met or not so much – and the way that impacts how we ask and receive help.

We don’t have to take drastic measures to try and manage our stress levels. Getting help in one area, allowing someone to bring a meal over or babysit for a little while, can have a huge impact on our overall mental health.

Our attachment styles are not static, meaning they grow and change based on the choices and relationships we are in. So just because expressing our needs or seeking help might not feel like the most comfortable thing at first, we can still take small steps towards accessing help and experiencing the stress-reducing benefits of that support.

How does stress during motherhood affect romantic attachment? What are ways to rectify this relationship?

Motherhood is an inherently stressful experience. Let’s normalize this! It is a drastic change in our physical body, our sleep, finances, hormones… every aspect of our life is touched by this. Of course, the way we are connecting with our partners is going to shift as well.

We remedy this by normalizing these changes and finding small opportunities to tend to ourselves and actively get support. Communicate what you are struggling with so your partner can join with you.

It’s helpful to know your patterns and meet them with compassion. For example, “I tend to just put my head down and want to do things on my own, but that’s going to leave me depleted and resentful… is there a way I can let my partner in a little bit? Maybe allow them to help in one small way? Let me see how that feels and then check in with myself.”

Letting our partner know about our internal experience allows us to feel less isolated in our emotions. Part of the problem is that we often don’t know exactly what our needs are; we feel depleted, lost, or just off. Share that confusion as well. Remember, motherhood is a transitional time – it’s okay to not have all the answers.

Allow your partner to be an ally. Let them in so they can be a part of the solution. Like I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to do this alone.

What is the best piece of advice you can give to a woman who is struggling with their mental health right now?

It is okay to ask for help. I know this might seem overly simplistic, but when we truly realize that it’s normal to struggle sometimes and that getting support is natural, it allows us to take a deep breath and reach out.

Our mental health ebbs and flows, some periods of life feel easier than others, and sometimes we struggle. There is no shame in that, and there is support available to help.

What have been your most rewarding moments as a therapist?

Oh goodness, there have been so many moments. I would say there is one in particular. I worked at a substance recovery center in the second year of my doctorate program. I remember feeling SO much doubt as a new therapist in training. The nature of recovery work can often include a lot of stops and starts, and I remember wondering if I was making a difference.

Seven years later, a former client reached out to let me know how impactful our work was together. They were alive, sober, and thriving. An interesting aspect was that what they mentioned being most helpful was just the ease of conversation and relationship we formed. No fancy interventions or anything complicated is what resonated for them.

It reminded me that at its core, therapy is about the human connection and the experience of being listened to. Being respected, learning that our emotions are worthy and important. Learning that we are worthy and important.