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A survival guide for #MumLife

9th September 2020

Dr Liz Martin is a Cairns-based doctor, JCU GP supervisor, wife and mum to three boys. She is passionate about Women’s Health and an advocate for improving paid maternity and carer’s leave for women. This Women’s Health Week Dr Martin offers some advice for Mums grappling with the ever present mental load of work, life and kids.

From breast feeding to bread winning

Since the beginning of time it has been a mother’s job to breastfeed their child. It is a basic biological mechanism that, in this day and age, comes with enormous social pressures that impact women’s health.

Breast feeding is a very physical thing, and not something that every woman is able to do. Breastfeeding rates in Australia are very low. The World Health Organisation suggests that we should be breastfeeding until two years of age.  But in Australia only 15% of women are feeding after six months and 2% or less at two years.

The health implications of breast feeding are enormous. For boys in particular, it has been shown that if you breast feed until three months their IQ is better. There are a lot of markers of health improvements. Also for mums, your chances of developing breast cancer are much lower.

In order for a mum to have the time, headspace and physical ability to tend to their child, they need to have maternity leave from their paid work. This is something I’m particularly passionate about. Women are coping with enormous pressure to return to work because the system isn’t giving them the adequate financial backing to spend more time at home with their baby, breastfeeding or not.

Sometimes, women think money equals worth. If they are not working, then they view themselves as worthless. Some women want to go back to work so they will feel better about contributing and won’t feel so guilty about spending money. This then contributes to their mental health. I would like to see a system in the future that pays women 80-100% of what they would normally get as their wage. If they decide to go back to work, because of course being a full-time mum isn’t for everyone, then at least they have the choice.

 Dealing with the mental load of being Mum

Women are fed this story that you can ‘have it all’. A lot of women are still doing the lion's share of domestic duties at home, working and sorting out the kids. My sister got me onto the concept of the emotional burden that is the ‘mental load’. In some instances, you have that stereotypical role of the Mum and the Dad. Mums will be thinking about the little things that Dads don’t always prioritise. For example, your kids might get an invite to a birthday party. In some cases, Mum will be thinking about booking it in the calendar, taking the kids to pick a present, wrapping the present then making sure the kids attend the party. Some Dads on the other hand, may just see the invitation in their kid’s backpack, stick it on the fridge and that’s the end of their involvement. Mothers tend to put pressure on themselves to make sure they don’t forget everything, not realising that this huge mental load drives women to become really bitter and resentful and sometimes relationships break up. I’m not saying it’s the only reason, but that can all lead to poor health. 

A lot of women are also influenced by rubbish from women's magazines about how you can get your ‘pre-baby body’ back within six weeks. It takes a long time to get your fitness back and to feel good about yourself physically. You are not thinking properly and if you are breastfeeding, really, you are all over the shop. There are a lot of women who are just holding it together.

 Things start to unravel and it affects their mental and physical health. In Western society, we talk about those two things very separately, but one leads to another. I see a lot of mental health concerns in my practice but it’s really because there are underlying issues. Someone will come in with a broken toe, because they are so sleep deprived they have kicked something during the night and broken their toe. Then they'll burst into tears and say ‘well I'm just not coping’. 

Advice for Mums

A lot of women who come to see me are very resentful. Post-natal depression is frequently talked about and certainly a very common. Up to 30% of women may get postnatal depression, that’s huge - one in three women. There are some very simple tips that I share with my patients to help them get through those early stages of parenthood:

Get creative with your cash - Don't expect to be rich at all for the first few years of your children's life. Get creative with money. This is not ‘barefoot investor’ advice, but don't worry about money because you can correct it later in life.

 Look after yourself as a Mother - you are the epicentre of the household usually. Fathers are hugely essential but they are a different structure. I find that if Mums are looking after themselves the flow on effect is great. ‘Looking after yourself’ is a very individual thing. For some that means going to get a pedicure on a regular basis, for others it’s having a sleep-in once a week. For me personally, it’s carving time out in my week for exercise.

Think laterally when it comes to child minding – Because I like to make sure I’m getting regular exercise, when my kids were small a friend and I would take turns minding our brood while we tackled the Red Arrow track (in Cairns). One would do the track, while the other would stay behind and have a picnic with the kids. A patient I had once actually approached her lollipop lady, as she knew she had a blue card, and asked if she would help by sitting in the car with the kids whilst she ran errands around town. Everyone has a different support network. Whether it be friends, family or paid professionals, find a child minding solution that works for you. 

 Don't have high expectations – It’s ok to have a messy house. Don't wrap every present. Don't home bake everything. Have good girlfriends that you can have as a support network. 

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