There was a time not too long ago when each night, only a few steps between their beds and the bathroom, our sons would dilly dally. They’d find a trivial distraction to avoid brushing their teeth—like routine face-offs—until the situation escalated into a shouting match. This ritual is followed by my third child, an eight-year-old, who repeats this decade-old need for supervision! Managing these daily events formed a larger part of the routine of motherhood that I’d slipped into over the years.
Life as a mother was a roller coaster that involves cold morning tea while getting the kids ready for school, packing lunches, eating soggy cereal during long conversations with far-flung family and friends, responding to emails, planning daily meals, ferrying the kids to school and back, and helping with homework and extracurricular activities. There is the cooking and cleaning, doing laundry, and taking the children out to play and for fresh air no matter what makeshift play area we find. There are the tough and tearful negotiations on screen time, followed by preparing dinner, clearing up, and ushering the children to bed, only to wake up several times in the night to reassure the one with a nightmare, or in need of a drink of water because they are scared of the dark.
The boys, who are curious, social, and active bundles of life and energy have always been living pulsating lives. Mentoring, coaching, mediating, and cheerleading throughout, I facilitate the roles of maternal duty. Yet, the list of never-ending chores, in addition to (and despite) the meaningful and creative engagements I took up, weighed down in a blanket of fatigue each night. I often had to rouse myself in the morning out of a sense of resignation to the continuous activity expected of me. When we moved to Atlanta in 2010, a trainer instructing me at an intercultural workshop exclaimed midway, to my husband and me, “Your resources are depleted and you are functioning with zero balance!”
She had put her finger on what, until then, I had been unable to define. We needed more energy in this domestic arrangement than we had to carry on—what I seemed to be facing, was a case of maternal fatigue.
Defining the Intangible: What is Maternal Fatigue?
I began to search for reasons explaining the fatigue caused by caregiving and to find survival strategies. While I found many articles on postpartum depression, there was scant information available on maternal fatigue.
Some research revealed interesting insights, despite the little attention paid by the medical fraternity towards the mental and physical health of mothers of toddlers—it is well known that mothers experience greater fatigue when their infants are between 14 to 19 months than they do at six weeks postpartum.
While it’s not news to anyone that moms are sleep deprived, poor sleep is a risk factor for depression & depression contributes to sleep issues. Women w/ #PPD experience less effective sleep. Infants that don’t sleep well & maternal fatigue are associated w PPD 4/7
— Pooja Lakshmin MD (@PoojaLakshmin) October 15, 2019
One study in particular aimed “to examine the role maternal fatigue played in the caregiving environment, specifically in the mother’s experience of daily hassles of parenting, the discipline style she employed, and how she monitored her child’s whereabouts.” Fatigue in the study is defined as “a systematic feeling of exhaustion.” Another definition of fatigue is that it is a “reversible motor and cognitive impairment, with reduced motivation and desire to rest.”
In any case, the study revealed that “fatigue was a significant predictor of their [the mother’s] energy to monitor children’s whereabouts after covariates of sleep, depression and number of children had been entered into the regression consideration.” Simply put: there is a strong connection between the attention required to supervise a child and the ensuing fatigue a mother faces, even for those without prior physical or mental health issues.
The everyday medical perspective on maternal fatigue is slightly more nuanced. I reached out to the OB/GYN who co-delivered my third child and has been somewhat of a regular presence in my life, as I approach her with one concern or another. She distinguishes symptoms of fatigue from depression, with the list reading like a regular day for me and many other mothers: exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and low libido. Depression, on the other hand, may manifest in the form of low mood, low appetite, weeping, and disinterest in pretty much everything.
Interestingly, she did not notice that any specific age group was more fatigued than the other. “Women discuss their issues and I conclude that maternal fatigue is the reason for their complaints,” she says. “I recommend they take help from family or paid help, to give themselves a break from non-essential chores, but I am also mindful of the fact that I have very little ability to change their situations. So, I just try to listen,” she adds, noting that fatigue takes different forms for different people.
Timeless and unacknowledged, I heard the unnamed “tired narrative” crop up again with the other mothers that I spoke to. Malini, a 30-year-old lawyer and mother of a toddler, credits the support of her family, workplace, and paid help in helping her cope with fatigue. Although the responsibility of running the house lies in her hands, Malini believes that “it is always better to put your foot down and express your feelings surrounding fatigue than build false expectations [of your ability to fulfil maternal duties].” She acknowledges that there will be “demands” that she may not be always able to fulfil.
Lara, 39, mother to a school going child, and an HR professional, mostly works from home. She also has the support of family members and paid help. “The need to oversee everything, or to tie together how everything functions as a whole” is where Lara sees maternal fatigue manifesting. There is an inherent uncertainty despite the planning, paired with the awareness that family members or paid staff often have their own invisible caregiving labour to perform in their own homes.
