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HEALTHY MUM, HEALTHY CHILD. Parents’ Stress Leaves Lasting Marks On Children’s Genes, Researchers Find
Motherhood often means a life of chaos. At home, mums are craft experts, dietitians, psychologists, event managers, doctors, tutors, mind-readers, cleaners and fundraisers. As they make breakfast, gather homework, retrieve missing socks, apply make-up, hang the washing out, usher the kids in the car and kiss their husbands goodbye, the frantic pace of their day continues just as it began. A mother barely has the time to recharge her iphone let alone look after her own health and well being.
Many traditional philosophies of mothering encourage the idea that a woman must sacrifice her own needs for the sake of her family. It is almost sacrilege to suggest that a mother should take time for her own needs. As she juggles her energy in all the many roles she has to play: worker, mother, friend, wife, house-keeper, nurturer, daughter, etc, she very quickly loses her sense of self, and self-care falls at the bottom of her list. In the end, her health, happiness and relationships are the things that suffer as she fails to replenish all the parts of herself she continually gives away. The reality is, self-care is NOT a luxury and it does in fact mean happier and healthier children.
So much parenting advice ignores the fact that it is the mother’s state of mind that has a major impact on the child. We’ve only got ourselves to bring to parenting so it makes sense to invest in yourself and enhance the quality of what you bring to your child: stress, distraction, depression, and poor health choices, or calmness, support, presence and healthy living.
Latest research has shown that parental stress during their children’s early years can leave an imprint on their sons’ or daughters’ genes — an imprint that lasts into adolescence and may affect how these genes are expressed later in life, particularly in regards to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, and three other genes involved in brain development.
“What is particularly intriguing is that a mother’s higher stress levels during infancy, but not during the preschool years, leads to epigenetic changes,” says co-author Clyde Hertzman, a professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and director of HELP. “And the opposite is true for fathers — it’s their higher stress during a child’s preschool years, but not during their infancy, that counts.”
The authors conclude, “These results confirm what early childhood experts have long known — those first few years are a crucial period that sets the stage for much of what happens to the individual later in life.”
Enjoy better health, raise happier kids and rediscover your sense of self with these little tips:
- First and foremost, look after your physical health. If you are iron-deficient, if are chronically tired, if you have ongoing headaches or stomach upsets or colds and flus, or back pain, you are simply not going to be able to cope with life with the humour, tolerance and energy it sometimes requires, especially with the task of raising children. Address health problems as soon as they arise, or better still, receive treatments to prevent them from occurring. It’s far easier to maintain good health and good spirits than it is to mend something once it’s broken.
- Prioritize. Make a list of your life priorities with supporting your own well being at the top. Next might come maintaining your relationships, paying quality attention to the kids or work satisfaction. Then say no to anything that stretches your ability to focus on high-priority aspects of your life, or causes more stress than you can cope with.
- Adjust your expectations about things that don’t really matter. This would mean that you put healthy living ahead of earning as much money as possible, or fun ahead of a tidy house. It is wiser to treasure precious moments instead of concentrating on all the things that need doing.
- Get your family used to your private time and make it clear to them that they can’t interrupt. Whether it’s scheduling a bath every Friday night, or booking yourself in for a massage every fortnight, it’s essential to make “me-time” part of your routine, and a part of your life that can’t be skipped if other activities come up that need your attention.
- Cultivate a household where everyone contributes. Give your kids graded levels of responsibility instead of doing it all for them. This also encourages their sense of independence. This also goes for your husband. If he isn’t contributing well to household duties, either structure a job roster or consider outsider help with cleaning, ironing, shopping, gardening, etc.
- Get Support. Asking for help can be challenging if you’re not used to asking. But it’s important to remember that children also benefit from contact with the wider community. Call on grandparents, siblings, friends or paid help and become comfortable in having time away from your kids.
- Look after your internal world. Some people mistakenly believe that having children will answer the question of meaning in life. Children have their own lives and it is unfair to load them with our needs for meaning and fulfilment. It is important for you to maintain your own internal happiness, purpose and passion, and spiritual practice. Yes, you are a mother, but you are also an individual human being who needs to nourish what’s on the inside in order to balance what’s going on outside.
Remember that it is the state of a mother’s mental health which affects her child, not just the meals she provides, the environment she creates and the school she sends her children to. Being balanced and healthy means you have the love, energy and patience to nourish a child, instead of exposing them to stress, tension and negative health choices.