Back To School: The Borderlands Of Motherhood

Life transitions don’t typically happen overnight. Your ticket might say you have arrived, but the emotional work of adjustment does not have a time and date.

Back to school can be a particularly trying time because of its ability surface, in one concentrated week or two, all the many ways parenthood can both fill us with pleasure and wear us down.  It can be so exciting to see a brand new school year begin. Yet, if you’re feeling a little unsteady in this period of transition, you’d hardly be alone.

The back to school period, like childbirth (or any major life transition) is a liminal one. This means that for a while, we sit in the ‘in between’, straddling two life phases. One foot in the old world, one foot in the new.

It can be exciting. We are marking a new life phase and a new accomplishment, both for our children and for ourselves.  Yet in the midst of so much anticipation and hope, things can also feel a little unknown. And downright raw.

Welcome to the what we call the ‘borderlands’ of motherhood. Those periods of transition where the promise of your destination awaits, but your passport still needs to be stamped, the guards don’t smile, you’re a little homesick, and your luggage might be missing. You’re travelling forward. But you haven’t arrived just yet.

This time of year, many of us find ourselves in a brief - but trying -  part of these borderlands: The ‘back to school’ weeks. While you’re there, here’s what you might find:

Tough Feelings: Parenthood can make us joyful. It can also make us worried, anxious, frustrated and sad, depending on the day and what we are managing. The new school year is filled with possibilities for these feelings. We can worry about how our children will make friends or get along with their teachers. We can worry we haven’t remembered all of the crucial calendar dates. We can be frustrated our children won’t wake up on time. We can be a little sad to see them move on, one step closer to the fantastic, grown people they promise to become.    

That little goodbye at the school gate can feel every bit as emotional as the day they arrived into the world. In an instant, they, and you, are in a new life stage. The awe and intensity of that realisation can make the most steely of us a little less so.   

Sleep Disturbance and Fatigue: Back to school brings with it a change in rest patterns. The low key schedules of school holidays are over. You might be staying up later than usual trying to get clothes and lunches packed. You might be up earlier trying to set the stage for your new school year routine. You might not be sleeping very well at all given all of the worries that a new school year can bring.

And then there is the physical and emotional strain of trying to adjust to so many new roles, activities and responsibilities. Yes, your children are the ones completing the activities. But you are the one making sure they get there, get back, and get everything done. This work takes it toll.

Relationship Stress: For many reasons, the work of raising children can stress your relationship with your partner. These fault lines  can come into vivid color during the back to school period.

It’s possible your partner shares in the many to-do’s a school year brings. It’s also possible that they don’t. It’s possible your partner does not see eye to eye with you on the school your child will attend, the routines you adhere to, or the priorities you each place on activities. It’s possible they don’t share the same worries, concerns or frustrations you do with specific aspects of the school experience. You are two different human beings. The possibilities for different worldviews are infinite. So are the stresses and disagreements these differences can introduce.

Financial Strain: Kids are expensive. Especially this time of year. Whether you are paying a hefty tuition bill or handing over large sums for new school supplies, clothes and after school activities, this time of year can be pricey. Its no secret that bills can also impact all the factors discussed above. Worry, lost sleep, and relationship stress can all stem from uncertainty or disagreements over money. Education costs a lot. So, it seems,  does everything else these days. It can be especially hard this time of year to feel like things are balanced financially.

Mourning the loss of the old: With all new beginnings must come a goodbye. A goodbye to the old year. A goodbye to the smaller clothes. A goodbye to the sweet artwork of last year.  And with goodbyes can come sadness. Completely normal sadness.  When we lose something we have held dear, like an old identity, old role, or old relationship, we can feel grief. You might miss the warmth of last year’s teacher. You might miss the nurturing embrace of a school for younger children. You or your child might be missing old friends.

The years that have led up to this point may have been wonderful ones. Even if they weren’t particularly notable saying goodbye to them can bring a twinge of regret. With a new school year, we have to leave one life stage and step into the next one. While hello’s can be exciting, it can be harder to relish a farewell.

Losing support networks: On the subject of loss, one change that can be felt acutely this time of year is the loss of a prior support or care-giving arrangement. Many families have care-giving arrangements for their children that are designed to end when school begins. This means that a human being who provided support and love to your family moves on to another employment arrangement. The intersection between care, love, and finances can feel stark this time of year.

“The village” is a bona fide requirement for parenting. Today, with so many families living away from extended support networks, early childhood caregivers can become a vital part of the village we create. They listen to our stories, provide perspective and wisdom, and reassure us that things will be just fine. Sure, your children are adjusting to their days away from you at school. But you, too, can be adjusting to your new days away from your own sense of support. Having to say goodbye to people who have provided such essential care and friendship to our families is not easy.

Culture Shock: Make no mistake, a school is a living terrain unto itself. It may as well have a geographical border. It will have its own, unspoken ‘way’ of doing things. It will have a social order, which lives and breathes in both in the parents and the students. It has a culture all its own. And, if you are new, the learning curve can be both steep and surprisingly difficult to acclimate to in the beginning.

Culture shock is a well-documented response in travellers that occurs when one must adjust to a new culture quickly. It can manifest itself in many ways, but principally take its toll on the emotional health of the newcomer. Not understanding the invisible ‘rules’ of a new place can feel disorienting, confusing, and downright exhausting.

Your notably social brain does not like its familiar rules to change up. Don’t be surprised if it puts up a fight and you feel a little lonely, tired or down for a while. Your brain has a lot of new learning to do. Things should feel better eventually.

If any of the above this rings true, giving yourself enough space, time and self-acceptance to acknowledge the impact on your wellbeing is important.  Motherhood’s borderlands are real. We all travel through them. Yet this doesn’t mean we can’t do everything we can to travel a little more comfortably.

Expertise: With a new year, comes new list of never-before-seen hurdles you must work through. Having to feel like we don’t really know what we are doing (again!!) can be disheartening. Especially when we see so many veteran parents at the school gate making it all look so easy. Remember, not a single parent out there was given an instruction manual. The only difference between you and the parent who seems to have it all together is practice.

Parenting is a muscle that has to be built and used. The more opportunity you give yourself to roll your sleeves up and learn, the more confident you will feel about your ability to tackle this. For the next couple of weeks, try to commit to getting better at just one thing that has been nagging at you. Give it your all for an hour a day. Mess up. Experiment. Try again. And then keep trying. Pay attention to the the power of practice. Watch and observe yourself as you do get better at practically anything you want to get better at.

Connection: Remember those new mama friends you couldn’t have lived without after your baby was born? Birth was a borderland time and they acted as your fellow travellers.

In the back to school version, you need these relationships again, yet this time with parents of school-age children. These relationships will serve the same powerful purpose as those early motherhood friendships. They will help you make sense of the world. They will provide some comic relief. They will offer a sense of shelter and belonging in the midst of unknown terrain.

For mothers, friendships are big magic, and big medicine. By taking your social connections seriously, you are building up a resource that takes on a completely new importance in these times of transition. It’s not a vanity. Its crucial. Keep trying to find a kindred spirit ot two.

Outlook: If your outlook is skewed to the negative side, and you find yourself regularly anxious or low as a result, it’s possible you might need to push back a bit. Sometimes it pays to be cautious, and sometimes we need to embrace the possibilities in a new situation. The key here is accuracy. Ask yourself if you have evidence for how you are feeling about a situation, and then choose your outlook.

A new school, or a new year, can be filled with uncertainty. When the brain feels unsure, it can be tempting to withdraw into scepticism or weariness. Yet a new school year is also filled with possibilities. There are rewarding new relationships that have yet to be made for both you and your child. There are as yet untapped wonders, challenges, joys, curiosities and accomplishments to look forward to.

Remember that the borderlands are only the beginning, They look nothing like the green and pleasant land ahead. When you feel unsure or negative, remind yourself to try and take in the full picture (of both the strains and the possibilities) as you make up your mind about today.  

There’s so much possibility on the horizon. Welcome to the new school year and its promise. You’ll be a seasoned traveller before you know it.  

 

Academic sources:

Furnham, A., & Bochner, S. (1986). Culture shock. Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments. Culture shock. Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments.

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2007) Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Edge. Oxford University Press.

Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K.  and Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?. Psychological Bulletin 140.3, 846.

Seligman, M.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. Vintage.

Well Made Teacher: Thriving In And Out Of The Classroom

We tip our hat to teachers this week, especially those that have their own family to nurture as well. Meet Sarah, primary years teacher at an International Baccalaureate School where my children attend.

When you walk into Sarah’s classroom it’s unlike any other you’ve ever been in. Picture flowers or plants on each child’s desk, Mona Lisa framed on a bookshelf, the soundtrack from Amelie playing...you may even find a lizard visiting and helping the children with their maths, sitting on their desk, or in their lap. Her way with the children is almost majestic.

She also works with a student committee called, ‘World Wide Voice’, which gives students aged 5 to 11 the chance to make a difference in someone’s life and to learn the invaluable lessons of gratitude and selflessness, with complete autonomy. The children recently raised $400 for a drinking well and immunisations, through an international charity working with at-risk kids, families and communities.

A little bit heroic? Ya, we think so.

What inspires you about your role as a teacher?

I really believe in the Reggio Emilia way of thinking in regard to the environment as the third teacher. No environment can be too beautiful for children, which is why I try the best I can to keep the room full of flowers and plants!

Fostering an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is so important for the children as well, that's why books like James Mollison's 'Where Children Sleep' is my favourite to share this year. Our weekly gratitude walks are so special too.

I also believe that International Baccalaureate brings together the children's way of seeing the world with their learning. My own girls go to an IB school and their conceptual understanding is broadened through each Unit of Inquiry and built on in future units. It is meaningful learning.

How do you find the time to go the extra mile with your students, your family and the greater community?

I am in bed by 8pm with the girls every night without fail. The major challenge for me is not enough hours in the day and sheer exhaustion! My house always looks like a tornado has run through it, (with the exception of the days my cleaner comes) and I just have to be ok with that.

My girls Eliza 7 and Bel 11, do a lot of work within the house though. They wash and hang out clothes, fold, mop, put away, cook and organise themselves and their belongings. They are really independent and all these life skills will help them when they live alone one day.

There are a few things I do though, to help me manage the busy balance juggling act. The thing that is most effective is being highly organised! I make meals during the holidays and fill up my freezer for term time. I make 6 lunch boxes on a Sunday night, so I don’t have to think about the girls’ lunch until Wednesday night. I have the world’s most enormous calendar with all girls extra curricular activities- weekends are full of parties and sport and drama rehearsals...there is never a spare second!

As well as having a system for managing the day to day needs of your young family, we also think it’s important for us working mums (and mums in general) to carve out some space for ourselves. How do you manage that?

