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Selfish vs. Selfless: Conflicting Views of Motherhood and the Role of Self-Care—New Qualitative Data Emerges

With Mother’s Day coming this Sunday, many women will be enjoying their first Mother’s Day celebration.  Hopefully, all mothers will be pampered, celebrated, honored and cherished.  For many women, finding a balance of being the mother and taking care of yourself and meeting your individual needs is often a struggle.  Walker Karraa takes a look at a recent study examining the importance of self care for new mothers and asks how birth professionals can stress the importance of new mothers making time for themselves as they transition to their new role. – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager

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I have a confession. One year I volunteered over 2,000 hours at my children’s school. Yes, I was one of those moms. From wearing an orange vest directing carpool in the morning, to planting the garden with the green team, Xeroxing homework packets for the teachers, and planning the Spring Auction, I chose to put everything into public displays of affection for motherhood. Selflessness was superior parenting.

Fast forward a few years and I am rounding the corner on my PhD.  I am now one of those moms. I barely know the name of the Principal, miss school functions regularly, never volunteer in the class, and avoid direct eye contact with anyone on the PTA at all cost. I am caring for myself in ways that don’t directly involve caring for my children. Many would perceive it as selfish, or at a minimum, I am recognized as not being “an involved parent”.  I feel the judgment from other parents.

I would imagine anyone reading this right now understands the mine field of guilt, disappointment, and distress we walk through regarding balance between self-care and caring for children. Childbirth professionals often find themselves torn between the demand for caring for clients and the need for self-care.

A paradox for women lies between the need for self-care and the social construct of selflessness as superior in parenting.  Moreover, socio economic stressors regarding childcare and ongoing employment bear critical weight on time and resources for women to engage in self-care in addition to caring for their infant, other children, and family. Women need and deserve physical, intellectual, mental, emotional and spiritual health and well-being—yet engaging in self-care is a social construct that views it as selfish, or a luxury. And dare I say we engage in keeping this paradigm alive by extoling the virtues of some women who display self-sacrifice and dishing about the deviance of others who are not at the PTA meeting. We compare ourselves to both, often rejecting the parts of ourselves that are in desperate need of time, privacy, exercise, prayer, creativity, recovery. For that matter we could all use a nap, a shower, and time to do with as we want, desire, or dream.

New Study Emerges

This push and pull of visions of perfect martyrdom with the need for self-care is at no other time more present than new motherhood.  A recent qualitative study, “The Role of Maternal Self-care in New Motherhood” by Barkin and Wisner (2013) explored women’s perceptions of the role of maternal self-care in postpartum period and the barriers to employing self-care. Critical to postpartum wellness are increasing understandings of the mechanisms of self-care and their importance in the lives of new mothers. In a qualitative study of three focus groups consisting of 31 new mothers (had given birth during the year prior to enrolling in the study), Barkin & Wisner (2013) examined the relationship of 1) women’s perceptions of self-care, 2) how women applied self-care in new motherhood, and 3) the barriers to practicing self-care.

Semi-structured interviews with three focus groups elicited responses regarding the responsibilities associated with new motherhood, changes experienced since the birth of their child, feelings in response to those changes, describing constructs of a ‘good mom’, and the circumstances surrounding their high functioning and low functioning periods.

Transcripts related to maternal functioning were extracted and grouped into one of three categories: (1) women’s valuations of the role of self-care in new motherhood, (2) applications of self-care and (3) barriers to practicing effective self-care.

Barkin & Wisner (2013) noted two conflicting themes where women were both aware of the importance of self-care while holding the belief that good parenting is tantamount to selflessness. Participants described knowing that even the most basic self-care such as good nutrition and rest were of paramount importance, however they experienced barriers to engaging in self-care for themselves. One participant described the dilemma in this way,

“Because I really didn’t pay attention to myself. Like my main focus was on him. Making sure he was eating every hour. And as far as me, when a counselor came in and she was like, ‘Well, are you eating breakfast?’ ‘Are you eating lunch?’ And you really have to stop and look back and think like okay, yes, I need to take care of myself as well as the baby’. But you don’t really think about that until someone brings it to your attention.” (Barkin & Wisner, 2013, p. 5)

Participants described breastfeeding as a source of conflict.  Barkin and Wisner (2013) reported,

There was also substantial discussion of maternal self-care in relation to breastfeeding. For a portion of the women, breastfeeding was physically and mentally uncomfortable. The women described guilty feelings associated with deciding to artificial milk-feed their child. Despite the guilt, some of the mothers made the ultimate determination to transition to formula feeding. This was recognized as an act of self-care. (p. 5)

Conversely, where selflessness was seen as synonymous with motherhood, some participants reported what the authors called “potentially unhealthy degrees of selflessness” (Barkin & Wisner, 2013, p. 5) such as neglecting their hygiene or refusing to let trusted family members care for the baby.

