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Taking Good Care of Moms

Rick Hanson, PhD
Jan Hanson, MS, Lac
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 6, November-December 2007, pp. 274-275

In our counseling and nutritional practices, we often encounter mothers who say something like this:

During my pregnancy, I took really good care of myself plus got a lot of attention and support from my doctor, husband, and relatives. Even strangers would stop me in the market and remind me to get lots of rest. But now, a year after Allie was born, I feel like I've fallen off everybody's radar. It's like you're expected to "do life"—go to the job, finish housework, drive around, shop, pay bills, and fill up the car with gasoline—just like before, as if the infant you're super responsible for is not a factor at all. But she's a huge factor, of course! I think about her all the time, I'm the main person who takes care of her when I'm not at work, I still get up at night, and I don't sleep that well. Honestly, I feel more and more run down. And my daughter is just a year old! Where is this going, and why doesn't anybody seem to notice?

This mother is totally right: having a child is absolutely a big deal, and there's no longer the strong network of social support for mothers that there was in generations past. The average mother is working about 20 hours a week more than her partner is, whether or not she's drawing a paycheck. As result, the day-to-day, minute-to-minute activities of caring for a young child usually fall mainly to the mother.

It's precious work, certainly. But like everything in life, it has costs. Over time, everything you pour out, everything you do, adds up. Most mothers report feeling worn out and frazzled by the end of their baby's first year. It is our experience that the deepest slump typically occurs a few years after the baby is born, especially if the mother has had a second child or has experienced another significant life stress (for example, a move, a return to paid employment, or a child with a challenging temperament).

Studies have shown that having one or more children increases the chance that a woman will experience physical or mental health problems, including fatigue, depressed mood, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, Type 2 diabetes, nutritional deficits, or autoimmune illnesses. This is especially true for women who do not get much support for their role as mothers. Lack of support also wears on women's relationships with their partners, breeding resentments, the sense of being let down, no interest in sex, and lots of quarrels.

The bottom-line: many mothers get physically and psychologically depleted during the early years of parenthood, Some to the extent that we've proposed they're experiencing a Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS). None of this is good for the mother, to be sure. The results include lack of maternal patience and energy, as well as problems in parents' relationships. This isn't good for children either.

When father supports more, things seem to go better. Researchers have found that fathers who are more involved in the daily life of the family and are strong teammates with the mother have better mood, more sense of pride in their competence as a parent, and a closer and more satisfying relationship with their partners.

Even though the effects of maternal stress and depletion are plainly visible in well-documented research and affect society as a whole through increased health care expenses, lost workforce productivity, and the social costs of divorce, there's been shockingly little attention to the needs of mothers.

As a mother, you disappear off the radar of the health care system after your final postpartum appointment. Whether you had a child seems medically irrelevant. For example, at the National Institute of Health or the Centers for Disease Control, there's zero attention to the long-term health and well-being of women as mothers. Few psychology graduate schools teach anything about how to help women with the unique and chronic stresses of raising a family, or how to help couples with children be strong teammates while preserving an intimate friendship.

Mothers are routinely told that weariness, blue moods, and out-of-whack bodies are in their heads, and to "just get over it." Mothers experience guilt and shame about not being able to live up to models of women portrayed in the media who can work full-time, have cute and well-mannered children, stay trim and fit, and have a clean kitchen. Many mothers feel torn between giving their children the very best and all the others demands placed on them. Few are entirely happy with the compromises they have to make. Adding insult to injury, this lack of support from society can be internalized, which leaves mothers feeling weak or guilty about doing "selfish" things for themselves, asking for help, or insisting that others pull their fair share of the weight.

Unfortunately, it will probably be a long time before a drastic cultural shift takes place. Fathers do not just wake up one day, see the light, and pitch in to help. Consequently, it is usually up to the mother to take a big breath and assert her right to appropriate attention, support, and care. There are many benefits to supporting women who are mothers, and those benefits should motivate mothers and others to make some changes.

A mother's energy is depleted over time by the accumulation of a thousand little stressors. But doing little things each day that are good for you help you accumulate a growing pile of positive resources for your health, well-being, strong parental teamwork, and lasting love.

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2006

Reasons to Take Good Care of Moms

Below is a list of reasons to support mothers. The points are based on solid experience, research, and ethical reasoning. There's no special treatment here: if men were the ones having babies, the same list would apply. Being compassionate, considerate, and generous with a mother feels good in itself. It is also a deep form of spiritual practice to "love your neighbor as yourself" -- even the one sitting with you at the dining room table. Mothers and everyone who cares about mothers should know the following:

  1. Moms are people. Every human being deserves a chance to be happy and healthy.
  2. Moms work hard. Studies show that raising young children is more stressful than most jobs. Any kind of demanding work calls for respite and replenishment.
  3. Moms contribute to others. Mothers get worn out not because they've been eating Bon-Bons, but because every day they've been making a family for innocent and precious children. Their giving provides moral standing, a valid claim on society's care.
  4. A mother's well-being affects her children in a thousand ways, and shapes the course of their entire lives. The best way to take good care of children is to take good care of their mothers.
  5. A mother is more able to be even-tempered, affectionate, and loving with her mate when he takes good care of her. It's enlightened self-interest for a mother's partner to be an active co-parent, to share the load fairly, and to just be nice.
  6. Mothers who are well nurtured and have supportive partners are much more likely to stay happily married than those who do not. Besides the rewards for children and their parents, lasting marriages benefit society in many ways, such as bringing stability to communities and fostering respect for family.
  7. Maternal stress and depletion increase the nation's medical costs, and they decrease workforce productivity.
  8. A culture that takes a stand for families by respecting and supporting the mothers will be more humane and decent for everyone.
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