It’s funny: during my pregnancy, I took really good care of myself plus I 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 work, do housework, drive around, shop, pay bills, get gas, etc.— just like before, as if the infant you’re still 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 person who mainly takes care of her when I’m not at work, I still get up at night and don’t sleep that well and I feel, honestly, more and more run down. And she’s just a year old! Where is this going, and why doesn’t anybody seem to notice?!
Having a child is absolutely a big deal, and there’s no longer the strong network of social support for it— from relatives, friends and neighbors— that existed in generations past. And many fathers have not stepped up to fill the vacuum— the average mother works about 20 hours a week more than her partner, whether or not she’s drawing a paycheck. As a result, the day-to-day, minute-to-minute activities of caring for a young child usually fall mainly on the mother.
Caring for children is precious work, certainly. But like everything in life, it has effects. Over time, everything you pour out, everything you do, adds up. Most mothers report feeling pretty worn out and often frazzled by the end of their baby’s first year, and the deepest slump typically occurs a few years after the baby is born, especially if there’s been a second child or another significant stressor (like a move, Mom goes back to paid work or the child has a real challenging temperament).
As a result, studies have shown that having one or more children— especially when there’s not much support for her role— 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. Lack of support also wears on a relationship, 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.
Impacts on the Family
None of this is good for the mother. And it cannot help but spill over onto the children, both in terms of less patience and energy for them, as well as the impact on them when they sense problems in their parents’ relationship. Plus, it naturally affects fathers, too. Researchers have found that fathers who are more involved in the daily life of the family and strong teammates with the mother have better moods, a greater sense of pride in their competence as a parent, and a closer and more satisfying relationship with their partner.
A Crying Shame
Even though the effects of maternal stress and depletion are plainly visible in well-documented research— and affect society as a whole through increased healthcare 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 disappeared off the radar of the healthcare system after your final postpartum appointment and whether you had a child became medically irrelevant. At the National Institute of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there’s zero attention to the long-term health and well-being of 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 kids be strong teammates while preserving an intimate friendship.
In the culture as a whole, a positive sign is a growing willingness to help with postpartum depression and with the longer-term challenges of bearing and rearing children. Nonetheless, mothers still get routinely told that their weariness, blue mood and out-of-whack bodies are “just in your head. Get over it.” There’s guilt and shame about not being able to live up to women in the media who can work full-time, have cute and well-mannered kids, stay trim and fit and have a shiny, clean kitchen sink. With the common lack of support for childrearing at many levels— from fathers, from extended family members and from government policies— many mothers feel torn between giving their children the very best and giving their occupation/career the very best and few are entirely happy with whatever compromise they end up making.
Adding insult to injury, a lot of this gets internalized within mothers, making them feel weak or guilty about doing “selfish” things for themselves, asking for help or insisting that others pull their fair share of the weight.
It All Starts With Motivation
It will probably be a long time before much changes at the level of government policies or culture. And in our experience, to be blunt, many fathers do not just wake up one day and see the light on their own. Consequently, it is usually up to the mother to take a big breath, stand up most people will ever do. Big outputs require big inputs.
Ten Reasons to Take Good Care of a Mother
- She’s a person. Every human being deserves a chance to be happy and healthy.
- Her cupboard was already pretty bare. Before their first pregnancy, most mothers don’t consume all the recommended vitamins and minerals. Those shelves need re-stocking.
- Her body’s carried a big load. Taken as a whole, pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and weaning are the most physically demanding activities most people will ever do. Big outputs require big inputs.
- She does hard work. Studies show that raising young children is more stressful than most jobs. Any kind of demanding work calls for respite and replenishment.
- She contributes to others. Mothers get worn out not because they’ve been eating bon-bons, but because every day, for 20 years or more, they’ve been making a family for precious children. Their giving gives them moral standing, a valid claim on society’s care.
- It’s good for the children. A mother’s well-being affects her children in a thousand ways, shaping the lifetime course of a human life. The best way to take good care of children is to take good care of mothers.
- It’s good for her partner. A mother is much more able to be even-tempered, affectionate and loving when her mate is an active co-parent, shares the load fairly and is just plain nice. It’s enlightened self-interest for a mother’s partner to take good care of her.
- It’s good for the marriage. 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, lowering demands on the court system and fostering respect for family.
- It helps the economy. Maternal stress and depletion increase the nation’s medical costs, and they decrease workforce productivity. Maternal stress is a public health problem, and addressing it would add hundreds of billions of dollars each year to our economy (with related benefits to tax revenues).
- It’s good for society. A culture that values caring for those who are vulnerable, giving and engaged in long-term wholesome projects (like raising children), will generally be more humane and infused with positive values. And that’s good for everyone.
And a bonus reason: Being compassionate, considerate and generous with a mother feels good in itself. It’s also a deep form of spiritual practice to “love your neighbor as yourself”— even the one sitting with you at the dining room table.