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Mothers Need Nurturing

Rick Hanson, PhD, and Jan Hanson, MS, LAc
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 2, March-April 2006, pp. 52-57

A year after Susan's second child was born, she made an appointment with my wife, Jan, a nutritionist and acupuncturist, because she wanted an "energy boost." Susan was 36, dark-haired and slender, with a no-nonsense gaze. She worked part-time as a bookkeeper for a department store.

She showed photos of her children, melting in a soft smile. Alana was three, "really smart, but feisty!" Brian, the baby, had been colicky for many months, and even though he was now sleeping through the night, she had frequent insomnia.

Susan had breastfed Alana for most of two years, and she loved nursing Brian, too. Jan described nursing her son for four years and his sister for two, including during her pregnancy and in tandem for a year and a half.

Susan's husband, Marco, was sometimes helpful when he was home, but he worked long hours and said he needed to rest for his job. She paused and then said carefully, "We've argued a lot about him helping more, but he just says he's doing better than his dad. But it's irritating and I'm so tired at night that I don't feel very affectionate, which is a problem for him."

Jan asked how Susan was feeling personally. Susan replied, "Well, I don't want to complain. As my mother-in-law says, ‘That's just motherhood, get used to it.' The other moms, they look all put together, like it's going fine, so I feel it's my fault."

It's Going to Be Okay

Jan said, "Susan, I felt much the same way. It has been wonderful to be a mother, the best, most important thing I've ever done. But there's so much work, and many days you're putting out more than is coming back in."

"I know!" Susan burst out. "Some days I feel as though I'm running on fumes."

"Me, too," Jan said. "Many mothers feel that way. But there's a kind of taboo about really talking about it, which just makes us feel guilty or frustrated with ourselves. And that's not fair."

Jan went on, "It will definitely get better. You're meant to have babies and nurse them. That's what women have done for thousands of years; motherhood is perfectly natural, not some kind of medical condition! And time is on your side, as your children get older they will be more able to do things for themselves. Plus, you can always take better care of yourself. I did, and that's how I ended up feeling less stressed, healthier, and happier with my husband." (You can read about Jan's story in the book, Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships.)

Step 1: Your Own Needs Have to Matter, Too

"How'd you do it?" Susan asked.

Jan reflected for a moment. "First and foremost, I realized I needed nurturing, too."

"But isn't that kind of selfish?"

"Not at all," Jan replied. "It's a plain fact: you have to keep refilling your own cup in order to pour into your children -- let alone have anything left over for your husband or yourself."

Jan told Susan about an exercise to help improve a mother's health, well-being, and relationships (see "You Matter, Too" on page 54.) Susan started smiling to herself as she thought about her own lists.

Jan continued, "Second, I learned about the potential effects of motherhood on a woman's mind, body, and marriage. A few people frowned on that, but it honors mothers to tell the truth about all the ways that parenthood has affected them. Third, my husband, Rick, and I took some concrete actions. Most were real simple, such as eating protein with every meal or pinning down who did what with the children or housework.

"So it was just three steps. And they really paid off! Which helped me enjoy more this precious time with children, feel a lot better, and not worry about my marriage." Jan leaned forward a little and said, "And you can do it, too!"

Step 2: Understanding the Two Sides of Parenthood

Susan had already started on the first step -- realizing that she mattered, too -- and over the next few weeks, Jan helped her take the other two steps.

Susan realized immediately that it was hopeful and positive to understand both sides of parenthood, since it helped her make sense out of things, zero in on solutions, and share solid information with her partner to explain why she needed more help. We've summarized the information Jan gave her. It contains a wide range of possibilities, so just see what fits for you.

A Word About Fathers

Parenthood definitely affects men, as Rick (a very involved dad) can testify! But women alone experience pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and weaning. Most mothers handle the great majority of the childrearing and housework. And many a mother is raising her children pretty much by herself. Focusing on mothers doesn't put down fathers.

Growing Demands on You

A mother is affected by the combination of the demands upon her, her resources (inside and outside herself), and any vulnerabilities. The physical demands start with conception, when she starts building the most complex organ the body ever grows. It takes about 80,000 extra calories to make a baby, and lots of specialized nutrients. Pregnancy and childbirth also cause major gyrations in the hormonal and immune systems.

When a mother breastfeeds, she uses part of her total caloric intake for nursing, and she also needs to replenish the nutrients that human milk is full of, such as essential fatty acids.

And there is all the work involved in raising a family, much of which is, let's face it, quite stressful, from worrying about a baby's illness to figuring out how to pay for college -- with all the hassles in between. Add to this quarrels with your partner, which one study found were eight times as frequent after children.

