Yes – it’s on! Mother’s day is upon us and so, too, the carefully crafted junk mail and television commercials – Images of blow-waved children bouncing onto a perfectly ruffled bed on a sun-streamed morning bringing breakfast on a delicately manicured tray while a handsome man with the just right amount of five o’clock shadow smiles on from the bedroom door. Ahhh! Motherhood!
We all know that motherhood is rarely perfect. But – how much leeway is there from “perfect” before it starts to have a detrimental effect on families?
It is very clear that family violence is a toxic influence on the lives of little ones and that violence needs to be avoided at all costs. However, the other sometimes hidden, toxic, risk factor for eroding well being of children is maternal (and parental) mental health problems.
When you look into the literature on risk factors for child mental health, there is one factor that repeatedly screams out – parental depression. Depression is more than stress or fatigue. To some extent, some stress and fatigue are very much a part of parenting. Depression, however, is the big player in family wellbeing. Even when families are challenged by children with special needs or complex behaviours, it is the presence of absence of parental depression that often determines the outcome for the child’s mental wellbeing.
Parental mental health is critical to positive child well being. A parent with poor mental health can have a huge impact on the entire family – the other parent/s, the children, the ability to work and earn income and the ability to stay socially engaged with friends and extended family. A mother needs to be “fit enough” to be able to:
- provide affection
- be responsive to her child’s needs
- be encouraging
- teach every day lessons in moment by moment situations
- engage with the child and the world
- discipline positively when it is called for
- support her partner in co-parenting and encourage the partners healthy relationship with the child.
If a mother’s ability to do these things is affected for any lengthy period of time, then that’s when a child’s well being may be affected unless support is rallied. Some mothers have difficulty relying on others or being relied upon themselves. Often, this difficulty can be a sign that something has gone on in the mother’s early years that interfered with the attachment between her and her own parents.
While some parents have clearly defined mental health problems, many parents may suffer from what we refer to as “subclinical” mental health disorders. A subclinical disorder is one where a mother can still soldier on and get to work, feed the family and attend all of the after school sport and activities, but underneath she is just not coping and may be leaning heavily on alcohol, other substances, or over working in order to get by.
Some mothers soldier on through their non-coping periods. Sometimes they do this because they don’t want to be a burden or a nuisance to others, because they are “so lucky” compared to some of the things they see people go through on the news and because they think they just need to “snap out of it”. Some get a bit of a Super Mum complex and then become resentful when their mood takes a hit.
Mothers need to prioritise self care. This doesn’t mean selfishness. It means genuinely looking after the person who, if not travelling well, has the ability to disrupt the whole family.
Just like we should check in and service our motor vehicles, Mum’s need time to reflect and take stock. A mum who is “firing” on all of her mental health “cylinders” uses healthy ways to regulate her emotions and manage her stresses and seeks and provides support from, and to, others. She watches the signs on her own emotional “dashboard” and refills when her “fuel levels” are low. Driving herself by being clear about her signs optimises her mental health, helps her make decisions, keeps her stable in her work and for her family and helps her exercise some sharp parenting skills.
Promoting self care for mums should be more than Mothers’ Day marketing madness. It’s imperative that mothers are supported to have, and maintain, good mental health that stays well clear of subclinical levels of concern.
So, what does a mother need this mother’s day? Self-care! She needs to do some basic stuff really well and really consistently and not just on Mothers’ Day.
A mother (or any parent or carer) needs to look after herself every day. She needs to know how to ask for and accept support. She needs time to check in and make sure that she has balance and that her coping skills are healthy – more laughter, exercise, fun and sharing and less lonely, hard-working, stoic resentment. She needs to be curious about life, be open to meeting new people and to trying new things. If there is something that is getting in the way, whether it is from the past or in the present, she needs to work on shifting it.
Banish stoic, perfect super mums and their bouncy, sun-filled mother’s day breakfast expectations and bring on healthy, open, warm, vulnerable, human mothers who can give and receive cuddles and have them gladden their hearts without fear that snot or crumbs will mean that there will be even more work to do before she can relax and genuinely “be” with her favourite people.
Mum, do right by yourself and your children and if you feel that your mental health could be wobbly, take time to check in on yourself. Your partner, best friend or even your GP may be great people to start a check in with. You might be surprised at how much they can tell you about yourself and what it is like when you may not be coping.