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Is Modern Parenthood Bad for Mommy's Health?

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My friend Susie is in the midst of "night-time waking" hell with her four-month-old daughter, Jess (not their real names). Instinct tells her Jess is hungry and that's what's causing the continued waking. Susie, being committed to breastfeeding, is torn about what to do. How can she increase her daughter's daytime caloric intake when she is already breastfeeding at max capacity (i.e., as long and as often as her daughter demands)?

Susie's lack of sleep is affecting her mood and her ability to function so she needs to do something. But what? Should she try a bottle of formula at bedtime to see if that does the trick? Or should she introduce solid foods, even though it is still too soon?

As desperate as my friend is for a decent night's sleep, she's loath to try either of these options. Formula feeding and early introduction of solids are two big no-nos in the new parenthood order. Both deviate from the rule of six months exclusive breastfeeding. And as any mother knows, exclusive breastfeeding is one of the biggies in the good mothering playbook. There is no confusing the message; six months of exclusive breastfeeding is what babies need and deserve.

Susie's essential quandary is this: is it justifiable for her to prioritize her own need for sleep if it means breaking this sacred rule?

Being a critic of how modern parenting science gets mainstreamed, I have little issue breaking the rules when faced with these kinds of dilemmas. I encouraged Susie to experiment with both options. The way I see it, her need for sleep trumps the exclusive breastfeeding rule.

Even though she remains unconvinced about this premise, she is reassured at least to hear that adding formula to her breastfeeding regimen won't destine her daughter to a lifetime of ill health, low IQ and obesity. Hanna Rosin's 2009 feature in the Atlantic and professor Joan Wolf's brilliant book Is Breast Best? are only two examples of the pushback to the militancy of breastfeeding, showing us how the science of infant feeding is riddled by misinterpretation, misapplication, and exaggeration.

While this perhaps helps to put the concern about "risk" into perspective, Susie is still emotionally wrought over what to do. Simply put, she doesn't want to see herself as "those" mothers -- the ones who give up, who can't hack it, who can't or otherwise choose not to meet the expectations of gold standard mothering.

My friend's dilemma is typical for the new motherhood order. Of course it's normal to be anxious and stressed out at times as a parent; worry and uncertainty come with the job. But something's seriously off kilter when mothers feel so un-entitled to give their own health needs top priority. Is not one of the most important things for raising healthy, happy children to ensure that the their parents -- especially their mothers, who still do most of the day-to-day caring and decision-making -- are also happy, healthy and well?

Yet for so many mothers it feels just plain wrong to prioritize our own health when it means deviating from the "perfect mother" rulebook. And that's because it is considered wrong. The modern parenthood order, which adheres to the tenets of "the ideology of intensive mothering" is a paradigm that, if you actually embrace and adhere to it, puts your mental and emotional well-being at risk.

An article recently published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies illustrates this point. This study measured mental health outcomes of 181 mothers of preschool children. The study also measured the extent to which mothers endorsed the following tenets of intensive mothering: that mothers are the most necessary and capable parent; that happiness is derived primarily from one's children; that parents should always provide stimulating activities to aid in their children's development, that parenting is more difficult than working; and that parents should always sacrifice their need for the needs of their child.

The authors found that intensive mothering beliefs were correlated with a number of negative health outcomes, including lower life satisfaction, increased stress and depression. The findings suggest that subscribing to the tenets of intensive mothering can lead mothers to "sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children's cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes ... However, research is needed on child outcomes because, currently, there is not any data to support this assumption."

Thus the questions we are left with: Is this really the best model for raising kids? Isn't it time to change our cultural script for good parenting?

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