'Women do too much for their children'
Mothers need to learn to pull back a bit, instead of giving their all, if they want to stay healthy
Published 08/08/2011 | 05:00
Self-sacrifice in motherhood is not a new concept by any means. Part of the package of being a woman seems to be our sense of obligation to our families and others who need us.
The problem is that, with the multiple roles that women now occupy, the 'doing it all' rather than 'having it all' concept is driving many mothers to the point of exhaustion.
When does self-sacrifice become seriously unhealthy? And, for the women out there who are running themselves ragged for their families, putting themselves at risk of a serious illness or threatening their emotional health, surely their loved ones would prefer that they become a little more selfish?
Wouldn't they choose to have a healthy, happy mother -- or partner -- rather than one who may be run-down, stressed or even resentful of their role in life?
The actress Teri Hatcher, famous for her role in the television series 'Desperate Housewives', coined it succinctly with the title of her book, 'Burnt Toast: And Other Philosophies of Life'. She said that the book's title is a metaphor for women who too often take the leftovers for themselves, something, Hatcher says, she is trying to do less of.
Despite a successful career, Hatcher, a single mother, says she can still feel "very fragile and very insecure", and she has trouble admitting that she needs help from other people. She urges other women to be more honest about their insecurities and self-doubt and to admit that mothering, although hugely rewarding, can sometimes be a struggle that is both mentally and physically exhausting.
Yoga teacher Colette* (not her real name) is one who now readily admits that she seriously compromised her health due to her motherly duties. With three children under the age of seven, life was naturally hectic but within the space of just two years, her body went into shutdown as a result of neglect.
She traces her demise back to the birth of her third child, when she missed the crucial six-week check with her GP.
"I just felt like I didn't have time, but now I realise what I was saying to myself, 'You are not that important. Your health and well-being does not matter as much as the children's'."
Colette believes that her obsessive nature went into overdrive when the children came along. She strived to consistently have a spotless house, a successful career and to bring up well-educated, high-achieving children.
"I worked myself into a continual state of anxiety. I couldn't sit still. I started to miss meals as it took time away from cleaning or exercising. The gym became the focus of my day and I wouldn't miss it for anything.
"I pretended to myself that the exercise gave me energy but, in reality, it wore me down and all it was doing was just fuelling an obsession with being thin and being in control," she says.
"I had come to a point where everything had to have a purpose or a higher aim. So if I was watching television in the evening, I had to be folding laundry or matching socks. In the morning, I couldn't possibly leave the house without all the beds being made and the kitchen spotless. Nothing was done for pure enjoyment. I had to be achieving 24-7.
"I also applied it to the children, which I really regret. They had begun a second language by the age of three and they were in way too many after-school activities.
"By evening, I was so exhausted that I would collapse on the sofa or on the floor and then attempt to play with them, but only half-heartedly, so I am sure they sensed something was wrong," says Colette.
"I used to go to bed dreading the next day. Socialising had entirely fallen away because I simply didn't have the energy, or desire, to go out."
Colette felt that she couldn't take her eye off the ball for a second and that everything would fall apart if she didn't stick with this rigid structure she'd built.
What finally brought her behaviour to a halt was when Colette's partner urged her to see her GP for her constant fatigue. Since her periods had become irregular and then stopped altogether, the GP initially believed that she was entering the menopause, or going into peri-menopause.
However, blood tests revealed that her body was in shutdown mode and simply could not cope with the demands being put upon it.
"I had depleted my body completely," she says, "so much so that my periods had stopped. The doctors also discovered my hypothalamus was not functioning properly." (It's the portion of the brain responsible for controlling body temperature, hunger, thirst and sleep.)
A psychologist suggested to Colette that she was responsible for her own ill health and, in the same vein, she could turn it around.
"I knew this was serious and I had to start looking after myself, not just for me, but also for the kids and my partner. I started by putting an exercise ban in place, meaning the gym was completely off limits for a few weeks. I cut right back on caffeine, which had been giving me false energy and I bought healthy eating cookbooks."
For the first time ever, Colette began cooking food that she liked to eat, not just what her partner or children wanted.
"I also slowly, and with great difficulty, let the structure with the children go a little. Now I'm more aware that kids should be kids and allowed to just play sometimes. I also try to sit down in the afternoon tread the newspaper, and resist feeling guilty for 'wasting' time.
"I used to feel that asking for help was a failure but now I've booked an au pair to come in the autumn to give me that extra pair of hands. Before, I would have felt guilty and I'd literally have to collapse before my partner really noticed. It wasn't his fault -- he is very caring and thoughtful -- but I had hidden it from him.
"Friends have commented that I look better and, for the first time in months, I had a period recently. Also, I know I'm actually a better mother this way: I'm much more relaxed and I've more energy with the children so everyone is better off."
Anne O'Connor, consultant clinical psychologist and founder of rollercoaster.ie, believes that many women today are doing too much for their children and their families.
She thinks it would do no harm at all if women could sit back and think about how their own needs could be fulfilled within the family context.
She urges women to teach their children skills of independence early, and to avoid the habit of making them reliant on the mother figure for all their needs.
"What I notice is mothers seem to be finding it harder to set clear boundaries and to not give themselves entirely to their roles as parents."
O'Connor believes that women who give too much can suffer physically and emotionally or, at the very least, live very limiting lives.
"There is this idea that the child has to be happy, or entertained, all of the time and that is completely unrealistic," she says.
"The aim should be to produce a child who can cope with the ups and downs of life so, in the long term, a mother who does everything for her child is not doing him or her any favours.
"I see a lot of mothers who have lost their confidence and I have to tell them, 'You are doing a great job, but you need to reclaim some of yourself out of all this. Your child will grow up and leave the house, and you don't want to be totally bereft when this happens. You need to get stimulation away from the family context," says O'Connor.
"Also, the level of self-sacrifice that I see can put awful pressure on children and that is not healthy for the child or the mother."
Health & Living