Though her schedule is packed, the average American mom keeps striving to do more for the kids, putting her own needs second. We all would recognize her. She comes in all stripes — single, married, stay-at-home, two-income — in all of whom University of Texas researcher Lorraine Walker has identified "a pattern of self neglect." Social psychologist Carin Rubinstein prefers the term "sacrificial mothering."
Why do women neglect themselves? Could it be the many changes to body and mind that begins with giving birth itself? Are women similar to a species of bird that fakes lameness to divert a predator from their nest, or the octopus, which tends her eggs so diligently she starves herself? Is it an inheritance from ancestors or simply from one's own mother? Do psychological effects drive women to deny themselves — guilt for separating from children to go to work, or, as increasingly happens, for separating from the child's father? Do hormones call the shots?
Such causes of a mother's self-neglect are debatable. The potential consequences are not.
The Stress Factor
Researchers now know that a woman's struggle to balance her life with the lives of those she loves can impair more than her sense of well-being. Medical science has established that unrelenting stress weakens the body's defenses against sickness, threatens the cardiovascular system, and contributes to headaches, backaches, skin diseases, gastrointestinal distress, insomnia and high blood pressure.
Stress also can trigger depression — a possible explanation for why more women suffer depression disorders than men. During the first year as a mother, vulnerability for depression rises dramatically. All told, 12 percent of women suffer from a depressive disorder, about double the number of men.
Also plausible, though less studied, are the effects of stress on almost every disease, including respiratory and reproductive disorders. Stress increases the odds of injury, and even susceptibility to the viruses that cause colds. A recent study found that stress lasting more than one month doubled the risk of getting a cold.
"Stress is one of the most important — and least appreciated — health hazards of the current age. It is particularly important for women as they try to juggle so many roles," says Marc B. Schenker, a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of California at Davis. "Society has not adequately addressed this."
Notes Harvard Medical School professor Alice Domar, director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston: "Sixty percent of American women say stress is the single worst problem in their lives. They feel overwhelmed. They feel unhealthy. And, the fact is — many are."
Cautions University of California psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, who studies how adult relationships and stress affects children: "You can't be a good mother unless you're on solid ground yourself. And your kids won't do well, either."