For me, exercise is the most effective way of keeping sane. I go to the gym before work in the morning most days. I make sure I am reading a novel at all times, not just educational literature for work. I try to stay up late at least one night a week and watch a foreign film as it transports me into another country.

I use ‘HEADSPACE’ to keep myself balanced and I make sure I spend a little time in my garden each day, preferably lying on the grass and watching the birds bellies as they fly over. Hand weeding is my favourite past time, when my hands are in the earth my feet are on the ground.

What makes me the happiest? Being patient with my girls even when I have run out of puff. Taking time to read with them even if my eyelids feel like they need match sticks to stay up and letting them do one more show, or tell me one more funny story before bed.

We thank Sarah for taking the time to chat with us and share with our WMM Community!

The Science Of Unbelievable You

Stop and think about it. You are AMAZING.

You are a member of the most intellectually advanced, ecologically successful species on the planet. You spend roughly 20-25% of your energy in a day keeping your big, giant brain burning bright. You experience emotion, learn rapidly, let language trip from your tongue, and pay attention to intricate social detail. You are a very, very clever animal. Your mind - and its physical shell, the brain -  are worthy and then some, of a few high fives.    

And that’s how the field of Psychology began, with curious researchers who were interested in understanding how our species'’ greatest survival asset - our minds and our behaviour - worked. Were there patterns within our thinking? Did we perceive the world in the same ways? To answer these questions, early psychologists observed humans doing what we do and took careful notes and observations. After a while, they started to learn a thing or two about the mind and its wonders.  

For most of the 20th century, much of the attention of psychological research focused on helping people overcome illness. This goal of improving mental health was pursued with great success, yet also left room to grow for Psychology’s remaining goals of learning more about how humans make the most of their extraordinary talents. Enter the call to the field at the turn of the millennium made by a leading researcher in depression - Dr. Martin Seligman, the head of the American Psychological Association at the time - that ‘psychology as usual’ was altogether too negative. In its desire to alleviate suffering, the field was behaving as if suffering was all there was to the human experience.  And as anyone who has heard a baby laugh for the first time knows - there is so much more to our story than that.

The field of Positive Psychology has taken flight since then. As a specialty, it focuses on learning more about what happens when things go right with people. Creativity, joy, purpose, gratitude, courage and hope. All of these subjects have received more attention. As a result, psychologists know quite a bit more about why we have these experiences and what benefits they confer upon us.

The raising of offspring from pregnancy to adulthood could be one of the most energetically expensive task of our lives. It calls on every talent, every strength, every resource in our well-stocked minds. It swings us through every emotion the brain is wired to experience, and can introduce them in combinations never before imagined. It is the Olympic Marathon Time Trials of mental functioning.

As a mother, we believe you can benefit from learning about the findings of psychology not just because you might battle an illness, but because you are the most behaviourally advanced creature on the planet, engaging in one of the most  complex and important tasks you might ever be tasked with, and you do it REALLY WELL.

Science needs to know way more about you. And you deserve to know more about you. Like how you adapt and adjust, how you bounce back, and what you need to stay strong.

So, as you read through much of the psychology we review on our pages, celebrate the positive slant. After all, if psychologists are looking for examples of what’s going right in the world, they can’t get much better than it’s Mothers.

Is The World A Healthy Place To Give Birth In?

The way we view it, modern motherhood can be divided into two categories: The parts you can see, and the parts you have to sense. The parts you can see include your changing body and your growing child. These aspects are pretty well covered by books, your caregivers, the web, and the world at large. The parts you have to sense include your emotions, your sense of fit in the world you inhabit, your connections with others, your confidence, and your grit. These can be a little tougher to describe, and much tougher to find information on. Nevertheless, they make or break your experience.  

And so, the purpose of Well Made Mama is to help women develop the everyday skills needed for resilience in the face of the inevitable challenges that can accompany the gratitude, wonder, awe and happiness new babies bring with them. Our goal is to help mothers realise that building resilience is essential to their and their families’ well-being, and is as crucial a skill as the more traditional “mothering skills” of delivering, feeding, caring for and socialising new babies.  

Resilience is the ability to survive, bounce back from, learn and even thrive from challenges and twists and turns in the road. It is essential to the role of motherhood, as “overnight” we are faced with the round-the-clock responsibilities of caring for our new children while still caring for our families and (sometimes) ourselves - leaving little room for succumbing to stress. Mothers are “on stage” everyday. The show must go on, irrespective of our fears, our tiredness or life’s changes. Without the ability to adapt to and grow from changing circumstances, we can become drained, depleted, even anxious and depressed.

While the innate ability to bounce back quickly from challenges can vary from person to person, resilience isn’t magic, and can be learned by anyone to build resources that will help them flourish within the unpredictable new role they are now in.

In terms of understanding the BIG PICTURE of where you now sit as a mother: How the culture and society you inhabit can impact your wellbeing, how your brain has undergone as many profound changes as your body, how humans as a species have evolved strategies for helping a mother feel energetic enough to tackle the tasks of motherhood in a way that helps her feel well, full of purpose, energy and direction - we have yet to see them become part of the postpartum lexicon.

Your well-being does matter. And we are here to give it its due.

The Benefits Of Being Happy

The year is 1930. You’re a young nun in the Midwestern United States, looking forward to taking your final vows. Your Mother Superior has asked you to write a short autobiography of your life to date. Nothing too long. Just a review of your early schooling, your parents, and any notable events in your life leading up to this event.

Now here’s the twist: If you write an essay that conveys a lot of positive emotion (happiness, interest, love, hope, gratitude, contentment, etc.) you get to live (on average) 10 years longer than if you write just a regular essay. Yes, that’s right. The happiest essays get awarded with an extra ten years of life.

So you get to work. What type of an essay would you write?

This is not the fanciful start of a Hollywood film, but suggestive of a real-life, longitudinal study of an order of Catholic nuns (all born before 1917), the purpose of which is to study (among other things) ageing and health. An enormous benefit of this research is that the sisters, unlike regular study participants, all lived together and had very similar life factors. As a result, any differences found between them that could be linked to longevity could be just that - without researchers having to chalk the difference up to other factors, such as a difference in what the nuns ate, what their healthcare was like, or what they did for a living.

At one point, researchers discovered a collection of autobiographical essays written by the nuns in the study, from their very early days in the convent. These essays were wonderful snapshots of each nun at the start of her career. They were uniformly forward-looking and positive in nature. Nevertheless, the researchers noted that some of the essays had a much more cheerful tone than others.

Researchers put each essay into one of four categories of ‘cheerfulness’. And what they found, over time, was that those nuns’ whose essays were in the highest category outlived their less expressive sisters by an average of 10 years. What was going on?

The researchers summed the findings up as validation of a process other psychologists had also been noting. This was that, when bad things happen, we become stressed and our heart rates and adrenaline rise. If this happens too often, the body can become worn down. Yet if we can approach a problem with an optimistic or cheerful attitude, the positive emotions this brings forth can ‘un-do’ the damaging effect of stress on the body. Over time, this ‘un-doing’ benefit of positive emotion can add up in far less stress-related wear and tear and, theoretically, a longer life.

In the Nun’s writings, we can see a snapshot of how readily available positive emotions were to each writer through the experiences and images they conjure up. Some of the young Nuns were quick to reference more joy, contentment and gratitude than were there more matter-of-fact counterparts. And it was these young Nuns who ended up living longer.

Of course, the study is based on a 300-word assignment, not a complete life. The essays do not describe how each nun worked through the trials life introduced. But they do suggest that for those with more positive emotion on their radar, SOMETHING happened that translated into better health outcomes.

Our take? While the study isn’t a definitive answer, as far as longitudinal studies go, this one comes pretty close. So, when it’s time to get to work..which essay would you write?

Academic References:

Danner, D., Snowden, D., & Friesen, W. (2001) Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813.

Fredrickson, B., Mancuso, R., Branigan, C., Tugade, M. (2000) The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24 (4), 237-258

 

 

Raising Children And Performance: Parenting Down To A Science

Positive psychology is one of the fastest growing fields within the science of human behaviour. With its focus on the sunnier side of life in much of its discourse, it's easy to believe that is is a science reserved solely for those individuals who are..for lack of a better word..happy.

Despite being a field in psychology with the word ‘positive’ in it, it’s important to understand  that for us at Well Made Mama, positive psychology’s value is not just in positive experiences per se, but more about helping mothers understand how all experiences, positive and negative, can combine to help an individual grow, fight, and flourish.

The growing appeal of positive psychology, and part of what attracts us to its application, is an appreciation that there is more to human experience than suffering. That north of illness, north of just getting by, are an entire range of human experiences, such as strength, meaning, growth, engagement, pleasure, creativity and resilience, We see this as a crucial contribution to a complete science of human behaviour.

Yet just as illness is not hoped to be a regular or consistent experience of a life, it seems unreasonable to expect an individual to be perpetually positive. Life ebbs and flows. It is filled with challenges and trials. Each us has a complete range of emotions, ranging from anger to joy, that we can engage with on a daily basis. The science of positive psychology can not - and does not - deny that negative experiences are an ever present part of a regular, healthy human life.

So, at Well Made Mama, what do we believe is important for mothers to be able to take away from positive psychology’s contributions?  We see the findings being generated by this new science as useful for mothers because they clarify that, in the midst of great change, humans can engage with their trials, adapt, kick butt, find meaning and even grow. That, in addition to sadness, anger and fear, humans are also capable of joy, courage, and forbearance. And that these experiences are not just ‘a nice to have’ - that they have purpose and utility for survival.  

Motherhood, as we see it, is performance. Round the clock, unrelenting activity and demands on your mind and your body. We can not think of a single human endeavour that requires us to dig deeper, aim higher, or go longer than the raising of a child. Positive psychology maps not just the ‘happy’ - but the extraordinary that is in each of us. And it is the ‘extraordinary’ that motherhood demands. The more we understand of its mechanisms, the more we know about what supports it, and what can stand in its way, the better chance we have of putting the extraordinary to use.

You’re not a sugar-coated cupcake. You don’t need sugar-coated science. You’re the greatest super hero there ever was, and we don’t take your need for information lightly.

Positive Psychology is gaining interest and momentum because it tells us about what is right with us. That part of us that we can call up to get through what life has in store for us. We see its findings as an excellent ally in helping mothers to celebrate the good, work through the ick, and revel in the realisation of “Whoa..I had no idea I was this strong.’

Here’s to a positive science..of us!!

 

The Flow Of Motherhood

On our lesser days, we are either a little bored or a little stressed out. As you can imagine, boredom and stress do not fill us with delight. They deplete us. Slow our motivation down to a grinding zero. We do not wish to experience them regularly.

Yet on some days, our best days, we are focused. Absorbed. Energised and totally enjoying the task at hand.  We are the captains at the helm of a thrilling adventure and are most certainly not watching the clock. We barely notice how much time has passed since breakfast.

The difference? Informally known as being ‘in the zone’, is Flow.  

Flow is the state we find ourselves in when we are totally immersed in the task at hand, and loving it. A flow state can happen when we are so absorbed in an activity that we forget all about the world around us. It happens when we are doing something cool, consider it challenging enough to keep our interest, and most importantly, know how to do it well.  

Does this ever happen to you? When you find yourself so absorbed in something that you forget all about the world around you? It happens to us when we are creating something new. Or out and about, exploring some new place. Even putting together flat-pack furniture. In those moments, we are most certainly not bored. We are both too focused and enjoying ourselves to to be worried we’ll mess something up. We are making/fixing/cleaning/exploring/explaining/arranging/analyzing, something. We are making progress. And it feels great.

Flow is an important component of our happiness. When we have the chance to experience it, we get to see ourselves as valuable and talented. We’re progressing. Making an impact. Moving the mountain. That breeds confidence, and with it, a belief that we have something worthwhile to contribute. And it’s fun.

So how do we get more of it?

Flow happens to us when the level of challenge is equal to the level of skill we bring to it. Too little challenge - we get bored. Too much challenge - we become anxious. The sweet spot, where our talents perfectly meet the world’s needs - is Flow. The recipe for ensuring as much flow as possible (according to the concept’s originator Psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi) is simple. If you’re bored..increase the level of challenge. If you’re overwhelmed..increase the level of your skill.

Let’s put this to the real world and begin with skill. When one of our Well Made Mamas brought their newborn home, breastfeeding was not completely smooth. She was spooked. She didn’t believe this was a talent of hers, and it worried her. She started to view it as a chore she had to battle through. Nowhere near the idyllic experience she had read about.

A few days later, she found someone who helped with her technique and got her going. As she practised, as her skill level increased over the weeks and months, things did get better. It was no longer a chore because she started to believe she knew what she was doing. She skilled up, and things became less overwhelming. 

And now boredom. Many parents might admit to finding some moments spent with young children, filling in the time between school, work and dinner, a little boring. And it isn’t because children are dull. They’re fascinating. But, they are young. And they simply don’t have the attention span to follow along for more than a few moments before being distracted.  For the parents of young children, (as expertly reviewed by Jennifer Senior in in her parenting book All Joy and No Fun) a lack of interest and challenge are not the real roadblocks to flow. Its interruption.  

At the end of the day, there isn’t a lot about parenting small children that gets us anywhere near ‘the zone.’ Sometimes its dull. Sometimes we worry we aren’t not doing it right.  It isn’t often we hit that sweet spot.

Yet this doesn’t mean we don’t need flow. Our brains crave it. We want to get lost in a moment. We want to make a little progress. We want to see something better as a result of our efforts. We want to know we are holding back the chaos in some small or big way.

So for now, we accept that sometimes, this will need to come from elsewhere. Our writing. Our research. Trying to piece together our children’s toys after they go to bed. Part of understanding our wellness is accepting that while our children are everything to us - the daily tasks of mothering them might not always provide everything our flow-seeking minds need.

The good news is that as little children grow they also become wiser. They develop greater powers of focus and concentration. And suddenly, one day, you are able to build model airplanes together and get lost in the pleasure and process of it. One day, you’ll all flow together.

But in the mean time..remember to leave a little space in the day for your own projects. For something you know you can start..and finish. For something you know you can do a great job at and captures your interest. Remain mindful of this often-overlooked part of our wellness. Giving our brains the opportunity to flow when its possible, can allow us to be our best when we are..on occasion..interrupted.  

For a some great reading on Flow:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins.  

Seligman, M. (2002) Authentic Happiness. Simon and Schuster.   

Senior, J. (2014). All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Harper Collins.

Finding Purpose In Parenting: The Other Kind Of Happiness

So, how was your day? 

Filled with pleasure? Unbridled joy? Relaxed, comfortable contentment?

Yeah, ours wasn’t either.

From 6am it's been go time. We haven’t stopped putting effort into helping someone or something else get better since then. We are tired. We want to go to sleep most nights at 8pm. One of us is has a huge hole in her sweater and it will be a long while before she is near a shop with enough free time or money on her hands to buy anything to replace it.

 As parents we can go days and days and days without a single person saying or doing anything particularly kind for us. We don’t think we are unusual in this respect.

 Parenthood is really hard and can feel not so great some of the time.  And so we are left wondering..rational decision makers that we are meant to be...Why do we keep doing it?  

Why do we become so happy when we hear a friend is expecting? Why do we end every gripe about our days in the trenches with small, irrational people with “oh..but they’re lovely really..” Why do we revel in something that leaves us so depleted, poorer and greyer than when we began?

We put this parenting paradox to you as a way of introducing the second pillar of happiness: Purpose. It's the happiness that can take a while to arrive because you have to work for it. Technically known as ‘eudaimonic’ happiness, this is the hit of wellbeing you get when all of that work finally pays off. You’ve saved your pennies. You’ve finished the marathon. You made a tough decision but stayed true to your beliefs.  

It's the part of well-being that is centered on finding a purpose and serving that purpose, leisure and glee be damned. It's when it feels good to not feel good because you are building something so much larger than momentary pleasure. It is the result of planning and all of the extra brain power our massive cerebral cortex allows. It’s the type of happiness that denotes we are human, intelligent, and different from the animals. We can deny our appetites to serve a higher call. 

This, Mamas, is the type of happiness that parenting serves up in bucketloads. That first smile, first bicycle ride, first race won. These rarer, irregular moments of pride, joy and wonder somehow make the daily grind evaporate. You would walk over hot coals if your child needed you to. And you’d be happy to do so, because the knowledge that they are safe, growing and on their way in the world trumps anything else you might need. 

So, permit us to submit purpose as the answer to our paradox. We enjoy parenting not because it feels good in the moment, but because those a-ha moments, when they arrive, can feel so good.  

The good news about eudaimonic happiness is that, while it doesn’t necessarily feel good in the making, its wellbeing benefits far out last those offered by mere pleasure. Pleasure is available now, but never stays for long. Purpose pays dividends down the road.

So on your hardest days, take heart. These trials really are contributing to an essential part of your wellbeing. Your eudaimonic wellbeing. And that’s where the really good stuff resides.  

You’ve got this.    

Combating The Stresses of Modern Parenting

This little essay is about the type of happiness that feels fantastic. It’s about pleasure. The stuff that isn’t complicated and puts a smile on your face. It’s about good food, nice weather, and warm socks. It is far from the complete story on happiness, but it’s the part of happiness that most of us most readily equate with it.

Pleasure (technically speaking, hedonic happiness) is what we experience when things are going well. When we are safe and comfortable. It acts as a signal that conditions are, from a survival perspective, going right.

Children are handed joyful moments and know exactly what to do with them. They live in them. They don’t manage their happiness, putting together contingency plans, waiting for the other shoe to drop. They see pleasure for what it is. A gift to be recognized, savored, and jumped into with glee.   

When the fleeting nature of a pleasure is over, children usually seek out more. That’s where our more seasoned adult perspectives come in handy. Experience teaches us that too much pleasure can lead to imbalance. In a world of relative abundance compared to what our forebears would have faced, the brain still treats what would have been luxurious back then (extra salt and fat, rest, new objects, new stories) as rare items worth pursuing, again and again. And too much pleasure can get us into trouble. Obesity, tooth decay, addiction and debt are maladies of an abundant age.

But as mothers, tasked day in day out with the care and provision of our families, are we, as a group, at risk of too much pleasure? When, for so many of us, the proverbial wolf is ever at the door?

The stresses of parenting in the modern age feel icky because they do icky things to our bodies. Prolonged elevated cortisol wears down our systems. We stop healing, digesting, and sleeping.

Pleasure helps the nervous system to repair itself. It offers us a break from the gnawing cycle of worry and “I should be..”. Neurochemically, pleasure unwinds the damage of stress. It gives our bodies the space to heal and recover from the near-constant state of flux so many of us can find ourselves in. Pleasure is a beauty nap for your mind.

It’s a little different for all of us, the experiences that make our minds light up with joy. And for so many of us, it can be boiled down to the three minutes we give ourselves in a day to appreciate the pink sunlight on the pavement, a warm shower, or our head, finally, hitting the pillow. Pleasure comes from knowing we are safe, seeing something beautiful, touching something comfortable, and being reminded we are loved. It needn’t be fancy or expensive. But it will require a moment of acknowledging that, just for now, things are, for the most part, a-ok. And for that, we are grateful.

Pleasure soothes. Pleasure restores. It is a refuge and an armor. In the mothering world, it is a strong, quick, and helpful medicine that can help us exhale. In the right doses, it can, and should be a worthy goal. It won’t solve our problems. It won’t get us moving in the sometimes painful directions we need to in order to grow as we should. But it will give us the momentary lifts we need along the road so that we can keep on keeping on. Pleasure is not the answer we seek. But it is an ally in the quest.

Raising Children: A Mother's Happiness

A recent visit from my grandchildren reminded me of how much fun I had raising my own children.  It was hard juggling home, spouse, work, self and children, but seeing their accomplishments made me glow inside.  I strived to keep them healthy and happy. I strived to clear obstacles in their way like toys when there were little and restrictions and expectations others had of them when they were older.  I watched them grow and I felt an overwhelming love. My children are beautiful, my children are bright, my children are healthy and my children are good people.

Some of my early memories of their accomplishments made my jaw hurt from smiling so much. One I could gush over, the other I had to admire from afar.  They both enjoyed their activities in their own way. The excitement of getting them to Soccer and Baseball training gave me the energy to run home after work, feed them and run to their practices and games (four days a week).  I didn’t have time for myself.  But, holding my breath when the soccer ball was as at my daughter’s feet and seeing her protect her goalie or my son up to bat and holding my breath as the ball reached him, made me forget how tired I was and that I hadn’t eaten yet. It was their accomplishments that made me do it. It was like a drug.  

As my children grew up, now 34 and 32, I had to change and adapt to their new accomplishments.  They were doing their own thing and there was less physical work but more mental work.  My mind was worrying and working as they were growing.  Did I do the right thing? Was I giving them enough space to grow, or, too much space to get into trouble?  Would they come to me if they needed help? Are they happy?

Their accomplishments always brought me joy. My daughter’s school valedictorian speech is a memory I will never forget.  My son stepping up and taking care of me when my life changed will never be forgotten. They are GOOD and they made me GOOD. A recent conversation with a friend, reminded me that these accomplishments that I had celebrated, were not just my children’s accomplishments, but, “my biggest accomplishment”.

