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Reaching the Burned-Out Mother

Anne Boyd
Homewood, Alabama, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 5, October-November 1997, pp. 105-106

The other day, I received a telephone call from a dedicated mother who had been attending Group meetings for months. The frustration of this bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived mother of an almost-toddler sent me reeling.

"I have followed every book in the Group Library to the letter and look what I've got. Even though he's slept in my bed since birth, my baby has always wakened every hour and a half to nurse; he just refuses to go to sleep or stay asleep without my nipple in his mouth. Whether it's nighttime or naps, he won't sleep more than two hours at the most.

"The fact that my nipples are sore again is the least of my concerns. My arms, hips and back hurt from all this nighttime nursing. I feel like a zombie in the daytime. My baby must be held whenever he's awake; he cries the instant he's put down.

"My relatives and friends all say that they had babies who slept and didn't cry and that I must be doing something wrong. I'm beginning to think that myself."

I sensed the intense hurt and self-doubt in the voice of this mother. I knew that nurturing her son was the most important thing in the world to her, yet she thought LLL and nursing hadn't delivered what they promised: a secure, harmonious relationship with her child.

Her words reflected the pain she felt: "I've failed as a parent."

A high-need baby, a baby whose attachment needs have changed during development or a baby with a unique temperament can truly keep a mother on her toes. As if to add insult to injury, parents are bombarded with baby advice contrary to LLL recommendations. With names such as "Sleep Training" and “Parent-Controlled Feeding," these ideas are touted as surefire ways to solve sleep problems, gain control of the child and establish parental authority.

Practically guaranteeing easy babies, their approach is slick: fussy babies are made, not born. Babies can and should sleep through the night, in their own beds, early on. Dad must feed the baby in order to bond. Children who are not allowed to cry become "spoiled." Early independence is beneficial. Babies should blend in with the lifestyle of the parents; babies should not complicate your life. In a complex world, quick and easy solutions hold wide appeal.

On the other hand, parents who practice a nurturing style of parenting may find that it is not an easy path. From meeting nighttime needs to loving guidance, the short-term rewards may at times seem few and far between.

Rationalizing that it is normal for babies to be wakeful or that carried babies cry less often means little to the mother who is all but unable to function or whose marriage is suffering because of frustration or sleep deprivation. Parenting platitudes mean little to the mother who can barely take a shower, let alone cook dinner, because her seven- month-old cries the moment he is put down.

Certainly, parenting requires that a great deal of time be invested in the early years. It takes an enormous amount of energy to nurse and rock for 45 minutes to get baby to sleep, only to have a three-year- old wake up and need mother, too. It takes great patience to demonstrate to a toddler "why we don't hit" and show alternatives.

There must be some reason why we do this. I think that many of us nurture our babies and children the way we do because we value them as human beings. We see beyond the short-term to the long-term rewards of security, independence and self-esteem in our children.

I wish I had an answer for all the dedicated, but frustrated, mothers who have ever wondered, "Why am I doing this?” I wish I knew of an easy solution for that sleep-deprived mother or the mother who wonders why her carefully mothered toddler hits, bites or throws tantrums.

I believe our role as Leaders is to acknowledge these mothers' feelings and help them discover options that fit the needs of their families. Recognize that there are many ways to incorporate LLL philosophy into their choices. For example, there are ways to meet the baby's nighttime needs without co-sleeping.

In the short term, these suggestions may be helpful in meeting the immediate needs of a burned-out mother:

  • A burned- out mother often just seeks someone who understands. Reassure her that, indeed, her needs and feelings are important. Her frustration is real. Empathizing with her feelings, without minimizing her frustrations, will go a long way toward helping her work out a solution.
  • A burned-out nursing mother still has a deep commitment to nurturing her children. Recognize her love and devotion to her child.
  • Understand that the father's attitude can range from supportive (entertaining a just-nursed baby while the mother sleeps) to lukewarm (grudgingly helping the mother when he has the time), or even unsupportive (moving into his own bedroom for the duration of the baby's childhood, even blaming the mother). Many mothers who experience burnout relate that their partners are not very supportive, a situation which compounds frustration.
  • Ask the mother about her support system. Does she have family and friends who support her and help her? We now are aware that mothering is a social activity. Mothers who feel "cooped up" in the house all day often experience extreme frustration.
  • Suggest new ways to cope with stress. Is the mother eating well? Is there a mother-baby exercise class nearby? A playgroup might also be an option. Does the mother regularly attend LLL meetings? Is there another mother in the Group who has experienced or is experiencing the same situation? Making time for a "date" with her partner after the children are asleep can help.
  • Help the mother form realistic expectations. Some mothers blame breastfeeding for their difficulties. While it does take a lot of energy to nurture a child, time and time again we have heard of babies who were weaned only to continue having the problem their parents hoped weaning would solve. Some babies are just wakeful; some children require more intense supervision.
  • Encourage the mother to set priorities. Many mothers have found that a spotless house moves down the list as a priority for a short time. Napping when the baby naps may be a good idea for a while.
  • Reassure the mother that it is okay to set limits. If her nipples are sore from her toddler ’s marathon nursing, maybe, after meeting his nursing needs, there are other ways to meet his nighttime needs.
  • Encourage the mother to recognize what she can change and what she cannot. The mother cited at the beginning of this article believed that although she was exhausted and sore, the family bed was still the best option for her. Her challenge was to determine how to minimize her sore nipples, sleeplessness and frustration.
  • Discuss with the mother the possibility that a high-need baby may be suffering from a physical problem and may need to be evaluated by a health care provider. After a year of misdiagnosis, this particular baby was discovered to have gastroesophageal reflux, a condition that caused the baby to awake many times nightly.

Ultimately there are no easy answers. Working with a burned-out mother requires patience, understanding and creativity, traits that LLL Leaders share in abundance.

For Further Reading

THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, Schaumburg, Illinois: LLLI, 1997.

Liedloff, J. The Continuum Concept. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1985.

Raygo, J. and Kufeldt, P. Supporting the mother with an unfamiliar problem: offering support and acceptance. LEAVEN Mar/Apr 1995; 30.

Sears, W. THE FUSSY BABY. Schaumburg, Illinois: LLLI, 1989.

Sears, W. The Baby Book. Boston, Little Brown, 1993.

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