What We Want From Our Mothers: The Impact of Generational Economic Fatigue on Maternal Health https://t.co/SjN05S6Gj3
— Milwaukee Film (@mkefilm) September 22, 2020
Clearly, both women considered fatigue to be connected to multiple repetitive quotidian demands expected of them. But, the unquestioning acceptance and rationalization of this responsibility as entirely their own, risks ignoring the fact that fatigue may be caused by factors outside their control.
Who Gets to Define if Maternal Fatigue is a ‘Real’ Issue or Not?
In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi writes that a largely male-dominated American Psychiatric Association (APA) panel left a number of disorders uncoded—codes are needed for medical reimbursement. This was done in order to discourage mental health professionals from diagnosing ‘controversial’ disorders in their practices.
However, the fact that what could be diagnosed as a mental health issue was primarily decided from a man’s perspective stigmatizes the mental health issues that women face. These issues are often triggered by their inability to cope with their assigned gender roles defined and normalized by society. Pushed to the margin, women struggle to balance the requirements of family members of varying ages and needs, as well as those of the outside world.
Ultimately, diagnosable mental health issues are viewed differently from maternal fatigue. The latter is embedded in our restrained ability to respond to the continuous demands of caregiving. Housework and caregiving place tremendous demands on the primary caregiver, usually the mother, resulting in mental burdens that are mostly invisible to others. There is little acknowledgement of the inevitable responsibility that comes with running a household, especially the undefined voluntary engagement mothers provide, euphemistically called “the labour of love”!
And so, because fatigue is not a ‘medical problem’, there is no diagnosis. Instead, the existence and validation of the issue lie in the subjective experiences of those who experience it.
This incredulous story, amongst many others, alerts us not only to unrealistic and unfair social expectations of caregivers but also how labour and control are located in and around women’s bodies, thereby depriving them of agency. Kalpana Karunakaran’s seminal op-ed in The Hindu—a response to actor Kamal Haasan’s political pledge to pay homemakers as a class of salaried professionals—draws attention to the value of housework and the need to acknowledge it as ‘work’. She writes that a 2018 report by the International Labour Organisation showed that globally women performed 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, this figure stands at 80%.
Karunakaran admits that there is difficulty in realizing the long-standing demands of wages for housework by women’s movements the world over. Hopefully in India, the move to recognize and value domestic labour with compensation by various women’s organisations—which includes a weekly day off and dignity at the workplace—shifts the spotlight to the necessity and simultaneous drudgery of housework.
It Takes a Village to Raise a Child: Community Support Matters
Jean Liedloff’s book The Continuum Concept: In Search Of Happiness Lost encourages somewhat utopian ideals of the continuous presence of a caregiver in early infancy and childhood that acted as a stable foundation for the child, while also educating them to become a member of a larger community. Liedloff’s radical theory on communally raising children, following her extensive study of the Yequanna Indians in Venezuela, critiques our current child-rearing practices by encouraging us more mother/caregiver-baby contact until the child is ready to start the process of forming a separate identity. Liedloff’s practical advice includes the continuous physical presence of a caregiver around the child, using communal kitchens, and developing support groups to replicate the idea of it takes “a village to raise a child.”
The debate on maternal instinct notwithstanding, Jane Goodall’s In The Shadow of Man provides a fascinating account of primates’ unbelievable likeness to man—community and communal rituals built into their ways of life. The young female primate grew into the role of a mother while often feeling the same perplexity that comes with the responsibility of caring for a young one. The importance of community and support networks are validated by pioneering work by George Por, a commons thinker and activist. Knowledge ecosystems, much like biological ecosystems, were self-sustaining, self-regulating, and self-organizing. They have permeable boundaries through which they can interact with other ecosystems, resulting in more diversity. In a natural ecosystem, the higher the diversity of species, the more robust the community, and the more fit it is to survive in the long-run.
Over the years I have attempted to nurture a community, scattered and concentric, that includes family, friends and acquaintances, paid support, teachers (mine and from school), and facilitators of well-being. These community dynamics have brought their own set of joys and challenges while raising my children over the years.
Yet, the circles of support I’ve built around me are reflective of these intersecting ecosystems of long-term survival: and more importantly, they buffer the fatigue that accompanies motherhood. The boys, older now, have matured into their responsibility of taking care of their own complex lives while lending us a big hand with household chores. I am the ever-reliable bystander.
In Bringing Home the Dharma Jack Kornfield, a renowned teacher of mindfulness and Buddhist psychology, says that “no part left out’’ implies that “all aspects of your life are your fields of practice.” I am aware that maternal fatigue is a steadfast companion in my life. Seeking to liberate myself from the sense of entrapment, I acknowledge that I am not solely responsible for it—factors beyond my reach continue to shape how fatigue is manifested and treated for women around the world.
I recall that it is the recurring ritual, often at night, of huddling together with my sons and looking at our photo albums, amidst hushed conversations, that a cloak of intimacy settles us—it is what enables me to rise to meet another day of routine.
Featured image: the ‘perfect’ suburban housewife in 1950s America, via Snappygoat.