I love them and I am loved.

Written by Sonia Scalfari (pictured with her second grandson)

A Positive Boost For New And Expectant Mothers

Why you need to put a little joy on that baby list...

The average new parent spends over $12,000 in the first year of their child’s life. To date, we haven’t come across any research that points to whether that pricey stroller or premium diaper will make you a better parent. But we can confidently speak to one item that will..and it doesn’t cost a thing. A good mood.

Positive emotions (love, joy, energy, gratitude) are what we feel when we stop to acknowledge what is going right in our world. Historically, they have been seen as a ‘nice to have’ in life, but not taken as seriously for our survival as fear (gets you away from a tiger) anger (helps you move mountains) and sadness (helps you to slow down and regroup when it’s needed).

More recent research has turned the page on this perspective. Positivity, it seems, helps us to do many things that are absolutely essential for survival. As laid out in the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘broaden and build’ theory of positive emotions, good moods make us more likely to connect with others, generate new ideas and be good neighbours.

They power us to build up the very relationships within our families and communities that we need to fall back on when fear, anger or sadness knock on the door. And when too much sadness, fear, or anger depletes us, positive emotions step in to help us replenish and undo the damage. Instead of being an ‘etcetera’ in the brain, Dr. Fredrickson’s research has established that they are the very glue that keep our communities and our energies in place.

Positive emotions are tailor made for the tasks of mothering. Here’s a few of the things they help us do better:

Heal our bodies:  Being in a positive mood has been shown to increase pain thresholds and reduce susceptibility to and improve recover from illness.

Dig deep: A positive frame of mind will increase persistence, motivation and effort. A good mood can help you see just how valuable your goal is, and make it seem more likely that you’ll get there in the end.

See the bigger picture: A positive mood can help you see more than one solution to a problem.

Social support: Being in a good mood makes you more more likely to realise how much you like other people, and helps us be more likely to want to help out and cooperate.

Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes, if the pursuit of feeling good steers us away from experiences that would help us grow. Yet as long as a balance is maintained between pleasure and responsibility, keep in mind the following take-aways for your day:

  1. Feeling good matters: Positive moods have been established to be crucial to our survival. The new connections, approaches and relationships they help us create can buffer us against the depleting effects of challenging times in our lives.

  2. Positive moods are especially important for Mothers: The evidence has established that positive emotions help us to heal our bodies, solve problems, and persevere in the face of challenges.Given the many benefits a little bit of regular joy can bring to parenthood, why not make it a priority on that list? And it doesn’t need to cost a thing!

Supporting Academic Resources:

 Alden, A.L., Dale, J.A., & DeGood, D.E. (2001) Interactive effects of the affect quality and directional focus of mental imagery on pain analgesia. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 26, 117-126.

Barsade, S.G. (2002) The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47, 644-675.

 Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Turner, R.B., Cuneyt, M.A. and Skonker, D. (2003). Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 652-657.

 Cunningham, M.R. (1988) Does happiness mean friendliness? Induces mood and heterosexual self-disclosure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 283-297.

 Erez, A., & Isen, A.M. (2002) The influence of positive affect on the components of expectancy motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 1055-1067.

 Fredrickson, B.L. & Joiner, T. (2002) Positive emotions trigger upward spirals towards emotional wellbeing. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.

 Fredrickson B.L. (2003) The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology os coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.

 Kashdan, T.B., & Roberts, J.E. (2004) Trait and state curiosity in the genesis of intimacy: Differentiation from related constructs. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 792-816.

 Isen, A.M. (1970) Success, failure, attention and reaction to others: The warm glow of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 15, 294-301

 Madhyastha, T/M., Hanker, E.L., Gottman, J.M. (2011) Investigating spousal influence using moment-to-moment affect data from marital conflict. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 292-300.

 Manucia, G.K. (Baumann, D.J. Cialdini, R.B. (1984) Mood influences in helping: Direct effects or side effects? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 357-364.

National Collaboarting Centre for Primary Care (2006). Post-natal care: Routine post-natal care for women and their babies. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence Guidance. http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CG37/Guidance/pdf/English

 Ostir, G.V., Berges, I.M., Ottenbacher, M.E., Clow, A., Ottenbacher, K.J. (2008) Associations between positive emotion and recovery of functional status following stroke. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 404-409.

 Sin. N.L. & Lyubormirsky, S. (2009) Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychological interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65, 467-487.

 Waugh, C.E. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2006) Nice to know you: Positive emotions, self-other overlap, and complex understanding in the formation of a new relationship. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 93-106.

On Your Baby Preparation List: The Village

Up until about 11,000 years ago, most of the world lived in bands of a few dozen members. A large, extended family. Everyone knew everyone. Strangers were rarely encountered. When they were, they were usually avoided. And that was that.

 These days, it’s hardly uncommon for a person to live in a city of more than a million people. In fact, it’s the norm. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population was urban. By 2030, 70% of the world will call a city their home. These are people who, like so many before, have come to accept that the collective efforts and fruits of urban centers may promise more wealth and opportunity than the village they are leaving behind.

Few things strike us as more telling about our general adaptability as a species than our ability to shift from our places of origin to our adopted homes. For millions of years, we more or less stayed together. Our group was our kin. And now, we move. Relentlessly. Our little tribe is no longer defined by blood lines, but instead by street, workplace, school, or place of worship. We are bound to others - strangers - by values, ideas and norms. Nothing more. And yet, in a quickly moving world, these identities become an anchor.. You can take the girl out of the village, but you’ll never take the village out of the girl.

We are drawn to the larger cities for the opportunities they can offer. Yet in seas of faceless millions, we seem to still be driven to create much smaller bands of contacts. Our new friends, our neighbors, our coworkers.The people we see often enough to make the world feel knowable. Without these relationships, we can feel adrift. A handful of people to call on feels like home. Nine million strangers to bump into on the subway does not. This is because the brain still perceives the world through the lens it evolved over millions of years of human experience - not the past hundred years of progress.

And so back to the story of us, way before we started to believe that larger groups meant better living. Customs and cultures evolve for a specific reason. They help a group live a better life. Practices that don’t get discarded. If a practice has remained with humanity over the eons, it seems reasonable to pay attention to the wisdom it offers. Customs that survive are usually the ones that work.

 The best way to try and understand the way we lived thousands of years ago is to study the way groups of people who have had little contact with the modern world live now. In the earth, bones stand the test of time. Social customs do not. So anthropologists need to seek out groups of people who still live traditionally as a fleeting illustration of how things once were for all of us.

As it goes, traditional groups of humans that have been studied by anthropologists do not raise children in the modern, nuclear fashion, where parents form an isolated niche that is entirely self-sufficient. On the contrary, in traditional cultures, parenthood is a community effort. Mothers are helped by others, from birth onwards.

Over millions of years, human groups learned that parenting worked better when it was cooperative. Unique to other primates, early human parenting made use of the assistance of other caregivers in the raising of children. When mothers allowed others to help out, they were freed up to find more resources for their families. Everyone benefited.

 It has been argued that cooperative breeding, over millennia, gave human offspring a long enough chance at survival to grow large, problem-solving brains. And that the human infant’s need to connect with its different caretakers has hard-wired us as a species to be aware of the emotions of others (a trait that has led to generosity, empathy and the sharing of resources for the betterment of all.) It  It has been argued it is the very reason for humanity’s evolutionary success.

Over the millennia of our human journey,  “the village” - a close knit network of supportive individuals who would offer protection, resources and nurturing to a mother and child - is the story of human parenting. To survive the challenges of the natural environment early human mothers needed the support and protection of many families in their group.  Humans need one another. Mothers really need one another.

The Village is nothing new. It’s the story of us. We may not spend a lot of time thinking about it,  but each of us knows it in her bones. The kinship of other mothers is not a luxury. It is the very fabric of our survival in this new and uncharted land. Finding the support of other mothers is an automatic reflex. Like a first breath, our brains recognize it and latch on immediately. We can’t help ourselves. We need to find one another. And we don’t really rest until we do.

So many new mothers today are starting parenthood far away from their village of origin. We were among their numbers. New arrivals in a city of opportunity, we were time zones away from our own mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. While we had carved out a small band of contacts in our adopted homes, there were few people who could be depended on to offer help when it was really needed. And how could we have known it would matter? Every magazine we read told us to go and buy a pram. No one told us to go out and meet other mothers.

Modern motherhood seems to be missing a link. We are so inundated with new research and new advice on baby rearing, that the lessons of our grandmothers can be sidelined. But it seems improbable that the last hundred years of industrial development should outweigh the wisdom of millions of years of opportunity to experiment with the parental set up. Our ancestors already tried our modern version of solitary super-mothering, all on their own, out there on the savannah. They didn’t find it very satisfactory.

So remember, when it comes to preparing for motherhood, there is probably little that can compare to finding a supportive village of friends, relatives, or other well wishers who can offer friendship, perspective, a shoulder to cry on, and a well-needed laugh at the end of a long day. The village is history’s gift to us. You’ll find yours. Or it will find you. There’s a mother out there who needs you just as much as you need her.

Tell her we say hi!

Academic resources:

  1. Diamond, J. (2012) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Viking Press. Viking Penguin, USA  

  2. Lambin, E. (2012) An Ecology of Happiness. University of Chicago Press. Chicagohttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/evolution-motherhood.html

  3. Hrdy, S.B. (1999) Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection. Pantheon Books, New York

The Wee Hours of Motherhood: Healing After Birth

In an age before antibiotics, rest and sanitary conditions were a new mother’s best chance at recovering from the physical upheaval brought on by childbirth. It made sense to support a woman’s healing through loved ones coming together to pick up her household chores, keep her and the baby clean, and allow her some time to rest and bond. In line with this wisdom, traditional cultures the world over have communal rites and practices that support a new mother’s need for recuperation after the birth of a child.

Traditional societies recognised that birth requires recovery, yet these rituals of rest and attendance to a mother and child may have also signified an ancestral knowledge that the skill of mothering does not happen in an instant. That there is no such thing as a magical, all-knowing ‘maternal instinct’ that just kicks in and makes everything all right overnight. That the move into motherhood happens in a series of small steps, and that we do not touch down gracefully on the landing pad so much as orbit in space a little while, burning through fuel and trying like hell to read our instruments.  

These rituals recognised that while new mothers recover physically, they are also transforming psychologically. And that this profound change is probably best supported by a period of recuperation and compassion.

As Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy points out in her review of mammalian mothering, even in the animal kingdom. mothering does not ‘just happen’ after the birth of a child. Animals such as mice and sheep require the smells of their newborns to kick-start the complicated chemical and behavioural cascade of lactation, grooming and protection that the rearing of young entails. The ‘maternal instinct’ is less a guarantee than a gradual adoption of new behaviours. Behaviours that must be reinforced by practice, and that can be disrupted by challenges in the environment.       

 Human mothering is a much wilder card, with no universal behaviours that new mothers engage in across the species besides perhaps cleaning the baby after the birth, and gazing at its face and body. After that, the way we approach the birth of a child is as wide and varied as the customs and communities of the planet we inhabit. Mothering a child and learning how to seamlessly meet its needs is not hard wired. It’s a learned skill that requires time, space and patience to master.

 As we learn to care for our babies, research has established that between 2-4 weeks and 3-4 months postpartum, our brains are increasing in volume in at least nine known areas. Neurologically speaking, this is a very big deal. Your postpartum brain is learning so much and taking in so many sensations and signals it is actually growing - and quickly.

 But learning new routines is hard. It can feel lonely and chaotic and unclear at first. From a psychological perspective, it’s likely this feels tough because our brain’s favourite thing to do - recognise a pattern and stick with it - isn’t possible. Human beings are creatures of habit. To veer away from a habit and to figure out something new requires our brains to build new pathways, To literally re-wire. This uses up energy the brain would much rather apply to the millions of other tasks it must execute on our behalf. It’s tiring. And to work, it needs rest.

 Today, in our modern towns and cities where so many mothers are away from their extended families, modern life means it isn’t always possible to pull down the shades and retreat from the world along enough to allow our brains and bodies the time they need to learn and heal. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still need the opportunity to do so.

 So what to do?

 It would appear those still dark, wee hours of motherhood have some lessons to offer.

 While it is still dark outside (figuratively and literally), we are forced to accept that we can’t see as far ahead as we might like. We feel the need to find one another and huddle close for warmth. We aren’t running around, ticking items off of lists, and generally tiring ourselves out. We are resting. We are processing information. We are restoring our strength for what lies ahead.

 The oxytocin response of new motherhood directs us to ‘stay and play’ with our new arrivals. It is our body’s signal to us that it is ok to slow down, to worry less, to connect with our new child and to hold her close. There is a deep wisdom in this gentle nudge, The closer we are to our babies in the earliest days - without the light and din of the outside world and all of it’s tempting, familiar pull - the faster we can learn the new patterns that motherhood has to teach us. The sooner we can heal. The better we might feel.

 Wherever you can, listen to this nudge. Make the time to rest, recuperate and simply be with your newborn. Our societies may have forgotten the importance of allowing new mothers enough time and  space to accommodate the enormous task of learning to care for our new charges, but mother nature has fail-safes. If we are not afforded time by others, we can make it for ourselves. By being conscious of the fact that motherhood takes time to learn, and that we deserve compassion and support from ourselves for this process, we can still benefit from this ancient knowledge.

 The wee hours of motherhood are a time to recover, recuperate and learn. Enjoy the stillness.

 

 

Academic sources:

 Duhigg, C. (2014) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. Random House.

 Hrdy, S.B. (1999) Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection. Chapter 7: From Here to Maternity. Pantheon Books, New York.

Kim, P., Leckman, J. F., Mayes, L. C., Feldman, R., Wang, X., & Swain, J. E. (2010). The Plasticity of Human Maternal Brain: Longitudinal Changes in Brain Anatomy During the Early Postpartum Period. Behavioral Neuroscience, 124(5), 695–700. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0020884

Well Made Heroes: Alwyn Hunt

At Well Made Mama, we think we deserve the best experience of motherhood we can create in our new state of ‘being’. Part of doing that requires us to connect with, and celebrate, the special people in our lives; or maybe the barista at your favourite cafe who remembers your name; or the stranger that gave up her seat for you on the train.  Think of it as our own gratitude journal, one written by all of us. Expressing gratitude can do twofold, it’s one way we can pay it forward, sharing the good work done by those around us. And secondly, we believe that positive emotions (that of gratitude in particular) can actually act as an antibody in the face of all the negative effects that stress, fear, anger, etc,. have on the body.

So here is our next Well Made Hero...Alwyn Hunt. He is my best friend. He is the only (grown-up) person I can uninhibitedly share what I really think. He will protect me with his life and make me fabulous meals forever (unless the All Blacks are playing and then it’s a different story.)

He is my Well Made Hero because when I was a mess with a newborn, he would walk in from 14-hour work days and help settle our colicky and crying Son for the next two hours, without hesitation. He is my sounding board, my collaborator, my co-conspirator and my iTunes fixer.

He is helping us raise two lovely boys to be risk takers, to be adventurers, to be lovers, not fighters. He works a day job and then works into the night on his own venture and somehow manages to always and devotedly, read another story to the boys, help me make extra meals for the freezer and work on WMM.  Alwyn is my Hero because he is selfless for the greater good of our family and I am grateful for that, no matter how many times he leaves his underwear on the bathroom floor (lots and lots of times).

 We want to celebrate your Heroes too, big or small. Send your stories to sabrina@wellmademama.com and we will share them with our Well Made Mama community.

Why Oxytocin Might Be Your Brain’s Best Antidote to Stress

Over the course of a year (according to British Household Panel Survey Data), the life event that gives the largest boost to wellbeing in a person’s life is the start of a new relationship. More than money. More than new things. More than anything else, it’s other people (and our connections with them) that give us the largest boost in health and happiness. Positive relationships with other people matter enormously. 

But why? 

It very likely begins with oxytocin, which is the chemical that is released into our bodies and brains when we connect with someone we are fond of. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is most closely associated with feelings of love and social bonding. It is released into our systems by touch, warmth and empathy.  It has also been shown to be very good for one’s health, improving digestion, growth, mood and healing.  

Yet to understand why Oxytocin is so good for us, it’s instructive to begin with what we know to be bad for us. And that is stress.

When we are stressed, we are primed for two outcomes - fighting or fleeing. Our bodies become filled with a quick jolt of adrenaline and cortisol, instructing our muscles to act quickly. In the process, our body re-directs energy away from unnecessary actions (like digestion and healing) in order to release all available energy into the fight. It’s a very helpful response when it’s critically needed. But it wasn’t designed to be a regular place we find ourselves in. Too much time being stressed can wear down the body’s resources. 

The stress response is critical for survival - but it's far from the only survival strategy we have. To survive, humans also require the support of other humans. We are social - not solitary - animals. Social animals who require the acceptance, protection and generosity of a community of other humans. And to do this well - to make new friends and share techniques for better living - we need to feel drawn to others. Constantly fighting and fleeing are not useful for the day-to-day necessities of life.

Enter oxytocin, which is released in our bodies when our brains know us to be in a place safe enough to slow down and connect with others. When oxytocin is released into the body, our blood pressure is reduced. Digestive processes are helped. Wounds heal more quickly. We are calmer and more inclined to social interaction, trust and generosity. If adrenaline and cortisol move us into the ‘Fight or Flight’ response, oxytocin nudges us into a state that could be labelled ‘Stay and Play”, where our bodies can slow down enough to nourish themselves and their relationships, strengthening these resources for the future. 

Oxytocin gives us the motivation to want to connect with others, make new friends and give others the benefit of the doubt. It is likely the biochemical substrate of what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes as the crucial act of ‘broadening and building’ our social networks. As the theory goes, during good times, positive emotions help us to build up goodwill with others. This goodwill, in turn, can see us through more vulnerable times when we need to rely on the generosity and kindness of friends and family. In a social group, where neighbours rely on neighbours, positive bonds and the social warmth they induce are what keeps the community going through both good times and bad.

If there were one neurochemical that seems to associated extensively with Motherhood, it is also oxytocin. Both labor and breastfeeding are characterised by notable spikes of oxytocin in the blood stream.  The acts of holding and nurturing a new baby are filled with opportunities for producing oxytocin in a new Mother. Skin-to-skin contact, warmth, empathy and compassion for your baby throughout the early weeks and months are also all rich sources.

It has been noted that key aspects of the personality of breastfeeding women (who experience regular surges in oxytocin during the letdown reflex) change within days after the birth of their children, with the women studied displaying notably more calmness and sociability. This makes sense, given findings that oxytocin increases social contact in many animal species, and works hand in hand with social support to offer the excellent protection against stressful occurrences in human subjects. 

Oxytocin helps our bodies rest, heal and calm down, all the while encouraging us to reach out and strengthen our bonds with others. When are feeling worn out, run down, and in need of support, how good would a little dose of oxytocin be? And how instructive is it to know that our bodies agree, providing us with many opportunities in early parenthood to cuddle up, calm down and recharge? 

As Mothers, our days can tire us out. But our connections with those we love, and the oxytocin this produces, can be our best antidote. When you are worn out - reach out. Its one of the simplest and most effective antidotes to stress we have.  

 

Supporting academic papers:

Ballas, D., & Dorling, D. (2007). Measuring the impact of major life events upon happiness. International Journal of Epidemiology, 36, 1244-1252.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology is coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.

Heinrichs, K. Baumgarner, T., Kirschbaum, C. Ehlers, U. (2003) Biological Psychiatry, 54, 1389-1398. 

Kosfield et al. (2005) Oxytocin increases trust in humans, NATURE, 673-676 

Nissen, E., Uvna ̈s-Moberg, K., Svensson, K., Stock, S., Widstrom, A. M. and Winberg, J. (1996) Different patterns of oxytocin, prolactin but not cortisol release during breastfeeding in women delivered by caesarean section or by the vaginal route. Early Human Development 45, 103–118. 

Nissen, E., Gustavsson, P., Widstrom, A. M. and Uvna ̈s-Moberg, K. (1998) Oxytocin, prolactin and cortisol levels in response to nursing in women after Sectio Caesarea and vaginal delivery-relationship with changes in personality patterns post partum. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology 19, 49–58. 

Petersson, M., Alster, P., Lundeberg, T. and Uvna ̈s-Moberg, K. (1996a) Oxytocin causes a long-term decrease of blood pressure in female and male rats. Physiology and Behavior 60, 1311–1315. 

Uvnas-Moberg, K. (1998) Oxytocin mediates the benefits of positive social interactions and emotions. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23, 8, 819-855.  

Uvnas-Moberg, K., Ahlenius, S., Hillegaart, V. and Alster, P. (1994) High doses of oxytocin cause sedation and low doses cause an anxiolytic-like effect in male rats. Pharmacology Biochemistryand Behavior 49, 101–106.

Uvnas-Moberg, K., Bruzelius, G., Alster, P. and Lundeberg, T. (1993) The antinociceptive effect of non-noxious sensory stimulation is partly mediated through oxytocinergic mechanisms. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 149, 199–204.

Widstrom, A. M., Wahlberg, V., Matthiesen, A. S., Eneroth, P., Uvnas-Moberg, K., Werner, S. and Winberg, J. (1990) Short-term effects of early suckling on maternal behaviour and breast-feeding performance. Early Human Development 21, 153–163.

 

 

Oxytocin, And How Your Brain Changes In Pregnancy

So what exactly is Motherhood anyways? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a tidy definition of the role you are currently about to embark upon that will forever be a part of your life?

We’re going to skip philosophising and get straight to the nitty gritty: If there’s an aspect of Motherhood that is important to get right, your brain and body will have equipped you for it. The rest are probably details.

As the research suggests, your brain appears to understand precisely what will be necessary to get you and baby through the challenges of parenting. So much so that it spends the pregnancy laying the groundwork for these tasks. And while it is of course very interesting to learn about these changes for their own sake, it is what these changes make possible that can arguably tell us a great deal about what needs to happen in order to help a child survive and grow.

Scientists have often wondered whether the profound change a new Mother experiences in her new role has any neurobiological basis. In other words, can the almost universal shift in a new Mother from “I” to “we”, and all the newness this brings, be explained by developments in the brain during pregnancy?

The emerging answer appears to be yes. And it might just begin with bonding...

In the same way that your body is preparing itself for energy storage and lactation in order to help you feed the baby when it arrives, the brain is now gearing up for all of the tasks it must coordinate to make mothering possible from a thinking and feeling point of view. You might wonder what kind of a Mother you should be - but it may be some comfort to know your brain is busy helping you become the Mother it thinks you need to be.

As a Mother you are now a twisted tangle of love. Your well-being is now forever entwined with that of another. Your bond with your child will leave you both infinitely richer and more vulnerable to heartache. There is nothing halfway about this love. It shakes you, it thrills you and it holds you, for better or for worse. And..that’s right.. it’s just the way your brain designed it.  

The brain both processes information and creates your lived experiences through a rich network of cells that speak to one another through miles and miles of connections. Certain regions and connections within the brain have been studied enough to allow scientists to pinpoint the specific brain chemicals they produce, and the specific experiences these brain chemicals create for us.

As it turns out, even this vast, unfathomably deep blue sea of love we have for our children has a probable origin in our brains.  And that origin is very likely oxytocin.

Oxytocin is our own, home grown love potion. Technically speaking, it is a neuropeptide hormone that works in both your brain and your body, and appears to responsible for all things bonding related. Practically speaking, it’s responsible for giving us the warm fuzzies when we see someone we love. Researchers know this because they have been able to examine what happens to the behavior of animals when oxytocin is introduced (or blocked) in their systems. Introduce it, and animals will engage in all manner of bonding behavior. Block it, and animals can resist caring for even their own offspring.

Oxytocin is primarily released through touch. When oxytocin floods our brains and veins it signals us to move closer to those in our focus. It primes us for approach. Oxytocin asks us to slow down and get to know the person in our gaze. With oxytocin, we are more likely to trust. We move away from guarded “I” and flirt with the more vulnerable but rewarding “we”.  The oxytocin-response is the polar opposite of the stress response. It helps us to relax and to build connections with those we love.   

Oxytocin has been linked to Motherhood for a while. Researchers have long noted its link to the letdown of milk and the pacing of birth. Yet it’s only recently that information has started to be gathered on just how central oxytocin is to the maternal experience.

During pregnancy, the levels of oxytocin in a woman’s body rise steadily, priming her for bonding with her infant. In animal research, as delivery approaches, the MPOA region of the hypothalamus ( a region already rich in oxytocin receptors) notably increases the size of its cell bodies, making the region increasingly capable of oxytocin production. This extra-oxytocin-enriched region then goes on to liaise with the dopamine-producing (reward) regions of the brain, making all of this bonding behavior extra rewarding.

Put plainly, one of the major changes your brain goes through in pregnancy is the laying of the groundwork for an increased sensitivity to (and pleasure taken from) bonding. From a neuropsychological perspective, bonding - on repeat -  is very likely job one of Motherhood. Babies can’t explain what they need. So our brains direct us to keep them close to help figure it out. We could perceive these new arrivals to our world as strangers. We could ignore their entreats for warmth and nourishment with cold indifference. But we don’t. We fall in love with them at first site. And our oxytocin-soaked brains very likely manoeuvre the entire operation.   

Of course, given the many ways the brain can produce Oxytocin, pregnancy is not the only route to bonding with a new baby. Oxytocin is in ample supply during both delivery and breastfeeding. Yet it also comes from simple touch. From holding a gaze with someone you love. From meeting the needs of that person and having feelings of compassion for them. All opportunities in high supply during the early moments of caring for a new arrival. Whether you physically carried your baby or not, early parenthood is brimming with opportunities for genuine, caring connection - and these are the landmarks of oxytocin country.

As we continue to study the brain, one central premise has become clear: It is a model of efficiency. To keep you moving and interacting with the world, your brain has to accomplish a lot in very, very little time. It is unlikely the brain would spend precious resources increasing its oxytocin receptivity during pregnancy if the activities oxytocin supported during early parenthood weren’t crucial.

What this change in the brain suggests is that somewhere in our history, the more we bonded with our babies, and with those around us, the more babies we were able to help survive. This premise is subtle yet profound. Bonding with others is so important to parenthood that our very brains - the core of the fabric of what we know ourselves to be - re-wire in preparation for it.

Wondering how to be the best parent you can be? Take a cue from your oxytocin-revved brain. Slow down. Cuddle your newborn. Engage with her through acts of love and compassion. Trust in the process. On repeat.

Neuroscientifically  speaking  - a big part of parenthood just might be that simple.

 

Supporting academic papers:

Feldman, R., Gordon, I., Schneiderman, I., Weisman, O., & Zagoory-Sharon, O. (2010) Natural variations in maternal and paternal care are associated with systematic changes in oxytocin following parent-infant contact. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(8) 1133–1141.

Gordon, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J. F., & Feldman, R. (2010). Oxytocin and the development of parenting in humans. Biological Psychiatry, 68(4), 377–382

Keyser-Marcus, L., Stasso-Sandoz, G., Gerecke, K., Jasnow, A., Nightingale, L., Lambert, K. G., . . . Kinsley, C. H. (2001). Alterations of medial preoptic area neurons following pregnancy and pregnancy-like steroidal treatment in the rat. Brain Research Bulletin, 55(6), 737–745

Kim, S. & Strathearn, L. (2016). Oxytocin and maternal brain plasticity. In H. J. V. Rutherford -& L. C. Mayes (Eds.), Maternal brain plasticity: Preclinical and human research and implications for intervention. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 153, 59–72.

Kim, S., Fonagy, P., Koos, O., Dorsett, K., & Strathearn, L. (2014). Maternal oxytocin response predicts mother-to-infant gaze. Brain Research, 1580, 133–142.

Kendrick, K. M., Keverne, E. B., & Baldwin, B. A. (1987). Intracerebroventricular oxytocin stimulates maternal behaviour in the sheep. Neuroendocrinology, 46(1), 56–61

Pedersen, C. A., Ascher, J. A., Monroe, Y. L., & Prange, A. J., Jr. (1982). Oxytocin induces maternal behavior in virgin female rats. Science, 216(4546), 648–650.

Pedersen, C. A., Caldwell, J. D., Walker, C., Ayers, G., & Mason, G. A. (1994). Oxytocin activates the postpartum onset of rat maternal behavior in the ventral tegmental and medial preoptic areas. Behavioral Neuroscience, 108(6), 1163–1171.

Stolzenberg, D. S., & Numan, M. (2011). Hypothalamic interaction with the mesolimbic DA system in the control of the maternal and sexual behaviors in rats. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(3), 826–847.

 

 

 

 

 

Well Made Heroes: Sarah Hrdy

At any given moment, a country's leader is spending much time and thought thinking about who to ask to lead various posts in government.

These posts include the leadership of bureaus such as the Ministry of Agriculture, so that citizens can look forward to crops; The Ministry of Education, to oversee the up-skilling of young; The Ministry of Energy, to ensure homes are heated and industry is fuelled; and the largest, The Ministry of Defense, to ensure citizens are defended at home and abroad. Crops, skills, fuel, and combat. Hard to not see the similarities between these national priorities and the very strengths that allowed our early ancestors to evolve from sparsely numbered savannah dwellers to the billion-strong species that now inhabits all corners of the earth.

Yet, according to Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, this wasn’t all there was to the story of early humans. Yes, we eventually became adept and wielding tools, weapons, and seedlings. Yet before that, way back at the beginning of the story, something else changed. About 2 million years ago, our forbears started to do something different than other primates. Our forbears started, ever so slowly, to allow other caregivers, often a sister, aunt or other relative (known as an ‘alloparent’) to look after their children for while, in order to free them up to forage the nutrients needed by a completely dependent human child.

Different to other primates, where juveniles are solely cared for by the Mother for the duration of their ‘childhood’, early humans started to engage in a little parental outsourcing. According to Hrdy, this subtle shift in care-giving practices had enormous implications for the evolution of our species. Because, Mama was freed up to forage food for the family, while the child was kept safe by a relative, she and the child were better fed, survival outlooks were better, and she was able to have another child sooner.

Also, because Mama was sometimes called away to forage, the infant, when left in the hands of an alloparent, would need to be adept at reading the emotional cues and intentions of a wide range of caregivers. The result? These offspring developed increased emotional sensitivity and awareness to make the most of the ‘alloparents’ at their disposal.  

In a nutshell, ‘Cooperative Breeders’ had more offspring. In evolutionary currency, that means they won. The species changed. Cooperation and emotional intelligence became hard-wired. In the process, offspring were kept alive long enough to develop large, clever brains. And so we became a species smart enough to develop tools and wise enough to share our bounty. Look out world.

So while hunting, war, and sex had their place, Hrdy’s perspective is that successful Mothering is clearly the unsung hero in our species’ evolutionary success. Cooperative breeding is the backbone of humanity. Before its advent, we had a hard time replacing ourselves. With it, we our species grew geometrically in strength and numbers. We owe it all to our Mothers and the villages of care they created.

Can I get a collective “HIGH FIVE” from the crowd?

Motherhood is the unsung hero of a nation’s wealth, success and future. It’s the single most important function our species engages in. Its successful practice is the reason we are who we are. So, our next question is, where are our countries’ Departments of Parenting’? We are creating tomorrow’s farmers, scientists, healers and soldiers. Can you imagine a day when a nation attended to creating a better experience for us?

If that day were now, we’d nominate Sarah Hrdy as a candidate for it’s lead. She’s been described as the world’s ‘leading scientific authority on mothering‘ for her research and contributions to our understanding of how mothering evolved in our species. For changing the paradigm about how anthropologists think about Motherhood, we salute her. She isn’t just making the case that Motherhood should get its due. She’s making the case that the intelligence and cooperation of human mothers underpins our species’ very existence.