Barriers

While some engaged in self-care shared examples of taking time to exercise, delegating infant care to partner, taking showers, applying cosmetics, socializing with friends, and dining out—many women reported barriers to self-care. Lack of time, limited financial resources, and one’s own inability to set boundaries were reported as significant barriers to self-care.

Implications for Childbirth Educators and Doulas

In addition to a call for more research, the authors concluded:

The development of a behavioral intervention aimed at improved self-care practice among new mothers is the long-term goal of this research. Interventions should be tailored to the mother’s individual circumstances and preferences. Self-care strategies that are both attractive and feasible for the individual woman will be more effective. Additionally, the availability of such an intervention will enable health-care providers to make better recommendations to women who are struggling to care for themselves and their infant concurrently. (Barkin & Wisner, 2013, p. 6)

This is where we share!

How do you cover the topic of self-care in your childbirth education classes, or prenatal sessions?

What do you consider some good examples of feasible and attractive self-care strategies that you suggest to your clients?

What have you learned about self-care strategies from your clients?

What are your thoughts regarding the causes of this paradox between self-care and selflessness?

As we educate our next generations of families to navigate the waters of parenting, how might we offer support, education and support for women to not only practice self-care, but prioritize it?

References

Barkin, J. L., & Wisner, K., L. (2013). The role of maternal self-care in new motherhood. Midwifery, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2102.10.001

Babies, Guest Posts, Infant Attachment, Maternal Mental Health, New Research, Newborns, Parenting an Infant, Research , , , , , , ,

  1. May 9th, 2013 at 10:48 | #1

    Good work, Walker! I went through this myself as a new mom. Now, as a business owner, my pull is in the other direction. Balance is a challenge for any parent. Thank you for addressing it.

  2. avatar
    Katie
    May 9th, 2013 at 17:03 | #2

    Sometimes in life you do have to sacrifice some self care, especially when you are, for example, caring for a baby,a sick child or parent. There is time for self care while caring for others. Reading a book while breastfeeding, experiencing the world anew while walking with a toddler, talking, singing and reminiscing with an elderly relative while you help with their physical needs. That is just what happens. Life is a juggle. At other times, when our loved ones are less needy, we have more time for our own endeavours. This happens to males too. It is just part of growing up.

  3. May 10th, 2013 at 11:39 | #3

    Thank you for your comment, Katie. Learning to give and take with self- care and caring for others is a life long lesson.

  4. avatar
    twitter_KathyAMorelli
    May 12th, 2013 at 06:03 | #4

    Hi Walker – Nice reminder that all of us need to balance self-care and family life, as mothers, as caregivers of elderly parents. It is quite a task, given today’s lifestyle demands, many women work, have children and the reality of elderly parents, ans their own chronic health issues, such as I do. Luckily I have an extremely supportive husband and my siblings help as well, one handling all the finances and the others live too far away to do much. It’s a life of constant self-examination and using my judgement all the time. Just this thought process is internally challenging and often causes stress. As I age, I find that I do less to preserve my mental and physical health. I just cannot engage in energy and time draining extra activities. To me, self-care is a life long process, using many skills developed over a lifetime. My book, BirthTouch, is packed full of self- and family care thoughts and skills on many different levels for the childbearing year, a year to build on self-care patterns to draw on for a lifetime.

  5. May 12th, 2013 at 06:04 | #5

    Hi Walker – Nice reminder that all of us need to balance self-care and family life, as mothers, as caregivers of elderly parents. It is quite a task, given today’s lifestyle demands, many women work, have children and the reality of elderly parents, ans their own chronic health issues, such as I do. Luckily I have an extremely supportive husband and my siblings help as well, one handling all the finances and the others live too far away to do much. It’s a life of constant self-examination and using my judgement all the time. Just this thought process is internally challenging and often causes stress. As I age, I find that I do less to preserve my mental and physical health. I just cannot engage in energy and time draining extra activities. To me, self-care is a life long process, using many skills developed over a lifetime. My book, BirthTouch, is packed full of self- and family care thoughts and skills on many different levels for the childbearing year, a year to build on self-care patterns to draw on for a lifetime.

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