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Help! This Mother Needs More Than I Can Give

Cathy Liles
College Station, Texas, USA
Norma Escobar
Burlington, Kentucky, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 5, October-November 1999, p. 113

A Leader was working with a mother who was calling her daily for help. The mother had a slow weight gain baby and called about everything including bathing, crying and sleeping. She had no support network and her husband worked long hours. At some time during your tenure as a Leader, you may come across a similar mother. She may be the mother of a newborn or a toddler. She may be a first-time mother or an experienced mother. In any case, her behavior has a pattern: she calls often to tell you about her child's lack of sleep, criticism from her in-laws, her inability to get any housework done, or the lack of time that she and her husband have alone together. She needs a shoulder to cry on, as well as all of the empathy you can, muster and the suggestions you can gather. She takes a lot of your energy.

You will recognize that you are working with a "high need" mother by your reaction to her. You may feel irritated or impatient when she calls and you begin to dread seeing her at next month's meeting. This mother may need more than you are able to give. She may need something different from you. Ultimately, you may not be helping her by fostering her dependence on you.

How can a Leader effectively aid a mother like this? Here are some suggestions.

  • Encourage her to join a playgroup or have park dates with another mother.

  • Encourage her to call another mother who may be dealing with similar parenting issues. Make sure to clear this with the other mother first.

  • Direct her to your Group Library. Resources like Love and Limits, Don't Shoot the Dog, The Discipline Book and The Power of Mother Love may give her the empowerment she needs to start enjoying her parenting.

  • Hold an Enrichment Meeting with the theme "Empowerment and Our Personal Growth as Mothers" or "Enjoying Motherhood: Finding Gentle Moments in Everyday Life."

  • When holding Series Meeting 2, focus on "Meeting Mother's Needs in Creative Ways" or "Growing and Adjusting into Happy Mothering."

  • Offer a toddler series or study group based on How to Talk so Kids Will Listen or Without Spanking or Spoiling.

  • Schedule a "Communicating with Our Children" Human Relations Enrichment session. (Contact your HRE Instructor for more details.)

  • Offer her a Group job. She may welcome the recognition of her talents and the responsibility.

  • Just listen (you can say things like: "hmm, I see,wow") and wait in silence.

  • Use your reflective listening skills: "When your husband comes home late you feel exhausted because you don't get the break you expected." Many times the use of these skills is enough for the mother to become empowered.

  • Encourage Group members to attend Human Relations Enrichment sessions. This way you won't be the only one in your Group with good listening skills. If your skills in this area need brushing up, sign up for a basic HRE series.

Finally, the high need mother may need a mental health care referral. You can say, "It sounds like your situation may be outside of my experience as a breastfeeding counselor and is not an area I am familiar with. You may want to talk to your health care provider or counselor about what you are experiencing." Though this is difficult to say to a mother, it may be necessary. As with many other lessons, one Leader learned this the hard way. The mother that I mentioned at the beginning of this article called the Leader one more time. She called to say that she was thinking of hurting her three-month-old baby. She described how. The Leader was able to help the mother get to her obstetrician safely and alerted him to her need (with the mother's permission). She was hospitalized for six weeks with severe postpartum psychosis. It would not have been helpful for the Leader to continue to be there for her. The mother's calls were irritating to the Leader and, in hindsight, the Leader believes she could have been more effective if she had suggested that the mother get help sooner.

Some self-help tips to use if you find yourself exhausted by a mother who seems to be "high need":

  • If the calls are constant and you are feeling irritated, consider that the mother may have deeper problems.

  • Remember you cannot be everyone's best friend. It is not your job to "fix" things for mothers who call you.

  • Try to think back to when you were a first time mother. Remember the overwhelming feelings, the confusion, the insecurity and your need for validation that you were doing the right thing. It may help you to be more patient and empathetic.

  • Realize that complaining may be a cultural attitude and changing it takes time. Seeing the positive side of life may be a new concept for many mothers.

  • Know the signs that point to depression and who to refer the mother to in your community.

  • If you find yourself irritated by a high percentage of your calls, you may need some Leader self-care: contact your DA/DC to be taken off phone-helping for a while, take on an Area Council job so that you are working with Leaders more than mothers, focus on training a Leader Applicant or even take a temporary leave of absence.

  • Know your limits and stick to them. You can say to a mother: "It sounds as though you are caught between a rock and a hard place. I don't have any answers for you. Perhaps you can call your health care provider and talk this over with him or her." Be prepared to restate your limit six to ten times. It takes that long for some people to really "hear" what you have said.

Each mother is different and has distinctive needs. The key is to learn to be sensitive enough to recognize the need, even when it is disguised as complaining, so that you can handle it in an appropriate way.

Symptoms of Depression

  • Change in sleep pattern, either insomnia or sleeping more than usual
  • Change in eating habits
  • Too many stresses (like a move, a death in the family, divorce, or change in lifestyle)
  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • Sad mood more often than usual
  • Not enjoying typical activities
  • Crying more often, or episodes of crying
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent fatigue, low energy
  • Unable to keep up with usual activities
  • Thoughts of suicide.

For more information on postpartum depression, see The Postpartum Survival Guide, available from LLLI, and LEAVEN, June-July 1996, "When a New Mother Is Depressed."

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