The aqueduct, the chariot, the sewer, the written page, the microprocessor, the polio vaccine, the sandal, the plow. These extraordinary advancements all came about in a world where Mothers were doing what they always have done, working tirelessly, building cooperative networks, sharing information, working against starvation and disease, looking out for the interests of their children and their loved one’s children, and making sure that, with their best efforts, as many as possible made it successfully into an adulthood where their ideas could then shine.

“Ordinary” mothers are the some of the greatest heroes of the human story.

Thank you, Sarah Hrdy, for showing us the light!

 

To read more about Dr. Hrdy and her work, click here: (1) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/evolution-motherhood.html

Post Image of Sarah Hrdy and her newborn baby

Post Image source: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/

Are Mothers At Risk In The 21st Century - Part 2

Connection

The 20th century continued the global historical trend of transferring jobs and money to cities, far away from the agricultural communities that the majority of the world existed in for centuries. The 21st century will only amplify this. As agriculture and manufacturing become more efficient, more and more young people will need to leave their homes in search of financial opportunity miles away from the friends and communities that that have sustained them.

In my own family, my grandmother (Catherine’s daughter) left Scotland as a young girl and moved away for the opportunity of work. There she gave birth to her own children in a city far away from Catherine’s experienced support. Her daughter (my mother) later left her home for similar opportunities, eventually becoming a Mother in a place very different from the one she knew. And me? Same story. The bright lights of the big city beckoned, and I became a Mother miles away from my own.

At the time, I thought it was a great adventure.  I was in a big city and creating my new life. A new chapter was beginning. Things seemed pretty swell. Except...

I barely knew anyone in my new home of 19 million people. I was disconnected at best - and at risk for outright isolation if I am telling the truth.  Still, I knew that lots of people moved far away from home, for all sorts of reasons. It never once occurred to me that this might be a problem once the baby arrived. The thought of being alone at the most vulnerable period in my life never seemed to be real risk. Until, of course, it was.

Normal life is tough enough without people you can call on for a little laugh or a hug when it’s needed. When you have a tiny life to sustain and haven’t slept more than two hours at a time in six months - solitude becomes painful. Connections with others refuel us and provide a needed respite. In isolation, our worries and pains seem to grow geometrically.  

Above all else, we humans are social. We define ourselves by our connections with others. We all need a tribe - and a new Mother, newly arrived, under-packed and under-prepared, on the shores of an enormous experience, needs a tribe acutely. In our rush to improve and move on from our old worlds - are we paying enough attention to how we’ll build new ones when we need them most?

Expertise

Having a baby today means you are becoming a parent in a time of unprecedented information availability. It can also mean that plenty of well-meaning ‘experts’ are happy to jump in and do the learning for you. Parenting today  - like food production, medicine, home building and just about anything else - has become professionalised. It is as much the realm of rarefied high priests and priestesses, wizards and know-it-alls, as it is the Mothers and Fathers who stumble through it.

As a result of this ‘professionalisation’ of parenthood, and my absorption of our cultural preference for ‘experts’ over my own ideas and industry, my confidence in my innate parenting ability when my daughter arrived was at absolute zero. (And I am a confident gal - so that’s saying something.)  I couldn’t so much as trust myself to figure out how to get my baby to drink milk without deferring to some professional opinion.

As for Britain’s ancient “folkways” and the wisdom of the ages - well…Not only did my early experience with the ‘intensive parenting industry’ make me feel that I had no clue how to care for my child, I was also made to feel that, due to the modern obsession with “new”  -  my  own (very expert) Mother and Grandmother and Great-Grandmother didn’t have a clue either. That it was incredible any of us made it out of infancy at all.  

As a result of all of this well meaning advice from the ivory tower of parenting, I started to feel a little helpless. Me - the great adventurer. That’s not a great place to be beginning the biggest challenge of your life.

Outlook

I was amazed at how much love I could feel for my new daughter. And totally blindsided by how terrifying the world was now that I had to secure her place in it. My guess is that has been a pretty typical feeling for new Mamas throughout history.

But I became a Mama in a unique time in history. I had the internet. And safety warnings on everything I read. Suddenly, everything whispered “you might screw this up”. I quickly learned that the default way to approach parenting should be assume the worst will happen at all times. Not because it actually does - but because there is so much information out there to let you know that it could.  And that’s terrifying. Especially when you don’t have any confidence. So I quickly became a darker, more anxious, pessimist than I had ever been during what should have been a very happy time. Some dark days, the worry shut out the joy. (And remember, I didn’t have many people nearby that I could talk to about this).

So where does this leave our new Mother (a.k.a. me)? Oh yes. Lonely, lacking in confidence, worried and pessimistic (in case you were keeping score.) And no, in case you were wondering, I hadn’t really noticed this change in adventurous, happy go lucky me. Well, at least not in the beginning.

Resources and Resilience

In the practice of physical medicine, an organism’s vulnerability to disease has much to do with it’s physical strength beforehand. The better nourished and rested we are, the more resources we have to call on in our defence and the more likely we are to be resilient in the face of stress.

A year into Motherhood, my maternal mind was not nourished nor was it rested. It was worn down by worry, self-doubt and isolation. And, as happens in any life, things didn’t go according to plan sometimes. I had worked through a litany of stressful events in my life. Yet I had always bounced (or clawed) my way back with my trademark vigour. This time around, I couldn’t seem to scale the wall in front of me. I felt like should have been resilient, but I was not.

My environment had reached its tipping point. On balance, it took away more than it gave. The factors that sustained me were overshadowed by the ones that depleted me. So, instead of bouncing back in a healthy way, I began to crack under the strain.  

In hindsight - this was all completely avoidable.    

Connection. Outlook. Resilience. Expertise. New words, old concepts. Really old. So old, no one bothers to pay attention to them anymore. Until your mind starts to notice. That in the midst of all of this gleaming modernity - its core necessities are lacking.

You should know, a few years on, I am much better. I really am my old self again. Yet it took a lot of introspection and a few years of research to figure out what happened to me in those darkest of days  - and why.

The mind alerts us to unhygienic conditions in the same way the body does. It feels pain. It becomes tired, inflamed and feverish. It withdraws or redirects focus in an attempt to heal. Yet despite these very real signals that an environment is causing us pain, there is little language or protocol available for new mothers to give the problem a name and make improvements.

Change is not new. Humans are adaptable. Yet what feels new today is a growing state of isolation and self doubt as we all work to find a way for ourselves and our families.  

It is hard to know what Catherine would have made of the world today. I wonder if she would ask me: In what do you trust?  What are your lessons? Who is your tribe?  A few years ago I would have told her her I have no idea. That we all make it up as we go along now. So much has been lost along the way.

We doubt she would have found that to be a very satisfactory answer. Neither did we.

So where to begin, sisters?

Perhaps like Catherine, we should put on our spectacles and take a long, hard look at our world through the following lenses:

Connection: For mothers, friendships are big magic, and big medicine. And if the pace of life has taken you far away from your home, the importance of nurturing new relationships is of critical importance. If you take stock of your relationships and feel like they could use a little improvement, follow that lead. Take purposeful  steps by ringing up an old friend, striking up a conversation with a new Mother you meet at the park, or finding a group of like-minded Mamas on the web. You don’t have to hit it off with everyone you meet. Yet by taking your social connections seriously, you are building up a resource that takes on a completely new importance with the arrival of a child. It’s not a vanity. Its crucial.

Outlook: If your outlook is skewed to the negative side, and you find yourself regularly anxious or low as a result, it’s possible you might need to push back a bit. The world is awash in information. For a fair few of us, this can create anxiety as the collective experience of millions is distilled into soundbites and relayed to us in an instant.

Yet, being aware and informed does not need to stand in the way of living an enjoyable life. Each of us has a tendency to either see the glass half empty or half full. And each approach (optimism or pessimism) can lead to valuable outcomes in different ways. Sometimes it pays to be cautious, and sometimes we need to embrace the possibilities in a new situation. The key here is accuracy. Ask yourself if you have evidence for how you are feeling about a situation, and then choose your outlook. 

Expertise:  Parenting is a muscle that has to be built and used. The more opportunity you give yourself to roll your sleeves up and learn, the more confident you will feel about your ability to tackle this - and any manner of challenges the world might bring your way tomorrow. Within the parenting realm, we all know what we’re NOT good at. When faced with a weakness (say..making healthy meals) we can chalk it up to an innate talent deficiency and outsource the problem (hello pizza). Or, we can entertain the possibility that a good dose of old fashioned practice would shore up our skill gap and improve our self-confidence at the same time. For the next couple of weeks, try to commit to getting better at just one thing that has been nagging at you. Give it your all for an hour a day. Read up on the topic. Try it out. Mess up. Experiment. Try again. And then keep trying. Pay attention the the power of practice. Watch and observe yourself as you do get better at practically anything you want to get better at. The practice of parenthood belongs to YOU - not an industry.

Resources and Resilience: Resilience is not a modern invention. It was what helped us cross the oceans and fight off the cave bears. Its no secret that your resilience will be helped by factors much more timeless than your cell phone.

You can’t really know how resilient you are until a challenge presents itself. But you can take an informal inventory of the resources you have to call on, should the world veer stage left. How energising and sustaining are your key relationships? How helpful are your day-to-day attitudes in light of what you are hoping to accomplish? How confident are you in your abilities to handle what the world has in store for you? What aspects of your environment tire you out - and which ones sustain you?

By now, you might be starting to think about the crucial role your mind is playing in Motherhood. How an understanding of the things we can’t see, or maybe even name (but can nevertheless feel) can have a resounding impact on our well-being. How the world of a Mother is impacted as much by the environment she inhabits as it is by the objects she can acquire. And how wellness can be made by design.

Anywhere a Mother’s mind is not given the same due as her body, Motherhood is not  - yet - a truly healthy endeavour.

Yet we have every reason to be optimistic. As a society, we have the tools and the impetus to get there. One hundred years on from 1915, it’s our turn to push things forward. We think Catherine would approve. 

Read more about bringing together confidence, outlook, expertise and resilience to prepare for this new stage in your life, here.

 

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2007) Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Edge. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. Vintage.

Are Mothers At Risk In The 21st Century?

In 1915, in a coastal quarry town in Scotland, my great grandmother Catherine practiced as a well-respected midwife. When it came to the birth of a child, Catherine’s Mothers-to-be would have done what their Mothers and Grandmothers had done. They would seek out people they knew and trusted and had probably known all their lives. A midwife’s qualifications were typically based on experience, trust and reputation in the community she served.

Catherine was well-respected and would have delivered hundreds of babies in the region over her career. Yet sadly, many women of the age were not as well-cared for as Catherine’s Mothers.