No surprise, studies have shown that mothers are more stressed than fathers or women not raising children. Chronic stress is more than an unpleasant experience, as it disturbs your gastrointestinal, nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.

Alas, Shrinking Resources

So, when all these perfectly natural demands landed on your doorstep, did your resources increase to handle them? For most mothers, the answer is a firm "No."

Physically, mothers get less sleep, especially during the baby's first year; the sleep they do get is more interrupted and thus less restorative. Good nutrition is usually out the window; a study showed that mothers of young children commonly eat just two meals a day, and many stop taking the vitamins they dutifully consumed during pregnancy. Exercise typically drops as well -- who's got time for it?

Psychologically, there's simply less time for respite and renewal. And some stay-at-home mothers feel (unfairly) a loss of worth in no longer working for pay.

Socially, the so-called "village" it takes to raise a child frequently looks more like a ghost town. Meanwhile, researchers have found that the average mother is working about 20 hours a week more than her partner is, whether or not she's also drawing a paycheck. There's also less couple time after "baby makes three," especially the caring conversations women long for.

Unavoidable Personal Vulnerabilities

All these extra demands get at you right when you're most vulnerable, like germs in dishwater slipping through a small cut on your hand to cause an infection. And there may be factors beyond the demands of raising children that make you more vulnerable to feeling stressed. See if any of these common vulnerabilities apply to you:

  • Family history of autoimmune illness, depression, hormonal irregularities, etc.;
  • Nutritional deficiencies (nine in 10 women do not consume all the USDA-recommended vitamins and minerals before their first pregnancy);
  • Mental or physical health problems before parenthood;
  • Having children past age 30;
  • A temperament that is highly sensitive or reactive;
  • A difficult pregnancy or childbirth;
  • Postpartum depression.

Vulnerabilities can also exist within your relationship with your partner, such as divergent views about how to raise children, or significant religious differences. These can matter very little . . . until children come along.

Naturally Enough, Some Consequences

Ask yourself a simple question: "How has having children affected my body, mind, and marriage?"

Of course, most of those effects have been really wonderful. But see if any of these not-so-good consequences also apply to you. Recognizing them will help you start making them better:

  • Body: Researchers have found that motherhood increases a woman's general risks for health issues, as well as specific risks for fatigue, more intense PMS, and Type II diabetes. In particular, studies have found shortages of key nutrients among mothers -- the vital building blocks of bones, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Many women who seemingly have only psychological or marital concerns (e.g., irritability, blue mood, no libido) are actually physically depleted, which can be seen through medical lab testing. (Information on the research studies mentioned in this article can be found at
  • Mind: Many mothers feel pulled in too many directions with too many tasks. Half the mothers of infants report significant depressive symptoms, and anxiety in response to children's illnesses or injuries is common. And there's plain old feeling stressed-out.
  • Marriage: Conflicts usually increase dramatically after having children, both about how to raise them and how to share the load fairly. Each parent has grievances, whether it's him grumbling about the lack of sex or her feeling let down. On average, marital satisfaction drops substantially after parenthood, especially for mothers.

Step 3: Taking Good Care of a Mother

Well, that's the end of the bad news, but just seeing how normal it is can help you feel better. And by identifying the specific factors at work in your own life, you can focus on what solutions will do the most good, whether it's lowering the demands upon you, increasing a key resource, or shoring up a vulnerability.

There's always something that can be done to support you, whether you're doing it or someone else is. It could be as small as getting your husband to do the weekend dishes, or finding a friend with whom you can take a daily walk. Little things truly add up over time. As you move into a more positive cycle, the good effects will snowball.

The following suggestions are common-sense steps mothers can take to nurture themselves. Think of them as a kind of toolkit you can pick from.

Your Body

Many mothers tune out their body and its needs, but your body is your friend! You have to take good care of it to keep going year after year during the long marathon of motherhood. Here's a sensible prescription:

