Daily Fatigue: Tired as a Mother

Why are moms so tired? The period of life when fatigue hits a woman hardest is during the early child-rearing years, when her job as wife and mother makes more demands on her time and energy than at any other period of marriage.

She has far more to do than she can ever hope to finish, and is usually juggling two or three household chores at once.

No sooner does she start on one or another than she has to stop and pick up a crying baby, or run after a straying toddler, or pull rabbits out of a hat when a four-year-old demands, “What can I play now, Mum?”

This doesn’t happen just now and then but seven days a week, year after year, with no holidays. If a young mother’s job could be transposed to industry or business, nobody would take it. No wonder, while their children are below school age, some mothers simply resign themselves to an almost continuous state of exhaustion.

Does it really have to be this way? Can’t something be done to relieve the young mother’s burdens and give her more time and zest for enjoying life?

Leading authorities in psychology, psychiatry, and several other branches of medicine all agree that unfortunately there are no universal panaceas. An enormous variety of factors contribute to that tired feeling, and many of them cannot be changed.

But a better understanding of the nature and origins of her fatigue may help the hard-working housewife to alter some patterns of her life and to live better with those that are more or less permanent.

Long before science confirmed it, most of us knew from personal observation that there are two distinct kinds of fatigue. One comes from physical stress. It is the healthy tiredness that follows a day of hard, satisfying work or play. It disappears after a good night’s sleep.

The other kind of fatigue has little to do with the amount of work a person does or the number of hours he sleeps. Victims complain that they have no pep, no ambition, feel all dragged out, just can’t seem to get started. They are often sulky, irritable, or frantic. Everything is an effort. They are “sick and tired” of the demands made on them by their family and friends.

This persistent fatigue sometimes comes from physical causes. Most mothers, for example, tire easily for a period of two or three months after delivery while their bodies are returning to the normal menstrual cycle.

Fluctuations in body chemistry during the menstrual cycle also predispose many women to tension and fatigue. And occasionally continual weariness is a symptom of high blood pressure, anemia, under-active thyroid glands, or some other physical ailment.

Not sick

But in most cases the tired young mother has nothing organically wrong with her. The special exercises, diets, vitamin supplements, hormone injections, and pep pills so often prescribed to improve her health are likely to be a waste of time and money.

As Dr. Leonard Lovshin, of the Cleveland Clinic, pointed out at a recent medical conference, the average mother of young children couldn’t possibly work as hard as she does if she were actually physically sick.

Tired or not, she is on her feet most of her waking hours, and she is constantly reaching, pushing, lifting, and bending. Time motion studies show that she uses her muscles harder than most men performing semi-skilled jobs in the industry.

It’s no wonder that at the end of some days she feels as if she has run out of energy the way a car runs out of petrol. “I’m worn out,” she says, or “I can’t move a muscle.” Certainly the feeling is real, but actually it doesn’t accurately represent her condition.

“Unless she’s sick or has a weak heart, she never even comes close to using up all her physical energy,” says Dr. Robert S. Schwab, Harvard Medical School neurologist.

His experiments at the Brain Wave Laboratory of Massachusetts General Hospital show how, as the muscles of the body burn up energy, they dump their waste products (carbon dioxide and lactic acid) into the bloodstream. As the wastes accumulate, the brain responds by calling a halt. Physical fatigue is nothing more than the brain’s reaction to these chemical signals.

“It’s a safety device to keep the heart and breathing muscles from running out of fuel,” says Dr. Schwab. “But usually the fatigue reaction sets in long before there’s any danger of that.”

Dr. Schwab has tested athletes and found that even the runner who collapses at the end of a grueling race still had a large reserve of untapped energy.

The point at which exertion trips the fatigue reaction depends on motivation or morale. If you’re running to win a medal, you’ll probably collapse sooner than if you’re running to escape a hungry lion.

“A wife may feel so exhausted she can’t move,” says Dr. Schwab, “but the sound of her baby crying sends her sprinting up the stairs at top speed. She would also tap unsuspected energy reserves if her husband came home with news of a pay increase and asked her out on the town to celebrate.”

Compliments help

Similarly, a compliment about the meal she has prepared or the way she has handled a problem in connection with the children can be more refreshing to her than a two-hour nap.

On the other hand, a husband’s failure to notice her new hairdo or to remember their anniversary can take more out of her than a week’s ironing.

A woman’s feelings about herself and about how much she is appreciated, however, an only part of the story. Our cultural pattern and way of life may also add to her burden of fatigue.

“It’s always easier to make the best of one’s lot when there’s no alternative,” says Dr. Harold G. Wolff, neurologist of Cornell University School of Medicine and well-known authority on the effects of emotional stress.

“In countries where all women are restricted to domestic work, they accept long hours and hard work with little complaint.”

“But in countries where they gain the freedom to choose between housework and a job in business or industry, the result is anxiety about making the wrong decision. This anxiety is the source of a great deal of frustration and fatigue.”

Dr. Ruth Hartley, Professor of Psychology at the City College of New York and a leading authority on the changing roles of women, points out that “the feeling that she is overworked and under-appreciated is partly the wife’s own fault and partly the fault of the times in which we live.”

“The conditions which make a woman feel exhausted,” says Dr. Hartley, “are to be found in the nature of the role she is called upon to play as a wife and mother.”

What is that role?

Dr. Robert L. Faucett, of the Mayo Clinic, described it to a recent meeting of the American Medical Association: “It’s really a multiplicity of occupations, including those of wife, companion, mother, sex partner, cook, chauffeur, financier, teacher, and often the auxiliary breadwinner.”

“Considering how little prestige a woman gets from doing all these things, it’s a minor miracle that all housewives don’t suffer from symptoms of stress.”

