Motherhood has been described as both tasking and fulfilling, and virtually every woman hopes to attain this glorified “pinnacle of female existence”.But beyond the joys of motherhood lies the trials and challenges that we often don’t talk about. Being a mother is a life long emotional journey filled with a mixture of pleasure and pain. The emotional roller coaster begins to roll with the birth of the child and doesn’t stop even after the child has transcended into adulthood.
Most mums will tell you how parenting on some days sets their heart on fire with intense joy and how on some other days it makes them want to scream with frustration. Alternating between different strong emotions for a greater part of a lifetime is expected to have its impact on the mental health of a mother. The reality is, motherhood exerts a strain on women’s psychological balance which makes them more vulnerable to mental health issues.
An online survey of 1800 British parents by BBC Radio 5 live and YouGov revealed that a large percentage of women go through mental health issues associated with parenting. About two-thirds of the women from the survey were reported to have suffered from chronic anxiety, stress, and post-partum depression.
Factors like criticism and work-related discrimination seem to form the basis of mental illness in some of the women surveyed. They reported being criticized mostly by their mothers, spouse/partners, and some family members, while only 14% of the women said they got criticized by strangers. 30% reported that they had received unfair treatment at work on account of motherhood.
Gender and societal expectations placed on mothers make it almost impossible for women to openly admit how motherhood is taking its toll on their mental and emotional health. They fear being labeled an “incompetent mum”.
As a result, women are forced to internalize their feelings and act like everything is okay, even when it is not. Perhaps this is why they have taken cover behind online discussion sites like quora, Reddit, and mums net to express their plight under the shroud of anonymity.
Writing under multiple Mumsnet threads, many mums regret the loss of their identities snatched by motherhood and describe in detail the struggles they face daily as mothers. Some of these women even go as far as saying “they regret having children”.
On the regret front, Orna Donath, a sociologist from Israel published a study from an interview she had with 23 Israeli mothers who admitted that despite loving their children immensely, they regretted having them.
In the published report, Donath pointed out that while motherhood may have its perks in the form of unconditional love, moments of delirious joy, and a sense of fulfillment, it could also be a conduit for emotional distress, helplessness, frustration, oppression, disappointments, and hostility.
As expected, Donath’s study met the fury of critics who accused her of peddling a false and dangerous narrative geared towards antagonizing the beautiful spirit of motherhood. It sparked an online debate that came under the hashtag #regrettinmotherhood on social media.
Donath is not the only one to bring to the forefront the negative impact of motherhood on a woman’s wellbeing. Researchers from Arizona and Oklahoma state universities respectively have found that the emotional burden and responsibilities of being a mother are causing damage to women’s mental health.
The study sampled 393 women who had children under the age of 18. Some of the women were married while others were in a committed relationship. It also included women with high educational backgrounds and women from upper-middle-class homes.
A large percentage of the women said they were solely responsible for most family duties such as making school runs, handling household chores, and generally monitoring and paying attention to their children’s well being and emotional needs. According to the study, the role of responding to their children’s emotional needs is enough to spur on feelings of emotional distress in women.
It also stated that tasks that involves managing the home front requires mental and emotional effort. It doesn’t matter if someone or their partner is sharing some of these physical tasks like doing the laundry or the dishes with them, because at the end of the day the woman still controls the mental strings needed for such chores.
For instance, she has to make sure that there is enough detergent to go round and all the right clothes go into the laundry basket. The study suggests that women who are overburdened with household and parenting responsibilities are usually unhappy with their lives and partners, and the constant juggling of household and maternal responsibilities makes them prone to mental health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression.
THE TRIALS OF MOTHERHOOD AND MENTAL HEALTH
The transition into motherhood in itself, which some scientists have termed “matrescence” is often rife with challenges. From conception to birth, a woman’s hormonal balance goes through a number of changes that make her easy prey for mental health challenges.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of new mothers worldwide battle with a mental disorder, which is usually depression. According to the WHO, the rate is even higher in developing countries with 15.6% in pregnancy and 19.8% postnatal.
Sometimes, due to severe mental health conditions, some mothers are driven to commit suicide, while others are barely able to carry out their maternal responsibilities which directly affects the child’s growth and development.
Baby blues, postpartum depression, and postpartum psychosis are common mental health disorders associated with childbirth. The flurry of emotions that occur due to the sharp fluctuations in hormones during pregnancy and after childbirth has been linked to the occurrence of these mental illnesses. The good news is the availability of effective treatment for these disorders. However, the trials of matrescence don’t just end there.
If you’ve been spared the harrowing experience of postnatal depression or you’ve successfully treated one, you still have the emotionally and physically tasking job of caring for your infant child. It isn’t unfamiliar news that newborn mothers have to contend with sleep deprivation because of their baby’s intermittent sleeping patterns. Sleep deprivation if not properly handled can have severe effects on a person’s physical and mental well-being.
And have we talked about how the changes in your body after childbirth is driving you insane with worry and frustration. Each time you look in the mirror or scroll through your old pictures, you feel disgusted with yourself. You begin to frantically look for ways to get your pre-pregnancy body back.
