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Surviving Motherhood

How can mothers stay emotionally healthy while facing motherhood challenges?

"The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother's side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent." — Erich Fromm

What can anyone really say about motherhood? It's a job that begins before the child is even born and it never ends, no matter how "grown up" a child may think he or she is. Though the joys that come with being a mother can be infinitely rewarding, the responsibilities involved are often emotionally draining as well. While fathers may take on many of the tasks associated with being a parent, mothers are most likely to be the primary caregivers for their children, especially for the first few years of life.

And it doesn't matter how well-educated or well-off these mothers are, the burden involved can be overwhelming at times. Survey studies show that the number of hours spent in child rearing activities has risen from 12 to 20.5 hours a week for college-educated mothers between 1993 and 2008. For mothers without a college education, the numbers are similar (10.5 to 16 hours per week). For fathers, on the other hand, average hours per week spent on childcare only rose from 4.2 to 9.7 hours over the same period.

Many of the childcare tasks carried out by mothers take the form of "invisible labour" which often goes unnoticed. This includes what sociologist Annette Laureau calls "concerned cultivation" or encouraging children to get involved with activities that will help them develop their innate talents. Mothers are often obliged to "push" their children to be more outgoing, participate in communal activities, and to be more accepted socially.

Some media sources have accused today's mothers of being too obsessed with their children, even to the point of becoming "helicopter parents" and neglecting other important aspects of their lives. Modern mothers are also acutely vulnerable to the emotional distress that many children experience as they make the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood. Even when their children are infants, mothers are far more sensitive to baby cries than fathers. Mothers are also more likely to be distressed as their growing children become more independent and emotionally distant. Since so much of their personal identity is tied into being mothers, the "empty nest syndrome" can also hit especially hard.

Emotional support from the other people in their lives is often critical in helping mothers cope. This can be especially important for mothers facing special challenges such as being single parents, having children with special needs, or even coping with issues such as postpartum depression. Whether the support comes from their own mothers, siblings, friends, or other family members, mothers often depend on this support to maintain their psychological well-being.

A new research study published in the journal Developmental Psychology takes a comprehensive look at maternal mental health and emotional support. Conducted by Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla of Arizona State University, the study presents the results of an online survey of 2,247 American women. The "Moms As People" survey was designed to measure how mothers feel about different aspects of their lives. Mothers were recruited through PTA announcements and news articles describing the study and most of the participants were well-educated with at least a college degree. As well, over 80 percent of the mothers participating in the study were married, living in the suburbs, and had an average of two children.

The survey included psychometric tests measuring how emotionally adjusted the participants were, the amount of stress in their life, how satisfied they were with their parenting experiences, how overwhelmed they felt they were as parents, and the quality of their relationship with their children. As well, mothers were questioned about the kind of emotional support they received from spouses, family members, and friends. Demographic factors such as family income, employment, and region of the country in which they lived was also included.

What the researchers found was that being well-adjusted as a mother largely depended on how much emotional support was available from other people in their lives. About 17 percent of participants reported not having anyone to comfort them when they were feeling distressed and they also tended to be most vulnerable to problems such as stress and depression.

While being a successful parent also contributed to maternal well-being, mothers who felt guilty about how they were raising their children or who were feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities were also especially vulnerable to stress. Another obvious source of maternal distress stemmed from seeing children act out or being rude or emotionally distant towards their parents. Yes, you really do break your mother's heart when you behave this way. Considering this as scientifically proven.

As for the kind of emotional support that helps mothers cope, the following factors seem to be especially important:

  • Feeling unconditionally loved for their "core" selves, whether by their children or other loved ones
  • Having a reliable source of emotional comfort, i.e., knowing where to go for "mothering" whenever it is needed
  • Authentic relationships with friends and family
  • Friendship satisfaction

While this kind of unconditional love and support usually comes from friends or partners, children or therapists can take on this role as well depending on the kind of relationship mothers have with them. Both unconditional love and reliable comfort appear to be far more important in ensuring a mother's well-being than just about any other factor examined in the study. This includes family income, marital status, employment status, or educational level of mothers.

Even though the participants of this study are hardly representative of mothers in general, these findings seem to provide important clues to understanding how women can cope with all the challenges involved with being mothers. While more research is needed, especially research looking at more representative samples, as well as equivalent research looking at fathers, using the kind of protective factors identified in this study can be especially important for highly-stressed mothers who can learn to cope more effectively with proper support.

In recognizing the need to help mothers cope with the challenge of being mothers, family members and friends have to recognize that love and support are usually what women in crisis need most. For therapists developing new treatment programs to help mothers coping with stress, providing that same sense of unconditional love and support appears essential in helping mothers stay emotionally healthy.

Whether the stress comes from postpartum depression, "empty nest" syndrome, or any of the myriad problems that can arise in between, the old adage that a "mother's job is never done" seems more relevant now than ever before.

More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
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