Learn More About Getting Your Groove Backl!
I'm tired. We've had three kids in six years. Our youngest, Erin, is a year old. I wanted to nurse her longer but just couldn't. I don't have any energy. I'm about 30 pounds heavier than I ought to be but don't have time to exercise. My husband is a medical equipment technician and works very long hours and travels monthly. When he's around he's often on the phone for business. When he plays Dad I've got to tell him what to do, and sometimes he'll even screw that up. We argue a lot. I feel like a single parent. I cry easily though I try to hide it. I feel like I'm in a kind of nightmare. I'm not happy. I don't want to tell my friends how bad it is. It all seems so hopeless.
Rick and Jan Hanson answer
In my previous column, I described a chronic condition many mothers experience for years after childbirth, which I termed (tongue slightly in cheek) "DMS: Depleted Mother Syndrome." This column offers an extended discussion of ways you can treat and recover from DMS.
Summary of DMS
"Depleted Mother Syndrome" 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. DMS can vary in its severity. There may also be good days when the syndrome appears to be gone, only to return again.
Each mother is unique
The comments below will not apply to every mother in every way. You are unique. Please take the parts that are relevant and useful to you and leave the rest. I do not know your particular situation and recommend that you use the suggestions below only if you are working with a licensed professional.
Take your situation seriously
We can underestimate the severity and cost of our distress and dysfunction. It is especially easy to do this when one is depleted and depressed while feeling a self-sacrificing commitment to one's children. DMS can sneak up on you and you can become so used to it that it seems almost natural. It is also true that women's health problems have historically been downplayed or even ignored.
You matter. Your fatigue and unhappiness and pain matter. They affect you and they affect your husband and children. You don't have to feel this way. It would be a pity to have your capacity to enjoy and be with your children during these special and never-to-be-repeated years eroded and diminished by DMS. Make a real commitment to your health and happiness.
Get professional help
Physiological depletion, depression, marital problems, chronic fatigue, etc. are serious problems and should be dealt with under the supervision of licensed health care practitioners (including psychotherapists) working within the scope of their license and competence. Since DMS is a malady with biological, psychological and social components, I believe that it is best treated by a team approach. It is OK to have several solid professionals working on your behalf; in fact it's kind of great!
Generally, I suggest you identify one professional to be your "case manager," with overall responsibility for your care. You need to be able to be a "patient," in the best sense of that word, and not add to your burdens by taking on the management of your treatment.
Sometimes mothers can feel overwhelmed, out of control, or ashamed about getting help. Your "case manager" should direct the treatment in steps you can handle to keep you from feeling overwhelmed. Remember that you are ultimately in charge, that your health practitioners work for you; tell them what you need and when things aren't working. And please don't feel embarrassed: you got in this fix for the best reason of all, because of your love for your children.
The beginning of self-care is to acknowledge and mourn losses and pain. It just doesn't work to skip over the bruises of life and cheerily rush ahead into superficial problem-solving. Own up to yourself and out loud to at least one other person "where it hurts." Mourn and grieve your suffering and losses. Comfort yourself and get comfort from others.
Self-acceptance is another key to taking care of yourself. Observe your experience honestly, without repression or walling off parts of yourself. Cherish the whole package, warts and all. Guilt and shame have their place in civilized people, but only a very small place. Be true to yourself and do not take on what doesn't feel right.
Take care of your body
Under the stresses of parenting we tend to dissociate from our bodies. Take your body seriously. Get a thorough checkup that examines nutrients, hormones and lingering infections as well as general health. Work with a licensed health practitioner to develop a comprehensive wellness program for yourself -- and stick to it! I recommend a skeptical, smart, holistic approach based on solid information and facts, using the best of Western and Eastern medicine. If you are depressed (often masked by a brave smile) I suggest you seek psychotherapy and consider seeing a psychiatrist for possible anti-depressants.
I have seen mothers benefit from regular exercise, improved diet, nutritional supplements, antibiotics, physical therapy, homeopathy, acupuncture and anti-depressants. I encourage you not to rule out a treatment modality without serious investigation and often a trial. Obviously, each person must make their own judgments in conjunction with a licensed professional about the approach that is best for them; I am not offering medical advice.
Besides medical care, I suggest you treat your body like your best friend -- or at least as well as you'd treat a well-loved pet! Feed it better, give it reasonable exercise, pet and touch it more, and make sure it experiences more pleasure.
Parents need support. The American ideal of the isolated, invulnerable individual is unattainable and bankrupt. Reach out for encouragement and help. There is no shame in asking for support. Parenting is a heroic undertaking that bloodies the best of us. Talk with your friends and family. Connect with churches, parent resource centers and other community organizations. Consider getting more quality help with your children, perhaps through swapping childcare with other parents.
Straighten out your relationship
DMS is both a result and a cause of troubled marriages. Very briefly, I suggest three things: (1) Take better care of yourself as individuals. (2) Restore civility, understanding, support, friendship, affection, and other forms of positive intimacy. (3) Resolve conflicts and solve problems, especially those related to parenting and sharing the load.
Of course, this is easier said than done. If you are unable to make a qualitative change in your marriage on your own, then I recommend you work with a licensed psychotherapist.
Release "the bad"
Caring for oneself requires letting go and moving on. Our culture is oriented toward acquiring, not eliminating. But if we don't eliminate, we become full of ____ ! Say goodbye to unwanted aspects of self, past experiences, or relationships. You might write a letter to yourself about how awful things have been and then ritually burn it. Or go someplace where you can really let go to rant and rave as long and loud as you can. Or take turns with your spouse to have a no-holds-barred complaint session where you each listen empathically (and try not to take things personally). A neutral party like a minister or therapist can be helpful.
Receive "the good"
Once we release, then we can receive. Take for yourself -- what a concept! Take in and internalize all the love and support around you. Make good things a part of yourself. You might sense that with every breath good feelings, light, joy, and comfort are entering you. You might imagine being a sponge, soaking up the love of your children, the true support of your mate.
Your essential being
It can really help to turn more toward our essential being: always already aware, interested, loving, and happy -- in whatever form you experience it. It is comforting to take refuge in our essence in the tumult of family life, and also enables us to increase intimacy and solve conflicts more effectively. Do what works for you to deepen a felt sense of your essence, the ultimate way to care for yourself.