Depleted Mother Syndrome

Rick and Jan Hanson's picture

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.

Does this sound like anybody you know? Once you get the diagnosis clear, you can start on the treatment.

Prime the pump

It's hard to do anything when you feel like you do. People (including me) can give you lots of suggestions -- but miss the fact that our "brilliant ideas" are just more to-do items when you're already overwhelmed with things to do.

People that care about you need to walk a middle path between treating you like a helpless child who can't do a thing for herself (as men have commonly regarded women in distress) and treating you like a machine that just needs a new action program to get going. That middle path is a matter of tacking back and forth, like a sailboat, between either extreme and using feedback from you to correct course as we go. Please let me know if I err here on either side.

You sound terribly worn out, unhappy, and depressed. If you are depleted, you may have crossed a line like someone with hypothermia who can no longer generate sufficient heat from the inside, no matter what she does, but needs an external energy source. Once you get that first infusion of resources, though, positive cycles can start which feed each other and turn things around. For example, a break from the physical stresses might give you a chance to clear your head enough to initiate marriage counseling that leads to a change in his schedule which further lowers your stress, which . . . .

I bet that in your world is someone, something that could give you a little boost, enough to prime the pump. Who could come through for right now, at least a little bit? How about your own mother or dad? A sister or brother? Another parent who is further down the road? Maybe the most you can do is clip this column and give it to your husband. But there is something in your life that can catalyse the beginning of the end of your DMS, and you can find it.

Step by step

Space doesn't allow the long version of what you can do for DMS. That will appear in my next column. Here's the short version. Please read the suggestions below not as a checklist of to-do's but as the way you can move at many levels -- gently, naturally, continually -- toward your replenishment and healing.

Acknowledge how rotten things feel. Let yourself grieve. Comfort yourself and get comfort from others. Accept yourself; stop pushing down or disowning your experience or parts of yourself; don't smile when you feel like crying.

Take care of your body. Get a thorough check-up and begin a comprehensive wellness program with a licensed health practitioner. Eat better, exercise, be touched more, and experience more pleasure.

Get support, including more quality help with the children. Work on your relationship so that you become a team again; a counselor may help. Connect more with other parents, both informally and through community organizations like A.P.P.L.E.

Let go of unwanted feelings, past upsets, and relationships or activities that don't work for you. Take into yourself the good things around you and make them a part of yourself.

Above all, settle more into your essential being: always already aware, interested, loving, and happy -- in whatever form you experience it -- detached from the daily craziness, a refuge of nourishment and quiet humor, your own true self.

Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin.

Copyright © Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.