In a study financed by the Baruch Committee on Physical Medicine and the U.S. Navy, a team of psychiatrists studied a hundred chronic-fatigue patients, about half of them women. Like Dr. Schwab, they found that fatigue of any kind is a signal that something is wrong.

Physical fatigue protects the organism from injury through too great activity of any part of the body.

Nervous fatigue, on the other hand, is usually a warning of danger to the personality. Often it reflects the way the individual sees himself in relation to the rest of the world.

“This comes out very clearly in the woman patient who complains bitterly that she is just a housewife, that she is wasting her talents and education on household drudgery and losing her attractiveness, her intelligence, and indeed her very identity as a person,” explains Dr. Harley C. Shands, one of the co-heads of the Baruch project.

In industry the most fatiguing jobs are those which only partially occupy the worker’s attention but at the same time prevent him from concentrating on anything else.

Many young wives say that this mental grey-out is what bothers them most in caring for home and children. “After a while your mind becomes a blank,” they say. “You can’t focus on anything. It’s like sleepwalking.”

At Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, psychiatrist Dr. J. Wendell Muncie analyzed some factors which produced chronic fatigue in his patients.

The first on his list was “monotony unpunctuated by any major triumph or disaster.” It sums up the predicament of many young mothers.

One of the most tiring things about keeping house and bringing up small children is the feeling of being carried helplessly along on a tide of washing, cooking, dusting, and diaper-changing.

Tension and worry

Since her salary is seldom enough to permit her to hire full-time help at home, she still has a large part of the housework and cooking to do at the end of a day’s work. Instead of seeing too much of her children, the working wife often feels she sees too little of them.

Whether a mother works or stays at home has little to do with another of the causes of extreme fatigue-tension and worry.

“I’m so used to feeling tense that when I’m calm I get nervous,” a young mother told Mrs. Rda LeShan, a director of the Guidance Centre at New Rochelle, New York.

Mrs. LeShan has found that worry about doing the wrong thing takes more out of many young mothers, particularly first-time mothers, than the actual work they do.

The explanation is simple: When you’re afraid of making the wrong move, fatigue makes it hard to move at all. And new mothers are constantly afraid they will make mistakes that will have terrible and lasting effects on their children.

“A mother doesn’t get nearly so tired when she discovers that her child’s problems aren’t necessarily her fault,” says Mrs. LeShan.

“Usually they aren’t. She isn’t failing as a parent when her child bites people at two, hoards his toys at three, is afraid of the dark at four, or shy at five. Problems like these are part of a child’s normal development.”

Being tiresome also comes naturally to small children. They never stop demanding except when they are asleep. They have absolutely no understanding of privacy. If they don’t get a mother’s full and undivided attention instantly on-demand, they nag or sulk or fly into a tantrum.

Very often, when she’s tired, a woman will display some of the temperament of a child. She is, for instance, likely to use any excuse to weep or start a quarrel.

Quarrels aren’t the only way to get rid of grievances. In fact, such explosions can usually be avoided if a wife feels free to complain about her work. It’s a wonderful safety valve, and her husband should encourage her to use it.

He should also encourage her to pamper herself. A stock character in movies and soap operas is the giddy young wife who has not yet learned to take her homemaking duties seriously enough. But in real life the young wife is far more likely to be too grimly conscientious and self-sacrificing.

An occasional silly new hat, some out-of-season strawberries, or a new shade of lipstick can make her feel much less self-sacrificing – at least briefly. Similarly, a few minutes’ singing or dancing with her child is fun for both of them and a good break in the routine.

One reason that young wives find homemaking so exhausting and at times so discouraging is that they hold themselves to impossibly high standards.

Instead of simply following in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps, today’s wife has to adjust to new conditions. She learns homemaking from magazines, books, movies, and home-economics courses.

In many ways these agencies have done too well. In their zeal to instruct, they often go overboard on fancy recipes, elegant decor, and lavish entertainment patterns.

“Many a housewife knocks herself out trying to achieve a standard of elegance that is almost impossible without wealth and servants,” Dr. Hartley has found. “The worst of it is that women hold one another to these standards on pain of being condemned as sloppy housewives.”

Ignore neighbors

In the old days housewives also kept up appearances, but practically every house then had a parlor which was closed up tight and used only for company.

Modern wives laugh at this. The laugh, however, is really on them. For the old fashioned parlor was always clean. The housewife didn’t have to worry about people dropping in unexpectedly; it didn’t matter so much if the rest of the house was a shambles. It does in modern houses. The only solution is not to care what neighbors think.

Some of the wives Dr. Hartley has interviewed make, a list of avoidables, expendables, and postpones.

Do the children really need a pet dog or cat right now, or can that wait till one of them can help take care of it?

The laundry has to be done, but is it necessary to iron things like underwear, sheets, pillowcases, and pajamas?

Everybody has to be served at least three meals a day, but do they need fancy sauces and pastries and desserts?

Can’t the dishes be allowed to dry on a rack? Or how about using paper plates and cups for the quick meal of the day?

All authorities agree that a babysitter, hired on a fairly regular basis, is one of the most useful extravagances to which a wife can treat herself. It’s a mistake to wait for some special occasion when she and her husband are invited out.

The important thing is for her to have a little time she can call her own, even if she uses it merely to take a walk or to catch up with her reading.

Since the demands of housework and child-rearing are not very flexible, there is no complete solution to chronic-fatigue problems.

Many women, however, can cut down fatigue if they stop asking too much of themselves. Inevitably everyone makes mistakes, does some things badly, and has shortcomings and limitations.

By trying to understand realistically what she can do, a woman may, in the long run, be a better wife and mother. Albeit a tired one.

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