Every parent wants to scream sometimes, but it takes a special one to actually lead a group of mothers in an en masse primal howl. That’s what therapist Sarah Harmon did in January, when she organized a communal-shrieking event in Charlestown for fed-up, frazzled, pandemic-depleted parents. (The COVID-inspired gathering went, ironically enough, viral.)
Harmon is a licensed mental health counselor with Postpartum Wellness Group and a yoga teacher who runs the Boston-based School of MOM online parenting support community, focused on worthy goals such as resilience, self-compassion, and banishing perfectionism. Now, she’s planned a more sedate event: On May 4, World Maternal Mental Health Day, she’ll host a live and virtual recovery session with meditation, Pilates fusion, and community at Soma Yoga Center in the North End. A suggested $25 donation benefits the Massachusetts chapter of Postpartum Support International, which offers support for anxiety, depression, pregnancy loss, and all manner of postpartum challenges.
I talked to Harmon about what moms need at this phase of the pandemic, where we might not need to shriek, but we do feel like we’re shaking off a long, painful slog (with still no vaccines for kids under 5).
As parents, we hear a lot about mindfulness and resilience. I think it’s something we all aspire to, but what does that look like in practice?
A lot of times, I’m talking about resiliency as our capacity to ride the wave — to acknowledge that to be human and to be a mom is not all positive, it’s not all pleasant. We label emotions as “good” and “bad.” All emotions are human emotions.
Give me a scenario.
A lot of my clients have young kids. It’s the, “My kid is throwing a tantrum.” Or, “My 3-year-old was throwing up and my 6-month-old was screaming.” In that moment, mom is able to keep her head on straight in a way where she doesn’t get overwhelmed and just completely fall into a puddle. She’s human. It’s not as if she’s riding it like a unicorn. But, in that moment, she can access some discernment, because she’s able to witness and be a part of that present-moment experience without the overwhelming judgment and resistance to it.
We know from the teachings of mindfulness that what leads us to suffer is to resist the moment we’re in. Resiliency is being in the moment and having a different relationship to it. It’s not that the scenarios and the triggers are gone; it’s that she relates to them differently.
A big piece of the School of Mom work is self-compassion. In the moment where everything is falling apart, sometimes there’s nothing you actually can do other than take a moment to say: “This is hard. I’m doing a good job.” And you really speak to yourself in a more compassionate way, versus that hypercritical, perfectionistic tendency: “Why can’t I figure this out? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my kids?”
It doesn’t have to be this hard! Why do we make it so hard? Is this a COVID thing? A 21st-century-mom thing?
Before I became a mom, I didn’t primarily work with a lot of moms. In my practice, I worked with a lot of anxious women with high expectations and high-achieving, super-perfectionistic qualities.
When you become a mom, it becomes on steroids, because there’s so many variables and unknowns and opportunities to judge yourself. We’ve fallen to this intense comparison trap now, because there’s so much ripe opportunity to compare: [with] Instagram, everything is out there. You’re constantly seeing what other people are doing and judging yourself for it. … There’s just so many more opportunities to judge and to feel like you need to have it all figured out. I work with very smart, educated, high-achieving women. So they tend to have just really high expectations of themselves that do not go away when they become a mom.
Why is screaming so cathartic?
The body has hardwired, built-in coping mechanisms to release emotion. When we feel something like anger — which we all feel, because it’s very natural — the scream is kind of a natural way to release it. Anger is really a compilation of so many things: grief, sadness, worry. Anger is the tip of the iceberg. It’s the visible piece.
Underneath the iceberg is so much more, and, really, COVID is the perfect example of that. For two years, there was so much loss, so much grief, so much anxiety. So much disappointment. First, those emotions led to some frustration, and then it was anger. And then it was rage, essentially, because there was no respite, there was no relief.
Anger is one of those emotions that people don’t feel comfortable with. But, when it’s so overwhelming, you can’t shut it down. It just felt so intuitive and natural for all of us to go out there. The overwhelming feedback that I got from women, even if it caught them off-guard at first, is how natural it was: “I just had no idea that would come out of me so easily.”
Talk to me about the May 4 event. It’s not a group-scream. It seems calmer.
What we all need now is a really good rest. We need to move through the trauma of the last two years and just kind of shake it off. It’s almost like the calm after the storm, but we’re still kind of jacked up in our nervous system. So, you know, when I was thinking about World Maternal Mental Health Day, it didn’t feel appropriate to do another scream, because I don’t believe that’s really meeting this population where they’re at. So I partnered with Jennifer Phelan, because she’s a well-known fitness instructor. She does classes where you just sweat, you move, and you kind of shake things up in your body. I’m more the “deep rest” side of things.
So this is going to get women to shake things up and move some stagnant [stuff] they’ve been holding onto in their body. Then, I’ll lead the second half of the class, which is really going to be more restorative rest: permission to work through some of the more restorative, parasympathetic nervous system side of things. That’s where the class came from: getting moms this gift of rest, essentially, with guided relaxation, meditation, and reflection — naming the shared experience in the room for many of us around the need to come together, the need to heal, the need to find some peace, and the need to rest.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Reserve a spot in-person or virtually at www.union.fit/orgs/soma-yoga. Class begins at 6:45 p.m. but is available to live-stream later in case you’re, you know, too busy.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.