In early 2020, Charlotte Shaff, a mom of two, started to feel anxious, depressed, fatigued and was gaining weight. “I wasn’t able to properly focus on my kids, I was full of anxiety because they were home all day with me doing online school and I never felt like I could focus 100% on anything,” says Charlotte, who lives in Phoenix and is President of The Media Push, a public relations firm. She attributed this to being a breast cancer survivor, a business owner, and a mom of two boys, 10 and 12 years old, and says the pandemic worsened her symptoms. “I definitely felt more depressed. Not only due to the chaos of online school, the worry of losing clients, but hearing and seeing so many people upset about the pandemic. I also started doing things like shopping online all the time, wanting to buy things to give me a ‘high,’ although I just recently discovered that impulse shopping was also part of having ADHD,” she explains.
Charlotte is part of a growing number of moms nationwide who, over the past year-plus, are questioning whether they could be dealing with ADHD. They are struggling with increased responsibilities and less help, while connecting on social media with others who have been through a late-in-life diagnosis. “I got into TikTok during the late spring of 2020…and found a lot of people who talked about their ADHD and anxiety as adults. It makes me feel like I’m not alone and I don’t have to be ashamed about it,” says Charlotte.
Many women with ADHD go undiagnosed – or are only diagnosed once their own children are being evaluated. That’s because ADHD in girls often doesn’t look like it does in boys. “Women or girls with ADHD are usually not stereotypically hyperactive like most boys are. They often present with inattentive type ADHD which can mask their difficulties. Especially if girls are smart and/or have support and structure, their difficulties with executive function, organization, activation, memory, and attention don’t become visible until they ‘hit a wall’,” says Sari Solden, M.S, a psychotherapist and author Women with Attention Deficit Disorder, Journeys Through ADDulthood, and co-author of A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD. Hitting that proverbial wall can involve any number of life changes: leaving home, heading off to college, entering the workforce, getting married and having kids.
In women, ADHD can look like distractibility (daydreaming in girls), trouble prioritizing or keeping up with tasks at work or at home (like laundry or grocery shopping), issues with finances (either impulsive buying or forgetting to pay bills), trouble socializing (because of social anxiety or issues making and keeping plans) or simply feeling overwhelmed or exhausted by regular life.
Pre-kids, these issues may be relatively simple to control. Not great with bills? Put things on digital autopay. Can’t keep up with cleaning your home? Hire a cleaner. Having trouble with the pace at work? Put in longer hours and catch up, or work for yourself and make your own schedule. Says Sari: “A woman can hold it together and compensate especially if she has a good fit at work or even at home, for instance—if her partner and she share tasks, or if they take on some of the demands that are difficult for her, or if she has a fairly simple life and some predictability and control.”
Becoming a mother can render those types of coping mechanisms (including any semblance of “predictability and control”) useless. “Mothers are multi-taskers and doing many things or being responsible for engineering the lives of their children can be overwhelming. When women feel overwhelmed more often than not, when they have difficulty organizing themselves and their children, when they lose their tempers and/or patience more than they would like, when they feel persistently anxious or depressed, when they have trouble making and keeping friends—these are all indications that ADHD may be present,” says Sharon Saline, Psy.D., author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids in School and Life and The ADHD Solution Card Deck.
The pandemic, then, was like throwing lighter fluid on this growing fire of underdiagnosed girls-turned-women-turned moms. In March 2020, mothers across the country were tasked with picking up more work at home, with less help from daycares, nannies and families than ever before. Sprinkle in online learning and all the additional coordinating that required, and finding information on Tik Tok…and experts say they saw more women seeking ADHD diagnoses than ever before.
“I have heard from many women that the pandemic has led them to see their difficulties more clearly as well as cause others to notice and point out this possibility. Being home with children and partners with the lack of structure and overstimulation, has allowed some women to see challenges more clearly that may have been passed over before,” says Sari. She adds that the increased availability of telehealth has made gathering information and access to diagnoses easier.
Unfortunately, stress from failing to keep a household and life running smoothly—but feeling powerless to change it—can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders and even physical symptoms like fibromyalgia. All of these can impact a person’s ability to parent well, from controlling their temper to keeping up physically with kids. “It’s critical to see an expert who understands what ADHD looks like in women as it manifests differently than in men. Too often women are diagnosed with anxiety or depression which may be related to ADHD but it’s not evaluated,” explains Sharon.
Once a mom goes through a diagnosis, she can not only get medication and coaching that can help her function better as a mom, employee and woman, but she can be happier. “Getting help—particularly understanding your ADHD brain and what your executive functioning strengths and challenges are—is critical for learning effective strategies and applying useful tools to improve your quality of life and your role as a mother. Medications are very helpful, but pills don’t teach skills. Seek out an informed therapist or coach to assist you in accepting the brain you have, improving self-confidence and making necessary adjustments to your personal and/or professional life,” suggests Sharon.
As for Charlotte, she did seek help and was put on medication and is planning on starting therapy soon. She says: “After a few sessions, [my psychiatrist] said I had ADHD and was prescribed Methylphenidate. I instantly felt less fatigued and was soon able to power through work and such in a less chaotic manner.”
Moms feeling any of these symptoms should talk to their primary care provider and ask for a referral to a recommended psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker who specializes in ADHD in women. For additional resources, see below: