It's 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 our experience is that actually the deepest slump typically occurs a few years after the baby is born, especially if there's been a second child or another significant stress (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, some to the extent that we have proposed that there can be an actual Depleted Mother Syndrome.
None of this is good for the mother, to be sure. 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 of 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 mood, more sense of pride in their competence as a parent, and a closer and more satisfying relationship with their partner. Not bad!
Even though the effects of maternal stress and depletion are plainly visible in well-documented research -- an 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.
You're right: 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, 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 models in the media of the woman 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, 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 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, and assert why it's right and proper for her to get appropriate attention, support, and care. Those good reasons are motivating for her and for others -- and that's where everything starts in life: with our intentions.