  • Eat well: Get protein with every meal and lots of fresh vegetables; generally aim for whole foods in as close to their natural state as possible. Eat organic when you can to reduce the impact of toxins on your vulnerable body and your milk.
  • Minimize sugar (especially sweetened drinks) and refined flour (which converts to sugars quickly in the body); since motherhood already increases risks for Type II diabetes, it's best to avoid the additional risks from sugar and refined flour. Think about the foods you might be sensitive or allergic to. The most common ones are the gluten grains and milk products introduced into the human diet just 10,000 years ago (an eye blink on the evolutionary time scale). And try to avoid packaged foods and saturated fats.
  • Take high-quality supplements: Either continue your prenatal vitamins or get a good brand from a health food store. To get all the minerals you need, you'll have to take a few pills since putting all those minerals in one pill would make it the size of a golf ball.
    Nutritional supplements and changes that are often recommended include adding essential fatty acids (the "good fats"), preferably through taking "molecularly distilled" fish oil to get enough DHA per day. Unfortunately, these days eating enough fish to get all the good fats you need would expose you to high levels of mercury toxins. If you're a vegetarian, your best alternative is to take uncooked flax oil along with a DHA supplement (from algae).
    Sometimes, nutritionists will recommend that mothers take taurine, an amino acid, in the morning before breakfast, and a B-complex pill for supporting mood, energy, and heart health.
    All this will cost you about a dollar a day, can't possibly hurt you, and will take less time than brushing your teeth.
  • Make sleep a top priority: Ask your mate for lots of help at night; studies show that unless he works in an emergency room at a hospital or somewhere else that is extraordinarily stressful, your job as a mother is more stressful than his. Raising precious children is, honestly, probably more important. You need rest at least as much as he does! During the day, nap when the baby does and let the housework wait.
  • Exercise several times a week: You could push your child vigorously in a stroller, join a gym with good child care, or find friends who go on regular walks. Check out exercise programs in your community for structured support.
  • Get a sophisticated checkup if you don't feel well: Ask about refined laboratory testing of your nutrition (amino acids, minerals, B-vitamins) and hormones (thyroid, cortisol, DHEA, FSH, estrogen). Use a licensed health practitioner who encourages breastfeeding, takes the time to study your results, and will really talk with you. That might be your family doctor or gynecologist. Unfortunately, many mothers have had the experience of being told they're just fine and that their sense of just not feeling right in their own body is "in their head," so be sure to go to someone supportive.

In Susan's case, she had several conditions fairly common among mothers, including thyroid at the bottom of the normal range, low magnesium levels, and low vitamin B6. Since Susan had symptoms of low thyroid, including fatigue, dry skin, and constipation, Jan referred her to a physician who gave her thyroid hormones and carefully monitored her blood levels. Jan also recommended magnesium supplements and vitamin B6 supplements.

Your Mind

Martin Mull once joked: "Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain." Here's how to reduce some of the banging and clatter:

  • Remember that you matter: Your children need you to take good care of yourself, plus you have a right to enjoy this special time. As they say on an airplane, "Put your own oxygen mask on first."
  • Keep the needle of your stress meter out of the "red zone": Make stress relief part of daily life, rather than saving it up for a vacation. Do little things every hour or so, such as splashing water on your face or taking a deep breath, and they'll make a big difference. (See "Instant Stress Relief" for more ideas.)
  • Take in good experiences: Notice the sweet moments, savor them, and let them sink in. This is a vital way to build up positive emotional memories -- the foundation of a good mood and a great resource for handling stress. You've earned these experiences, so take the time to enjoy them.
  • Do something routinely that's calming and restorative: walking the dog, reading inspirational literature, playing music, meditating or praying, doing an art or craft, or yoga.
  • Reach out to other mothers: During most human history, a mother would spend her day mainly with other mothers and their children. That's Mother Nature's plan, and studies have shown that women get a special protection against stress through being with each other. So participate in an LLL Group, join a mother's club, look around for a buddy, or help out at preschool.

Your Relationship

Because of the erosion of community support in the past couple of generations, it's more important than ever for parents to share the load fairly, and sustain an intimate friendship. Here's a best-odds strategy for improving your relationship with your spouse and for working on the areas that are rocky.

