Stating the Obvious


Research Warns of Stress on Kids, Yet Avoids Real-World Solutions

Hey, you — yeah, you! The worn-out-looking mom in aisle three, with the toddler grabbing at every candy bar in sight, the baby crying in the car seat, and the 5-year-old declaring that you’re not the boss of her. I’m talking to you. I don’t mean to add to your worries, but did you know that by being stressed out, you could be making your kids sick? I wanted to throw my keyboard at the computer monitor when I read this enlightening medical tidbit. Apparently a new study from Japanese researchers found that stressed-out mothers can make childhood asthma worse, especially when the kids are very young. Published in BioMed Central’s open-access journal BioPsychoSocial Medicine, the study looked at 23 mothers for an entire year, and analyzed the way that their stress levels, coping styles and parenting methods were linked with the disease status of their 2- to 12-year-old children. Mothers who were chronically “angry or irritated,” or “overprotective,” or had a tendency to suppress emotional expressions had kids whose asthma got worse over the following year. OK, so apparently when you’re a mom, it’s good to express your emotions — unless those emotions are anger or irritation. Then, bottle those emotions right up, mommy! This study is just one in a series of reports that have made headlines over the last 10 years talking about how maternal stress affects children. We’ve heard that stress during pregnancy can have a negative impact on the developing fetus. A study published in 2008 found that maternal stress can lead to overweight children. Stressed-out moms also have more trouble breastfeeding, think their children are more difficult, and have children who have all kinds of difficulties, from disrupted sleep patterns to an increased risk of autism and schizophrenia. Is it just me, but isn’t all this emphasis on how being a stressed-out mom is bad for your kids just a little bit, well — stressful? If all of these research articles on the impact of maternal stress had actually led to societal changes that might make it easier for moms to be less stressed, I’d be a little less distressed and a little more impressed. But does anyone believe that the average mom in 2010 is under less stress than she was in 2000? Hands? I didn’t think so. Yet when I started searching for research on how to relieve maternal stress, I came up with a big fat goose egg. Plugging those search terms into everything from Google to Yahoo to Bing, all I got were the same old reports on how awful maternal stress is for our poor, beleaguered offspring. But nothing about what we as a society could be doing to prevent it. So here’s a modest proposal to universities, the National Institutes of Health, and scientists everywhere: Stop throwing money at research into whether stress in moms is bad for our babies and kids. We pretty much already know the answer to that one. Instead, let’s start spending money and time trying to figure out how to lower maternal stress. (And telling us to take a yoga class doesn’t count.) I can think of a lot of things that might alleviate my stress, from a half-price foot massage specialist who makes house calls to a reliable, 24-hour on-call in-home babysitting service with last-minute availability. But what would really work to make life easier and less stressful for the majority of overworked, under-supported parents? What could employers, communities, families and partners actually do that would reliably make a difference in the stress levels of the average mother — and in turn, we might assume, improve the health of her children? Most women in the United States are now afforded maternity leave, for instance — but unlike in Europe, it’s mostly unpaid. Who today can afford to take three to six months off without pay? And while some employers are creating novel ways to offer their employees childcare services at the office or flexible work schedules, those types of accommodations remain the exception — not to mention the fact that the cost of childcare alone can sometimes equal an average working salary. And that doesn’t even begin to get into other issues such as the quality of schools, or the stresses placed on students in our overachievement-oriented culture. Clearly, larger societal changes are in order to even begin to tackle the stresses a 21st-century parent faces. There are of course all kinds of “stress management” programs out there, as well as classes aimed at helping women (and men) cope with stress. But instead of having to always “cope” with stress (which itself seems to create new stresses), wouldn’t it be lovely if some effort were put into finding ways to actually lessen all that stress in the first place? So c’mon, American research enterprise. Stop telling us that we have problems, and start helping us solve them. I’m sure esteemed minds can figure out some real-world solutions to help the beleaguered modern American family. Moms everywhere — and their kids — are counting on you.

About the Author

Gina Shaw is the medical writer for The Washington Diplomat.