Depleted Mother Syndrome

by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac.

Parenting can wreck your life

One morning a few months after our second child, Laurel, was born -- we'd been up much of the night (again) and were blotto with fatigue -- my wife looked at me and said "Parenting can wreck your life!"

That's extreme, but there's some truth to it. The metaphors you hear from parents about the arrival of children are powerful:

"We got hit by a Mack truck."
"A bomb went off in our family."
"My wife and I were like two twigs side by side in a pond and each kid was a stone dropped between us and the ripples kept coming and pushing us apart."

Parenting brings many gifts. But parenting also has many costs. There are the energy drains of caring for children, working harder for a living, or new conflicts with our spouse. Worries gnaw at us: Is the little one OK? How are we going to pay the bills? What's happening to our marriage? We sleep less, eat poorly, and get less exercise. Pleasures fall away, old friends drop out of our lives, and we never seem to have any real time for ourselves. We'll joke but it's not funny: "Ah yes, I remember sex."

We could deal with any one of these alone, but all together they are overwhelming. Stress is cumulative, and over time we feel more and more ground down.

"Depleted Mom Syndrome"

As tough as all this is for fathers, it is usually even harder for mothers. As a generalization with some exceptions, women typically bear the greater brunt of childcare and housework plus often end up working a "second shift" after coming home from their job.

Further, women have the unique and really extraordinary task of building the most complex organ the body ever grows and then expelling it with great effort and pain through an opening that is too small in a process that until recently was frequently fatal. Fathers contribute one small cell -- essentially DNA with a tail -- to the newborn while everything else comes from the mother.

If she nurses her baby (recommended if possible) she needs to pour about a quarter of her total caloric intake into her child, draining herself of many important minerals and other nutrients. Her baby literally feeds on her flesh. Her hormones and physiology flip-flop during pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing and the other systems in her body may never full recover. Her immune system becomes less effective. Brain chemistry alters and neurotransmitters involved in everything from sleep to depression get out of balance. Oh, and the biological clock keeps ticking so she and her husband decide to conceive another child!

I've been graphic about the facts because many mothers feel unnecessarily guilty about being so drained and upset, and because many fathers (including myself) haven't really gotten it about the shock of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and motherhood altogether. Men and women can both think that "she has to snap out of it," or worse that the mother is being self-indulgent, lazy, or over-dramatic.

Well, she can't just snap out of it. I believe that many women experience a clinical syndrome after a child that goes well beyond postpartum depression. It has an objective reality; it is not "only in her head." With tongue slightly in cheek, I call it "DMS": Depleted Mom Syndrome.

This condition has causes and symptoms that are physical, psychological, and social. Its causes include lack of sleep and exercise, poor diet, hormonal imbalances, nutrient loss, neurotransmitter deficiencies, guilt, anxiety, conflicting role expectations, marital conflict, and a breakdown of social supports. Its symptoms include chronic fatigue, susceptibility to illness, connective tissue problems including back pain and headaches, emotional numbing, depression, mood swings, irritability, hopelessness, confusion, running battles with husbands, and a turning inward away from friends and family.

The causes and symptoms interact to create negative cycles: physical stressors reduce psychological coping which makes it harder to seek social supports which worsen stress, and so forth. The efforts women make to cope with this syndrome can themselves be problematic: over-control, using children as confidantes or surrogate mates, bitter and exaggerated criticism of others, a stance as victim or martyr, and escapes into such distractions and consolations as over-eating or alcohol.