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Stress, the Self and the Staying Put Parent
Parenting is fundamentally an exercise in “Staying Put.” Parenting is also, undeniably, a trigger for Stress. Both of these things are so very very most especially true for parents caring for children with life-limiting illness—the parents who win the prize for Staying Put in a stressful situation. Attention must be paid, however, to the impact of this stress on these parents, especially the moms.
I attended a conference yesterday on Women and Stress, hosted by the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I was going as the guest of a good friend and because the topic interested me as a woman. It also interested me on behalf of all the women caring for medically-complex and fragile children. Stress is written into the very flow of these mothers’ days. These mothers juggle stress. They scoff at stress. They proudly profess their invulnerability and dare stress to take them down. And when pushed by others to pay attention to their stress and take care of themselves, they whisper or shout (depending on the moment) that they don’t have time for self-care because that would be selfish.
There are anthropological roots to this, Dr. Martin Samuels, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told us at the Women and Stress event. Thousands of years ago when our ancestors lived a hunting-and-gathering existence, the male’s role was to literally leave the ‘nest’ and exert himself physically to find food and protect his family. In stressful situations, he could either run or engage. It was fight or flight, outward responses to stress and healthy expenditures of adrenaline. For the female, on the other hand, she could not leave the ‘nest.’ It was her job to Stay Put, tending the babies. She could not flee or fight as that would jeopardize her children. And so she turned her stress inwards.
Things aren’t so terribly different today: women are socialized to be the caretakers of others and this is especially true of moms who put the physical and emotional needs of their family members ahead of their own. And when they think to do otherwise, they worry they’re being selfish. I heard this first-hand last year when I attended a caregiver conference at Genzyme Center, where the majority of attendees were women and the majority of these female attendees confessed they did not engage in self-care activities because – Yes, you guessed it – “that would be selfish.”
But there are consequences to this belief and to the stress turning inward. As I learned yesterday, stress can be the invisible cause of a range of ailments in women, especially depression: “All over the world women are 70% more likely to experience depression over their lifetimes compared with men. Women are more likely to experience the symptoms of fatigue, sleep disturbance pain and anxiety compared with men and these symptoms are overlooked as symptoms of depression,” says Dr. Paula Johnson, Executive Director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology.
If you’re a mom who is caring for a child with a life-limiting illness, and also possibly other children, I’m not saying you’re depressed (I don’t think I ever became clinically depressed) or dangerously stressed. But I am guessing that in all the Staying Put that you are doing, you are likely not taking adequate care of yourself. Your Self. And I am saying the research shows this isn’t good for anyone. The Self matters, especially when you are the Self caring for another and especially when that other is your child. It is important to attend to the Self. As grief therapist and psychologist Nancy Frumer-Styron says in her Self-Care video in the Courageous Parents Network video library , Self-Care can be as modest as taking a five-minute break from the hospital or house to sit outside in the fresh air, as systemic as watching what you eat or seeking grief counseling (my personal favorite and the drum I will beat again and again), and as ambitious as taking a weekend away. In CPN’s Self-Care parent videos, Jake’s mom, Barb, shares how she goes out with girlfriends, and even goes away with them for a few days. And in a beautifully honest piece of his interview, as if on cue, Jake’s dad, John, admits that he takes care of himself in two ways: he exercises and he travels for work, two very physical forms of Self-Care not that different from our male ancestors. Mallory’s mom, Jenn, takes advantage of an especially trusted nurse to leave the house and go to the movies. William’s mom, Oralea, would grab an hour or two and go to the mall or run errands. For my part, I kept going to my job at an office, until the last two months of Cameron’s life.
Here are some other ways to relieve stress, whether you’re a mom or a dad: physical labor outside such as gardening, acupuncture, meditation, yoga. Even the simple act of gentle stretching for ten minutes a day can reduce the impact of stress. Ten meager minutes … out of an entire day … to help your Self stay well and Stay Put … for a life time, including the life time of your child.