In 1915, women and newborns in the UK were dying from childbirth complications at an alarming rate. (The principal culprit being ‘childbed fever”, brought about by poor hygiene causing sepsis after the birth.) This concerned many government officials, who, in the midst of a World War, fretted over whether current birthrates would be high enough to support the population of the future. The health of Mothers soon became a topic of national attention and security.

As a result, in 1915, the Scottish Midwives Act was passed. The Act made it illegal for a midwife to charge for attending a birth without a formal qualification from one of a handful of approved institutions in the United Kingdom. It sought to ensure access to formally trained midwives for all women and thereby reduce the chances of inexperienced individuals threatening the health of Scottish mothers and their infants. (The Act was preceded by the 1902 Midwives Act in England, an act with similar reformist aims. )

Thanks to the professionalisation of the practice of midwifery, antibiotics and developments in obstetrics, hygiene in the birth arena became job one. The safeguarding of a woman’s health in childbearing became something that Mothers and their families could begin to rely upon with as much assurance as the timeless ‘folkways’ of child-rearing that would help shape their children’s futures.

The future seemed bright. Post-war, the world could now look forward to healthy mothers, healthy babies and healthy families.  

Fast forward to today. At the time of writing this article, it is (historically speaking) a very healthy time to give birth to a child. The World Health Organisation reports a worldwide reduction in maternal deaths from 523,000 in 1990 to 303,000 in 2015. Yet given the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as ‘A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity',  is it reasonable to say that Mothers are afforded as optimistic an outlook with regards to their emotional and societal well-being as they are their physical health?

By expanding the traditional view of maternal well-being from a healthy body giving birth to a healthy child to include aspects of her inner world and the wider social world she inhabits, the acceptance that Motherhood is a presumably ‘healthy’ endeavour in the twenty-first century is arguably less assured.

Long after a new baby is delivered into our gleaming age, it appears that Mothers continue to remain emotionally and socially vulnerable.  Pregnancy, childbirth and new Motherhood are widely reported to be accompanied by intense emotion, swift changes in identity, and extreme demands placed on physical and psychological resources.

New Mothers typically manage the transition to parenthood without significant or long-term impact on their well-being yet up to 30-75% of new Mothers experience some form of the “baby blues” ( a milder form of post-natal depression) in the first week after birth. In some instances (up to 20%) women develop clinical mental health disorders that require treatment.

One could argue that, while ‘life’ is a reliable expectation for mother and baby today in the developed world, the need for an otherwise healthy new Mother to adjust physically, emotionally and spiritually has somehow lost its way.

Paradoxically, while most of us live materially better than our great-grandparents could have imagined, in some key ways, we are less well as a result. Modern affluence has a price: Obesity, diabetes, addiction, anxiety and depression being some of the principal outcomes of societal progress.

A mother in the English-speaking world today will live a very different experience than she would have in 1915. She can vote. Own a credit card. Attend a university. Surf the web. If she has a measure of disposable income, she has choices on almost everything she comes into contact with. And with choices come the three horsemen of modern wealth (psychologically speaking): Anxiety (Have I chosen correctly? Was there a better option? Did I miss out?) Upward Comparison (Does someone have more than me?) And Judgment (What will people think of my decision? And what do I think about other people’s?)

Mothers living in less affluent communities can suffer from the opposite concern - the challenges that have always come from a lack of enough options. In the United States, Mothers in lower income communities can have little to no access to adequate schools, jobs, food, and community health resources. In neighbourhoods where violence and poverty are commonplace, mothers have a dramatically higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than do the general population.

One overlap that spans the economic strata of American Mothers for example, is the need to balance employment and Motherhood. It is biologically typical to have a baby, and, in the Unites States, with over three-quarters of American mothers in employment, it is also typical for a Mother to work. Yet the United States is the only developed country in the world with no legally mandated parental leave policy for new mothers. Women have babies. Women work. Yet lagging laws mean the burden falls entirely on the mother to figure out how to make this happen. Working American mothers are the most ‘time-poor” members of the population. In an unsustainable crunch, burnout, illness and depression are rarely far behind.

One hundred years ago, it seemed like society fixed one motherhood problem very well. Mothers were dying in childbirth and we hit the challenge head on with better hygiene. Yet is the battle for maternal health really over? Today, we seem to have a different problem.  Mothers are suffering emotionally. Everywhere. Physical hygiene in the delivery setting may be job one (on day one)  - but what about ensuring emotional hygiene for a woman as she ventures forth from the hospital bed and adapts to her new role? What happens when day one turns into day 30? And beyond that?

 Pregnancy, childbirth and new Motherhood are widely reported to be accompanied by intense emotion, swift changes in identity, and extreme demands placed on physical and psychological resources.

 

Most new Mothers are educated on how to care for their bodies after birth. But how many are taught to care for their minds?  Do we feel as comfortable talking about our loneliness, anxiety or fragility as we do about our sleepless nights? Do we know how to recognise what will nourish the part of Motherhood that no one can see - the one that goes on in our heads? Do we know how to build a supportive environment? Are we equipped to see risks to our emotional well-being, and strengthen our resources for fixing them?  

For if a mother’s mind isn’t well - how can she be what she must be for the people who depend on her?

It is difficult to say whether Mothers today are more likely to feel overwhelmed, isolated, depressed or anxious than our ancestors because historical records of maternal mental health were not well kept, and even today, true numbers can be vastly under-reported due the the stigma attached to challenges fought in the mind.

Yet a casual observation of our own experiences and those of our sisters leads us to feel uneasy with the way the modern world is shaping up. We wonder how likely the world’s economic progression is poised to deplete, instead of sustain, its Mothers.

Read part two of this article here

 

Hong, S. & Burnett-Zeigler, I. J. Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (2016). doi:10.1007/s40615-016-0311-3

Schulte, B. (2014) Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time. Sarah Chrichton Books. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

Figes, K. (1996) Life After Birth. Virago. London.

The Baby Preparation That No One Can See

Sabrina

Almost two years ago I was sitting in bed, texting with a friend who was just about to have her first baby. She wanted my advice on baby preparation and I was all too happy to help. I was expecting questions like, will I feel isolated? What should I do about coping with sleep deprivation? Can I call you when I’m needing a pick me up? Will I question my ability as a Mother? (I can go on…) She didn’t ask those questions. What she wanted advice on was what most likely a lot of us preoccupied ourselves with at the start: which brand of muslin cloth is the best? Should I invest in a good highchair? What toys will help me stimulate my baby?

Then I thought to myself, holy shit, she doesn’t know what’s coming. I want to save her! But then maybe I was being presumptuous - not everyone will find the transition from single person to Mother as hard as I did. And to be honest, the questions I pose now, would not have even played on my mind seven years ago when I was pregnant with my first Son.

I woke up the next morning thinking, although a percentage of Mothers will find adjusting to the changes of pregnancy and Motherhood relatively easy, there is a percentage of us that will be going through a tsunami of emotions and changes that we can’t quite articulate or won’t feel comfortable articulating. And the fact that these changes in our brain (quite literally) are not explored at a significant length in ante-natal classes is unfortunate. Yes, most of us know what Postnatal Depression is and what to look out for, but what about spending more time up front preparing your mind to increase your resilience throughout the ups and downs of Motherhood? How will you cope with stressful situations? What mechanisms will you employ when you are sleep deprived? Physically exhausted? What goals do you have in place for your individual growth? I would have much rather had that discussion than listening to my Ante-natal instructor tell me the benefits of the rebozo band as a way to cope with contractions! The birth itself is such a small fish to fry in the grand scheme of safeguarding and nurturing a HUMAN LIFE.

So that night I called Megan and told her what I was thinking, and the fireworks started going off in our minds….

 

 

Megan

About 8 years ago I decided I needed a little more adventure in my life. So I packed my bags. Put my place up for rent. And left my home for places unknown. When we finally landed, my husband and I found ourselves working and living in London, England. A perfectly excellent place from which to find adventure. Fast forward a few years. I was having a lot of fun, and working hard. And then I learned..somewhere over Paris in an aeroplane restroom..that I was having a baby. Two blue lines. Deep breath. Cool! :)

I sat back down in my seat, trying not to further embarrass the man on to whom the contents of my pharmacy bag and unopened pregnancy test package had spilt onto earlier, and began to write a letter to my unborn daughter. I knew nothing of Motherhood, but I knew in that instance that I had so much to tell her. I asked her in that letter to get cosy and stay. And stay she did. And nine months later, on a foggy night along the banks of the River Thames, she made her appearance. Now, this was an adventure.

The thing about adventures is that most of the time, people try to prepare for what they might run into. They might at least pack a sandwich or two. I was travelling light, but even I wasn’t bold enough to avoid what I thought were the necessary pre-baby preparations.  I read the hypnobirthing book. I was ready for my Baby Moon. I had the car seat and stroller all ready to go. And I enrolled in the parenting class that everyone told me I had to do to learn the basics of baby-rearing. I was as prepared as I could have been.

In my parenting class, I met the best thing that ever happened to me during that time, in the form of two amazing, kindred spirits who were also about to have babies far from home, my life-long soul sisters Sabrina and Sandy. We shared lunch, puzzled over the mysteries of the new place we called home and forged a wicked friendship. I came home that day with no recollection of how to best position the child for breastfeeding, but totally over the moon that I had met these rock star ladies. Looking back, my brain was already telling me what I needed most!

Oh yeah..my brain. So as it turns out, the only thing I didn’t prepare for this adventure was my mind. I didn’t realise this until much later but suffice it to say, enough unnecessary suffering happened in my mind in that first year to make me wonder if a huge part - perhaps THE part - of our preparation for Motherhood had been overlooked. After all, It is in our minds that we become Mothers. And it is the one area of a Mother that there is almost complete Radio Silence on as she prepares for (most likely) the most monumental shift in her identity to date, and possibly ever in her life.

I noticed that my friends, when we talked, and the conversation moved beyond the baby-care troubles, were often grappling with real fears that spanned far beyond the advice in the baby manuals: Fears of the unknown, of feeling so newly vulnerable, of feeling so newly out of control. My background in the field of psychology probably biased me to noticing the emotional and thinking aspects of our struggles, and it definitely biased me to want to do something about it. My friends agreed and luckily Sabrina is someone who makes things happen. And so, Well Made Mama was born.

Well Made Mama is a collaboration of efforts focused on helping women learn about the transition to Motherhood that no one can see - the one that happens in their heads. And in the midst of so much expertise about what Mothers ‘ought’ to do - we wanted to shine a light on what they are already doing, and doing well. We hope you find a place here to settle in and learn about how to strengthen and support the wondrous, vital creature that is YOU. You are our hero..and the content of Well Made Mama was made for you with love. 

Have you read the rest of Volume 1? Peruse the rest of the WMM Journal here