  • Start with the "80-20 rule": As hard as it might be, try to put 80 percent of your attention on what you can do to make your relationship better, and just 20 percent on what your partner can do. That will reduce finger-pointing and break deadlocks in which each person is waiting for the other one to make the first move. And it will make you feel good about yourself while encouraging your mate to be more supportive.
  • Keep a civil tongue: Try to speak accurately and constructively, and ask your partner to do the same. Stay on topic all the way to the end of the discussion rather than bouncing around.
  • Share your experience: People can argue all day about what happened or what to do, but no one can contradict how you feel -- it's just the way it is. The more deeply and truthfully you say how it is for you, the more likely you are to get openness and caring from your spouse.
  • Translate mom-speak and dad-speak: Women tend to focus on feelings, the sense of connection, and process, while men tend to focus on thoughts, actions, and outcomes. Neither way is better than the other, and it's good to be skillful with each style. Make it clear when you are in need of a "let's-connect" conversation and when the conversation is about solving problems and making decisions. Keep the other person's style in mind, especially if there's a misunderstanding.
  • Emphasize empathy: Empathy means understanding the inner world of the other person, not necessarily agreeing. Try to look past the surface layers to the deeper wants and hurts in each other. Say back (with respect) what you think you understand, and see if it's true. As a regular matter, try asking three questions in a row about each other's inner thoughts, feelings, and desires.
  • Name the facts seriously: It's a fact found in research that children do best when their dad is really involved with them and helpful around the home. It's another fact that most mothers need a sense of teamwork to be erotically interested. As one mother put it, "Foreplay starts in the morning when he helps make lunches." If you're arguing about something, pin down the facts first. For example, track for a few days how you each spend your time and share the load -- it's always eye-opening. As you speak the truth of things, be grave and real, not shrill or whiny.
  • Make agreements: Focus on solutions instead of just re-hashing your case or defending against his. One issue at a time, negotiate a concrete plan, and stick with it. Ask yourselves if you really want to solve problems or just argue over who's right. If your partner will not keep his promises, consider involving a third party, such as a minister or therapist.
  • Make time for your relationship: If you don't keep pouring energy back into your relationship, it could run out of gas, too. Do some childrearing or housework tasks together rather than always "dividing to conquer." Insist that children (two or older) leave you alone for 15 minutes so you can talk. Have a regular date night. Try to go to bed at the same time.
  • Be intimate friends, not just co-parents: Build daily, non-sexual affection into your relationship. On a foundation of communication and teamwork, try to find a rhythm of regular lovemaking that feels good for each of you; it's okay if it's less spontaneous or sometimes just a quickie. Let yourself be nurtured by the love you feel for each other -- partners in the profound undertaking of raising precious children.

In Conclusion

It made Susan feel immediately better to realize that her low energy, blue mood, and sense of distance from her husband had been due to objective causes. They no longer seemed like a personal failing. And within a few weeks, the three steps she took had begun making a dramatic difference. In her final appointment, Susan smiled when she told Jan, "Now when I push my gas pedal, there's something in the tank."

Rick Hanson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist; Jan Hanson, MS, LAc, is an acupuncturist and nutritionist. Together they are raising a daughter and son, ages 15 and 18. They are the first and second authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their Web site at

You Matter, Too

Take three pieces of paper. Put this title at the top of each page: "The Benefits of Improving My Health, Well-Being, and Relationship." Under that title, put the words, "To My Children" on the first page, "To My Relationship" on the second page, and "To Me" on the third page. Then take a few minutes to write down a list of benefits on each page. If you like, ask a friend or even your partner for some ideas. When you're finished, sit back and let it all sink in.

Can Stress Affect Breastfeeding?

Dr. Niles Newton, a psychologist who was a long-time friend and advisor to La Leche League, showed that the let-down reflex could be inhibited by stress. In her research, the subject (herself) was made to do complex math problems in her head while breastfeeding. This resulted in less milk being available for the baby.

Scientists believe that this interesting phenomenon developed in the early periods of the human race. When a wild creature or some danger threatened a mother and her baby it was time for mother and baby to flee, not sit and nurse.

There are no longer wild animals at our doors, but there are still plenty of times when mothers feel anxious and stressed. If your let-down reflex doesn't seem to be working, your baby may look up at you as if to say, "Where's the milk, Mom?" If this happens, you may need to make a deliberate effort to relax. Take a few really deep breaths, focus on your beautiful baby, and imagine your milk pouring out to him in all the profusion of a glorious Milky Way.

Source: THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. Schaumburg, Illinois: La Leche League International, 2003.

Instant Stress Relief

Here's a list of suggestions, and we invite you to add your own favorites. Many take less than a minute, so you can always find time for stress relief!

  • Take four long, slow breaths; as you exhale, imagine that a gray cloud of bad feelings is leaving; as you inhale, imagine that peace and love and wisdom are filling you up.
  • Splash water on your face.
  • While standing, bend over to touch the floor, shake your arms loosely, and straighten up slowly as you take in a big breath.
  • Remember a good joke.
  • Repeat a favorite saying or prayer to yourself.
  • Make a cup of tea.
  • Lie down, close your eyes, and imagine a warm, golden balm settling over you, gently soothing any distress.
  • Ask someone for a compliment.
  • Watch the sunlight on leaves, or the moon and the stars.
  • Go for a short walk and look for beauty.
  • Arrange flowers in a vase.
  • Be especially loving with someone.
  • Read a gossipy magazine.
  • Take a bath.
  • Call a friend and really talk.
  • Visit your church or temple.
  • Browse through a bookstore.
  • Provide a simple charitable service to someone in more need than you.

Last updated 11/17/06 by jlm.
Page last edited .

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