Depleted Mother Syndrome: What it is, and what you can do about it

Whenever I mention Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS) to a new mom, her first reaction is to chuckle. “Now there’s a syndrome for THAT too?” she’d say. But not five minutes into me describing this all too common condition, does she begin to nod her head enthusiastically, and by the end of the meeting DMS has gathered another new fan.

What is Depleted Mother Syndrome?

Depleted Mother Syndrome was first introduced in the book Mother Nurture – A mother’s Guide To Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. It was written by Dr. Jan Hanson – a nutritionist, Dr. Rick Hanson – a Psychologist, and Dr. Ricki Pollycove – a Doctor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. This impressive list of expertise is transformed into 384 pages of easy-to-read stories, explanations, and incredibly useful tips for depleted moms and dads. In a nutshell, Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS) occurs when demands on the mother increase and her resources decrease. As a result the mother’s sensitivity to both internal and external triggers gets heightened. In other words, her buttons begin to get pushed so quickly and so often that she becomes worn out and frazzled (sounds familiar?) While parenthood can be tough on both parents, it is often tougher on the mother, and the cumulative effect of stress creates physical, and psychological depletion.  

Increased Demands

  • Mothers today juggle more tasks, work longer, and sleep less than their own mothers did.
  • Mothers are on call 24 hours a day, without sick days, mental health days, weekends, or vacations.
  • The roles of the mother include: coordinator of home life, social life, and children; counsellor, event organizer, playmate, cook, cleaner, shopper, book-keeper, extended family liaison, night watcher, lover, etc.
  • Many mothers also work full-time jobs in addition to the many tasks of motherhood.
  • The average mother works 20 more hours per week than her partner whether she is drawing a paycheque or not.
  • Mothers are often put under a microscope and expected to have super-human powers and resilience. High expectations from society, their own culture, themselves, their husbands, and other moms create guilt and a feeling of never being good enough.
  • Research shows that mothers take parenting-related events more personally than fathers(ever feel terribly ashamed when your son/daughter has a tantrum at the grocery store? would your husband feel the same?)
  • Mothers may also be recovering from pregnancy, breastfeeding, and/or weaning, all of which deplete you physically and psychologically.
  • Changes in physical appearance due to pregnancy and weaning may negatively affect body-image and self-esteem.
  • Mothers often find it difficult to maintain their professional status after becoming parents

Decreased Resources

  • One of the negative consequences of urban sprawl is isolation. We live far from family and friends, and we are less connected with our community.
  • The relationship with our significant other becomes more stressed, cold and distanced. Statistically, couples with children have 8 times more arguments than couples without children.
  • Mothers have very little self-time to re-charge through rest, or doing fun activities.
  • Many mothers have few opportunities for exercise – to release stress and keep the body strong.
  • Mothers’ diet is often rushed and unbalanced, grabbing whatever they can and as quickly as possible.
  • Sleep deprivation and sleep disturbances (interrupted REM sleep) have long lasting and detrimental effects on the mother including depression, weakened immune system and high blood pressure.

Increased Sensitivity:

  • Your buttons get pushed quickly and frequently. Every little thing that goes wrong makes you angry, hurt, or depressed.
  • All the negative beliefs about yourself as a parent, a partner, and a person get heightened -I am not a good enough parent/wife/me.
  • Your fears get magnified – what am i doing wrong? What if something bad happens to the kids?
  • All the disappointments, shame, and anger rise up to the surface – I thought this would be easier, everyone else can do it – why can’t I?
  • Grief gets magnified over everything you lost since becoming a mom: professional status, body, old self, feeling sexy, friends’ support…
  • Old wound get opened up. When sensitivity is at a high, emotional traumas from the past are often remembered and re-experienced.
  • Automatic coping mechanisms get engaged. Knee-jerk reactions (you hurt me, I hurt you back), and fight-or-flight reactions are much more easily accessible than mindful actions and empathy.

So, what do we do?

1.  Learn to ask for help. We live in an individualistic society that encourages personal power and separateness from others. There are two big costs to that style of living: feeling like a failure when we can’t do things by ourselves, and feeling not needed by others. Both limitations of western culture can be solved by simply asking for help. If you don’t have anyone to help you, pay someone. If you can’t pay someone, arrange a childcare exchange with another mom.

2.  Be aware of your unique sensitivities, and accept them. If you tend to be more of an introvert than an extravert, then coordinating a child’s busy social schedule may be triggering for you. If are used to doing things just right, you may find it upsetting when your child misbehaves in front of company. If your feelings get hurt when you are not being taken seriously, you will likely be triggered when your child refuses to listen. This is not the time to do deep emotional work on yourself, but it is the perfect time to become gently aware of your unique sensitivities, and accept them. They are not right or wrong- they just are.

3.  Get (and stay) nourished. The most effective way to replenish your body, and stay healthy and strong is through good nutrition. Because the nutritional value of our food has gradually decreased due to chemicals and processed ingredients, it has become more difficult to ingest the nutrients necessary for us to stay healthy. Here are a few points to keep in mind to maximize your nutrition:

  • Eat a good amount of protein (especially at breakfast)
  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables throughout the day
  • Drink lots of water – keep a water bottle with you and sip from it all day long
  • Buy organic whenever possible
  • Take a multi-vitamin
  • Have very little sugar
  • Eat very little (if any) processed food

4.  Get exercise and fresh air every day. Regular exercise keeps your body strong and your mind limber and calm. It often amazes me how just a short walk can re-energize and change the mood for the better. I highly recommend registering for a regular exercise class where you can make yourself a priority and meet other moms in the process. If you are in the Metro Vancouver area you could try Fit4Two which offers pre-natal & post-natal classes for moms and tots (stroller fitness is my favourite), and Mama Fitcamp which offers women’s fitness classes with free childcare.

5.  Learn to notice when you are reaching the end of your rope. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and body sensations and learn the warning signs before you get to your breaking point. Here are some common experiences from the edge: repetitive critical thoughts of yourself and others, feeling agitated/annoyed with everything and everyone, body feels tense, or like a wet noodle, quick to anger, difficulty finding joy in life, shame, guilt, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating.         

6.  Reduce the stress before you reach your breaking point.

One-minute stress busters

  • Take slow deep belly breaths
  • Take your shoes off and rub your feet
  • Roll your head around and loosen your neck
  • Splash water on your face
  • Stand up, lean down, touch the floor, shake your arms and stretch back up while taking a deep breath.
  • Visualize faucets at the tips of your fingers and visualize all of the stress leaving your body as it pours out of the faucets.
  • Or my favourite – visualize the tips of your fingers as warm wax and let the wax (stress) drip down to the floor one drop at a time.
  • Take a deep breath when you are done.
  • Pretend you are a dog (yes, i’m serious) and shake off all the stress from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet.
  • Make yourself a cup of tea and drink it.
  • Find specific tension spots in your body and breathe into them.

7.  If you’ve reached your breaking point, don’t be too hard on yourself – it happens to all great moms. Remember – you are teaching your child that mistakes are a part of life, that you (much like him/her) are always learning, and that even mom can say “I’m sorry”.

8.  Connect with friends. Kind and supportive friends are great medicine for a depleted mother. Arrange your own playdate (preferably without the kids) where you can vent out your feelings, get great advice, and see that you are not the only one experiencing problems.

9.  Care for your relationship. One of the defining characteristics of positive relationships is having the positive interactions outweigh the negative ones. It is more important to be civil to each other than to agree.

10.  Feel your emotions and express them. When we deny our emotions we add shame and fear onto them (this feeling is too shameful to admit), and cause them to grow and fester. Don’t be afraid of your emotions – they are natural and normal. Be accepting, and gently curious about your feelings. You can write them down if it helps (use a handy crayon and big font to let out your younger emotions). You can also draw a picture of your feelings, or talk to a friend about them.

Read more about Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS) in Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships By Dr. Rick Hanson, Dr. Jan Hanson, and Dr. Ricki Pollycove.