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A Challenge to Mothers Everywhere

Mother Child Bond ComfortThe other day, a friend of mine texted me a picture of a sign in a shop window that said, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” She probably knew that with Mother’s Day around the corner, I’d most likely be writing something about motherhood and would get a kick out of the old expression. In truth, it actually got me thinking about the real impact of a happy mother.

Recent studies in Germany have suggested that there are significant links between parent and child life satisfaction, and that the life satisfaction of both sons and daughters is more strongly linked to the life satisfaction of their mothers than their fathers. Despite the fact that, nowadays, moms are often the primary breadwinners in their family, and both men and women share responsibilities in raising children, in the majority of modern families, mothers remain the primary caretakers to their children and homes. So, it’s no great surprise that their mood would affect that of their children.

According to the German study, the links between a mother’s happiness and satisfaction and her child’s are partly due to “transmission of behavioral choices associated with happiness.” So, what are the “behavioral choices” most associated with happiness? The same study found three significant factors to be: a balance between work-life, regular exercise and active involvement in social activities with friends. In other words, like any human being, a mother needs to live a full and active life.

Often, when we speak about motherhood, we pull from a vocabulary that defines it as hard, ceaseless and sacrificial work. We see Mother’s Day as the one day to reverse roles and take care of the person who takes care of everyone else. Parenting is no doubt hard work, and it does involve some sacrifice. However, there is sometimes an unspoken implication that for a woman to be a good mother, she must cast aside other parts of herself that make her who she is. In reality, the best gift a mother can give her children is to be a happy, fulfilled and whole person, in and of herself.

When mothers, or anyone for that matter, deny themselves any aspect of their life that interests or excites them and makes them who they are, they can start to feel resentful, moody or victimized. Self-denial can rouse feelings of irritability, guilt, isolation, dissatisfaction, anger, anxiety or depression. This can lead people to engage in acts of victimization, passive aggression or emotional manipulation. Just as their positive emotions will extend to their children, these negative emotions will have a heavy impact on those around them.

This is true even before a child is born. Studies show that “maternal well-being is the key to fetal well-being,” with a fetus being “highly vulnerable and sensitive to pain and stress.” Research  shows that babies born to women who suffered from depression during pregnancy have “higher levels of stress hormones … as well as other neurological and behavioral differences.” With one in five  women facing depression during pregnancy, a mother’s mental well-being becomes of even more significance to the raising of healthy, happy kids.

Children who grow up with mothers who suffer from depression are more likely to face depression and behavioral struggles themselves. In general, any early childhood adversity or an environment of what one study called “toxic stress” can disrupt a child’s developing brain architecture. It can have adverse effects on a child’s learning, behavior and health. Of course, I’m in no way trying to blame mothers or suggest that they alone contribute to a child’s development. However, my aim here is actually to spread the message that a parent’s own psychological well-being and the emotional climate they create for themselves and their children is of monumental significance to the feelings of their children.

These effects last well beyond childhood. The same German study mentioned above concluded that the life satisfaction of adult children, even those who have grown up, moved away and are in relationships, continues to be directly influenced by the life satisfaction of their mothers. Their research found that, at this point in the children’s lives, the influence of fathers was only indirect.

As the researchers concluded, “There appears to be a lifelong happiness dividend (or unhappiness dividend) due to parenting.” Because parents, and perhaps mothers in particular, transmit happiness to their children, they must be reminded to consider what makes them happy, not just on one special holiday a year, but every day.  As psychologist and author Pat Love has emphasized, the best thing a parent can do for their children is to get their adult needs met by other adults

In Nancy Friday’s famous book, My Mother/My Self, the author quoted Dr. Richard Robertiello as saying,  “If a mother has a life of her own, the [kids] will love her more, will want to be around her more. She must not define herself as ‘a mother’, she’s got to see herself as a person, a person with work to do, a sexual person, a woman.”

The image of the sacrificing mother is problematic, because it tends to cast mothers as victims.  It encourages women to feel guilty for being independent or pursuing any interest other than their children. All parents, both men and women, should know that being self-sacrificing doesn’t make for happy kids or a happy family. .. and pursuing your own happiness isn’t selfish. It doesn’t mean neglecting your kids or failing to make them a priority. In fact, being loving and generous with your children is probably a huge part of what makes you happy. Yet, feeling vital and engaged with all aspects of yourself and your life sets an example for your children to pursue their own lives with the same passion and vitality. Moreover, it gives your children the permission to feel safe, secure and joyful, knowing someone so significant to their lives feels the same.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

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