Have you ever asked yourself the question - what is your job as a mum?…
Managing the Stress of Motherhood
In a world where we are busier than ever, where “equality of the sexes” means that women are juggling the demands of home and work-life, and where we are bombarded with parenting advice, (which does nothing more than make us feel inferior as we deduce we are doing it all wrong), mothers are feeling more stressed and less supported than ever.
According to a 2009 report from the Pew Research Centre, a whopping 40% of working mums said they always felt rushed, compared with 25% of working dads. Eight years on, I would estimate that statistic to have risen significantly. Researchers attribute this to several factors; biology (mums are quicker to respond to a crying infant than dads), the rise of perfectionist parenting; in which parents invest vast amounts of time an energy in their children’s education and extracurricular activities, and the division of household labour, that usually still leaves the woman with the lion’s share of domestic duties. And it’s not just working mums who feel pressured, 82% of “Stay at Home Mums” (SAHM) say they feel frequently stressed. “From the research I’ve seen, “mum stress” is just going exponentially up…we get so much information and advice about everything we do, how could any mother currently feel like she is doing a good job?”, says Domar, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and author of “Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Worry Less and Enjoy Life More”.
I have also noticed a spike in the number of psychology referrals I receive for stressed out mothers and an influx of posts on social media groups from overwhelmed mums seeking support. “Throughout our evolutionary history, mothers have been unpaid “working mums” gathering food and performing tasks in addition to childcare…” says Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hardy “…What’s different now is that the strong networks of friends and family that traditionally helped with childcare have eroded, due to factors such as geographic mobility. The idea that mothers were ever meant to care for children by themselves in our species is not realistic”. Easing the burden by placing your child in day care a couple of times a week, should theoretically bridge the gap, but with the extortionate fees required and inadequate Government spending on childcare, this just isn’t an affordable option for many modern-day mums.
Sleep deprivation, prioritising your children’s needs over your needs as a couple, inequality of the division of labour and differing parenting styles will add relationship problems to your list of life stressors.
But how does all this “mum stress” affect us?
Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. In other words, stress is the result of an imbalance between the demands made on us and our personal resources to deal with these demands. And what could be more demanding than having children?
In small doses, some stress can actually be good for you; increasing performance under pressure and motivating you to do your best. However, beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships and your quality of life. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. The thoughts in your head are only the beginning, or perhaps more aptly, are the wheels that set the harmful mechanism known as chronic stress into motion – and once spinning it’s very easy to spiral out of control. As reported in Science News;
“stress research gained traction with a master stroke of health science called the Whitehall Study, in which British researchers showed that stressed workers were suffering ill effects. Scientists have since described how a stressed brain triggers rampant hormone release, which leads to imbalanced immunity and long term physical wear and tear. Those effects take a toll quite apart from the anxiety and other psychological challenges that stressed individuals deal with day-to-day.”
Stress increases heart attack risk by 21-fold! During moments of high stress, your body releases hormones such as norepinephrine, which researchers believe can cause the dispersal of bacterial biofilms from the walls of your arteries. This dispersal can allow plaque deposits to suddenly break loose, thereby triggering a heart attack.
Prolonged stress can also damage your brain cells and effect your memory. Stress disrupts your neuroendocrine and immune systems and appears to trigger a degenerative process in your brain that can result in Alzheimer’s disease. The brain cells of stressed rats are dramatically smaller, especially in the hippocampus, which is the centre for learning and memory.
Stress also alters the way fat is deposited in our bodies, increasing our risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Stress can also seriously affect the gut by; decreasing nutrient absorption, decreased oxygenation to the gut, reducing blood-flow to the digestive system by 4 times (which leads to decreased metabolism), and decreasing enzymatic output in your gut – by as much as 20,000-fold!
On a more positive note, research shows that positive emotions like happiness, optimism and hope promote positive changes in your body’s cells, even triggering the release of “feel-good” brain chemicals. In other words, we can reverse the adverse effects of stress on the body and mind by incorporating some simple stress management strategies into our daily routine. By engaging in healthy habits like exercise, laughter, hugging and kissing, sex/intimacy with your partner or bonding with your child, you can generate an increase in endorphins and dopamine in the brain, which creates feelings of happiness. A 10-second hug a day can lead to biochemical and physiological changes that can significantly improve your health. According to one study, this includes; lower risk of heart disease, stress reduction, improved immunity, fight infections and ease depression.
Regular stress management is crucial for everyone, but in particular for stressed out mums. It’s all too easy to put the needs of everyone else above your own, but for the sake of both your physical and mental health, it’s important to have some regular “me time”. Below is a list of stress management ideas to try out. But ultimately, what you do for stress relief is personal choice, as your stress management techniques must appeal to you and more importantly, work for you. Try out a few techniques to find the right ones for you.