You start to compare yourself with celebrities with perfect postpartum bodies and feel even worse. You finally find what may work for you, but your round-the-clock schedule as a new mother doesn’t even let you follow through with your plans, and you become even more frustrated.
Without the right resources and support system to guide you through this depressing phase, your anxiety will continue to rage and cause damages to your mental balance. The truth is matrescence can either make or mar your psychological well-being.
The challenges of motherhood continue to evolve as your child grows. Your emotions become more conflicted and your responsibilities increase. You are always second-guessing your parenting tactics and wondering if you are making the right choices for your child. There is that feeling of guilt you always carry around with you as a working mother.
You worry you are not carving out time enough to spend with your young one. You debate whether to give up your job which has become more demanding, but you need to give your child the best life and you need money for that. You struggle to maintain a good work-balance, but it feels next to impossible.
You are frustrated, anxious and physically exhausted on most days, and just when you begin to question if motherhood is really worth it, you catch the bright smile on your child’s face and you laugh through the tears. But your worries do not completely fade.
This is an example of a typical scenario faced by working mothers every day, especially when the woman is a single parent. Balancing work and family life can prove to be a herculean task for mothers. In fact, a longitudinal study found that work-family conflict is linked to poorer mental health and it can last through the first eight years of motherhood.
The report stated that poor work and family balance affected mental health in the same pattern regardless of when the mother returned back to work. It was especially pronounced in women who had financial difficulties and had to work long hours. However, women who were older and had robust financial backgrounds fared better mentally despite experiencing greater challenges of juggling work and family responsibilities.
Stay at home mums have their own share of the emotional burden too. While they may have all the time in the world to bond with their kids, they may also feel like the world is passing them by. They may look back with regret at all the missed career opportunities and goals, and suffer from depression due to sleep deprivation, overwhelming household responsibilities, and loss of freedom, privacy, and self-identity. According to a 2012 poll, 42% of stay-at-home mums reported battling with depression, sadness, and anger, with low-income stay-at-home mums suffering the most.
And there are the bittersweet teenage years when you have to come to terms with the fact that your little one is not so little anymore. You can’t even get them to listen to you without one or two threats, plus they keep getting into more trouble and causing you sleepless nights.
You keep buying parenting books because you are not sure you are doing a good job raising your kid, not with that hair cut and tattoos you spotted on him recently. Your stomach is constantly in knots and you are torn between giving your teenager some space and meddling in their lives to keep a tab on their activities.
You never seem to find common ground with your teenager and it’s making your blood pressure rise. Sometimes, you question your sanity and find yourself crying bitter tears. You know you are depressed, but you are ashamed to admit that your child is making you depressed. Nobody told you, motherhood was going to be this hard!!
And then all of a sudden your child is all grown up and has become a full-fledged adult. You look on with pride at how much you have impacted their growth. The sacrifices you made, the sleepless nights you had to endure, the depression and anxiety you had to battle. You don’t get to see your child as much as you would have loved to.
They’ve made a life for themselves and they’ve left you feeling empty and sad. You are suddenly overwhelmed by a great loss of both your adult child and purpose. You’ve poured your life into raising them and now you are at a loss of what to do with yourself. Your relationship with your child has also changed, you don’t know how much you should text or call without coming across as being clingy.
It is especially difficult when they are married, and you even begin to feel envious of their spouse. If you don’t get a grip on yourself soon, you think you will die of heartbreak. Nobody told you motherhood was going to drain you emotionally and test your psychological balance until you are old!!
FINDING A BALANCE IN MOTHERHOOD
Motherhood is not a walk in the park, and every woman experiences it in a different way. However, the general consensus remains that it is both filled with joy and pain, highs and lows. Society and culture have mounted a lot of pressure on women that in most cases, a woman’s success is measured by how well her children are doing regardless of her personal accomplishments.
This has pushed women into assuming the “super mum” roles without weighing its effect on their mental health. Emotional and hormonal factors also play a part in this development.
To find the true joy of motherhood, women should also consider their own needs and feelings and not focus solely on the needs of their children. It is not wrong to put the needs of your children before yours, but a mentally and physically balanced mother makes for better-raised children.
The trials of motherhood are inevitable, but finding a balance through adequate self-care and knowing when to stop and catch your breath can make it easier to navigate through the hurdles of motherhood while simultaneously keeping your mental health in check. Seek help through therapy when it all becomes too much to handle. There is no such thing as a “super mum”. You are allowed to have a mental breakdown because you are human after all.
The government should make mental health care easily accessible to mothers. It is not enough to only screen them for postpartum depression after childbirth and cross them off the list. Maternal mental health can be supported through the availability of effective therapy, and other therapeutic aids such as support groups. Mental health professionals should also be proactive in creating awareness on maternal mental health.
Organizations should make structural and practical changes that fit the reality of contemporary motherhood. Workplace discrimination needs to be stopped. Lawmakers should put in place policies that sanctions and penalizes organizations that treat women unfairly just because they have children.
Putting these measures in place can go a long way in combating maternal related mental illnesses. Mothers are undoubtedly a gift to mankind and should be treated with the utmost care. Motherhood shouldn’t be a burden of responsibility.