Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Stephanie Knaak

GET UPDATES FROM Stephanie Knaak

Is Modern Parenthood Bad for Mommy's Health?

Posted: 01/17/2013 8:13 am

View image
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?

Loading Slideshow...
  • Cabbage Leaves

    <b>What they're meant to remedy</b>: Breast engorgement <b>How they've been studied</b>: By small randomized control and quasi-control groups <b>Do they work?</b>: According to <a href="http://www.breastfeedingonline.com/cabbage.shtml">the people behind "Beginnings: A Practical Guide Through Your Pregnancy,"</a> they do help the tenderness many mothers feel when breastfeeding, especially when applied in a poultice. Most importantly, they can't do any harm.

  • Beer

    <b>What it's meant to remedy</b>: A lack of milk <b>How it's been studied</b>: For the nutritional value of the hops and barley contained within <b>Does it work?</b>: Well, <a href="http://www.parenting.com/blogs/show-and-tell/lauren-parentingcom/mariah-carey-drinks-beer-help-breastfeeding">Mariah Carey thought so</a> — but various professionals are divided, including those who warn that alcohol can be transferred through the milk to the baby. A good option? Non-alcoholic beer, <a href="http://www.pregnancyandbaby.com/baby/articles/945517/drinking-alcohol-and-breastfeeding-what-is-safe">which still contains the hops that is supposedly helping the milk flow</a>, without any of the booze that can be bad for baby.

  • Tea Bags

    <b>What they're meant to remedy</b>: Sore nipples <b>How they've been studied</b>: By the Riordan Clinic (a health facility in Kansas), as well as many mothers who have tried it <b>Do they work?</b>: Again, this one's up in the air. While some (like the Riordan Clinic) say it reduces pain, others note the tannic acid in the tea can cause further cracking of the nipples.

  • Fenugreek Seeds

    <b>What they're meant to remedy</b>: Not enough milk <b>How they've been studied</b>: <a href="http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00851591">In clinical studies</a> — as well as literature since ancient times <b>Do they work?</b>: Many reports,<a href="http://www.nbci.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=21:herbal-remedies-for-milk-supply&catid=5:articles&Itemid=17"> including one from the International Breastfeeding Centre</a>, support the use, but fenugreek has also been associated with increased blood pressure, so check with your doctor before using.

  • Blessed Thistle

    <b>What it's meant to remedy</b>: A lack of milk supply <b>How it's been studied</b>: Through word of mouth <b>Does it work?</b>: Much like fenugreek, blessed thistle (or holy thistle, as it's otherwise known) has been shown to help milk supply, but without any scientific backing.

  • Sage

    <b>What it's meant to remedy</b>: Too much milk <b>How it's been studied</b>: Folk reputation <b>Does it work?</b>: According to La Leche League, <a href="http://www.lalecheleague.org/llleaderweb/lv/lvjunjul98p43.html">it can work when taken internally</a> (i.e. as an oil). However, other experts recommend only going this route when you are <a href="http://kellymom.com/bf/can-i-breastfeed/herbs/herbs-oversupply/">weaning your baby off breast milk</a>.

  • Echinacea

    <b>What it's meant to remedy</b>: Mastitis (breast tissue infection) <b>How it's been studied</b>: Natural remedy publications <b>Does it work?</b>: In "Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Years" by herbalist Susan Weed, <a href="http://www.keeperofthehome.org/2010/10/prevention-and-treatment-of-mastitis-natural-alternatives-to-taking-antibiotics.html">an echinacea root tincture is recommended for mastitis</a>. However, as pregnant women with colds are well aware, remedies with echinacea (like Cold FX) are not recommended due to a lack of medical studies, so be wary.

  • Grated Raw Potato (Or Slices)

    <b>What it's meant to remedy</b>: Mastitis or breast tenderness <b>How it's been studied</b>: Natural health professionals, <a href="http://www.nbci.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7:blocked-ducts-a-mastitis&catid=5:information&Itemid=17">adopted by expert Dr. Jack Newman</a> <b>Does it work?</b>: Many women online advocate for this soothing remedy, though no medical studies have shown a result. Apparently, <a href="http://www.susunweed.com/Article_Breastfeeding2.htm">the coolness of the potato has draw out the heat of the infection</a> and unclog blocked ducts.

  • St. John's Wort

    <b>What it's meant to remedy</b>: Postpartum depression <b>How it's been studied</b>: By <a href="http://www.womensmentalhealth.org/posts/is-st-john%E2%80%99s-wort-safe-in-breastfeeding-women/">Toronto's Motherrisk in a small study</a> <b>Does it work?</b>: While St. John's Wort has been shown to help with depression, the lack of information on the herb means it's not recommended for breastfeeding women. In light of recent studies showing <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/antidepressants-pregnancy-ssri_n_2403280.html">no increased risk of SIDS for pregnant women taking SSRIs</a>, it's possible conventional medication is the best option.

  • Oatmeal

    <b>What it's meant to remedy</b>: A lack of milk <b>How it's been studied</b>: By word of mouth <b>Does it work?</b>: According to online breastfeeding expert KellyMom, it can, <a href="http://kellymom.com/bf/got-milk/supply-worries/oatmeal/">either thanks to an increase in iron or the 'comfort food' factor</a> (relaxation can help to produce more milk). Oatmeal's other benefits (<a href="http://www.motherearthliving.com/natural-health/7-health-benefits-of-oatmeal.aspx">like fibre and antioxidants</a>) mean it's not a bad idea to eat either way!