Top Tips for managing “Mum Stress”
Get More Sleep! – With two young children of my own, I realise how laughable this statement seems. However, although we can’t control the nocturnal wakings of our children, there are ways to promote both better quality and quantity of sleep. Firstly, in the same way that we would establish a bedtime routine for our children, it is just as important for adults to allocate some wind-down time before bed. so, run a warm bubble bath, light some candles and reeellaax! Other good “sleep hygiene” practices include; reading a book, having a warm milky drink, cutting out alcohol and caffeine just before bed and going to bed earlier – you never know when a little person will call for you in the middle of the night! Also, negotiate with your partner to give each other a lie-in once a week, taking it in turns to do the early morning shift with the kids.
Practice Mindfulness – Whether it be to aid sleep or to manage worry, Mindfulness is fast becoming a popular and evidence-based stress management strategy. It is the ancient Buddhist principle of focussing our attention on the present moment, whilst adopting a non-judgemental attitude to what we find. It enables us to disengage in mental clutter, achieving clarity of mind and inner calm. For more information on Mindfulness, refer to my recent blog on the topic at; www.northernbeachespsychology.com.au/mindfulness/
Schedule Some Regular “Me Time” – As a busy working mum I can appreciate the difficulty in finding time for myself whilst juggling the demands of work and family life. However, with better time management, a commitment to improving self-care and a reciprocal agreement with your other half to take the kids for an hour a day/week/month, then it is possible to prioritise your own needs and grab some regular “me time”. It doesn’t have to take much time out of your day or even cost any money. It could simply be a child-free coffee with a friend, a session in the gym, a walk along the beach, a girls night out, or time spent engaging in a hobby.
Date night! – Anyone who has kids will understand the impact they can have on your relationship with your partner. With the constant demands of children taking priority over time spent together as a couple, it is important to schedule that time into your diary! Ideally, this would be in the form of dinner out at a romantic restaurant. However, if you are struggling to recruit a babysitter, then switching the TV off and cooking a candle-lit dinner at home can be just as enjoyable. The point is that it gives you time to talk and re-connect as a couple.
Have Some “Device-Free” Time – Speaking of re-connecting, it is well known that our ever-increasing dependence on technology is having serious psychological and social implications for us as a society. Not only is our addiction sending unhealthy messages to our kids, but it is robbing us of meaningful face-to-face interactions and keeping our brain constantly stimulated, making it difficult to relax and unwind. Negotiate with your partner to limit the amount of time you spend on your devices and make the effort to sit and talk face-to-face.
Let Go of Perfectionist Parenting – Stop reading those parenting blogs that proclaim to have all the answers and do nothing more than make you feel inadequate in your parenting skills. Not even the so-called “experts” have all the answers and there is no such thing as the “perfect parent”. Instead, challenge that irrational “all or nothing” thinking that tells you that you are “not good enough” and reassure yourself that your children love you unconditionally and that there is no better mum for your kids than the one they already have.
Build a “Village” – They say “it takes a village to raise a child”. However, in our modern-day lives, the Western World has moved more towards individualism as opposed to Eastern cultures who value collectivism. This, sadly leaves many mums feeling isolated and struggling to cope on their own. Whilst you may not have extended family around to share the burden, it is possible to create a “surrogate family” of close friends. A “mummy network” where there is a reciprocal agreement to help each other out in times of need. This may be to help out when you are running late for the school pick up, or to babysit the kids while you and your partner go out for the night, or taking the kids on a play date while you go to the hairdressers. It might simply involve offering emotional support whilst chatting over a coffee together. Being there for each other will ease your “mum stress” and strengthen your friendship.
Take a Day Off – Ladies, you deserve (at least) one day off a year! Even if the only day you take off is Mother’s Day, take it. Don’t worry if the house is a mess, just treasure the special time you have with your kids, give yourself a pat on the back, and tell yourself “well done” for doing such a hard, demanding, stressful, but meaningful and rewarding job!
Nicola George is a fully registered, Chartered Psychologist with 16yrs professional experience based at the Green Door Health clinic in Elanora Heights, on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. www.greendoorhealth.com.au
As a busy working mum of two, she knows all about the stresses and strains of modern-day motherhood, but with her professional knowledge and experience she has helped many mums to manage their stress and find more balance in life. She also teaches psycho-educational stress management workshops.
If you found this article helpful and would like more information about stress management, or if you would like to book a psychology appointment with Nicola then visit her website; www.northernbeachespsychology.com.au .