Mothers face high levels of stress as primary caregivers, particularly those taking care of children undergoing treatments for a disease or chronic condition. Researchers from Arizona State University wondered where mothers found the strength to raise children for decades while maintaining their own health. The research team examined the link between a mother’s happiness, health, and ability to take care of herself while raising her children. The study
, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, reveals the importance of maintaining social relationships and routines.
Carly Jacobs recalls the people who played an important role in supporting and comforting her family during her daughter’s year-long treatment in 2011. Carly’s son was only 10 days old when her older daughter, barely three years old, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called retinoblastoma
. Her young daughter would endure dozens of treatments with her mother and newborn brother by her side. “It’s hard when you have any child going through a serious illness, and caring for other children, too — whether they’re older or younger — is difficult,” Jacobs explained. “I remember this one time when she had to be in the hospital for six hours and I was just looking for somewhere to pump. It’s this constant giving of body, and mind, and energy. But you just do it. You don’t realize how much you’re giving until years later.”
Stress left Jacobs without an appetite, time to exercise, or energy. In an attempt to give her some time to focus on herself, her husband arranged a babysitter for once a week. Although much of that time was spent going through insurance bills, she sometimes was able to carve out a small getaway to her favorite teashop in SoHo, where she could sit down and have a small cup of relaxation. Jacobs said it made her feel herself for a moment— a tactic that experts recommend
busy mothers incorporate into their schedules.
The Biological Nature of Mom’s Love
It all begins at birth: when the mother conceives a child she secretes a key hormone known as oxytocin that reinforces the bond she has with her newborn. Nicknamed the “love drug,” oxytocin was first discovered over 100 years ago. But it’s only recently that neuroscientists
from NYU Langone Medical Center uncovered its ability to not only induce sexual attraction, but also create loving relationships, regulate breastfeeding, and lay the foundation for maternal bonding.
In experiments, neuroscientists mapped oxytocin traveling through a female brain. They studied adult female mice that had never given birth, which meant they didn’t have elevated oxytocin levels. Researchers added oxytocin into their brains and almost immediately, these mice fetched and began to care for another mother’s pups, which had been removed from their home nest for the experiment. Next, researchers blocked oxytocin from those same foster-mother mice. They continued to take care of the pups as if they were the real mother, indicating that oxytocin develops long term maternal instincts beyond the initial release of the hormone at childbirth.
Oxytocin works by a remarkably similar process in humans. The hormone teaches a mother how to respond to her offspring’s needs on a chemical level beyond thought or reason. It’s why mothers, more often than not, put their children first, even perhaps at the cost of their career, happiness, or even health.
A Mother’s Instinct
Sari Chang, Make-A-Wish Metro New York and Western New York Chair of the Board of Directors and mother of three, intimately understands a mother’s ability to adapt. After her son Jeffers was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of five, their family accompanied him on a three-and-a-half year journey towards recovery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. During the early stages of full-time hospital stays, Chang said she had no choice but to stop working while her husband took a brief leave of absence from his job. It was early on in the treatment process when her son’s assigned social worker told Jeffers he could make a wish. Three years into treatment, he told his mother he wanted to go to the Beijing Olympics. He thought long and hard about his wish throughout his treatment, ultimately giving him something to look forward to as well as a prospect of hope.
“The wish is so much bigger and deeper than incentivizing a child with a toy to have their blood drawn all week,” Chang said. “The wish empowers them at a time when they have no power, and that helps them endure the often constant pain of treatment.”
Once his wish was granted and their family returned home, Jeffers had his last bone marrow biopsy—a procedure he had done on a monthly basis for the duration of his treatment—and was declared clear of the disease.
Now, as a healthy 18-year-old high school senior, Jeffers is looking at colleges. Three years ago Chang picked up where she left off in her architecture career and is now a partner in a firm bearing her name. Meanwhile, Chang continues her work on the board and after recently becoming the chair, has a lot of plans to expand Make-A-Wish’s outreach into other hospitals and communities to reach more children. It makes her the first woman in a long time to head the board, which gives her an invaluable perspective as they direct their plans towards 2016.
“After a long stretch of committed and competent men, it's nice to have the opportunity to bring a different perspective to the role — as a woman, a wish mom, and an architect,” Chang said. “Not only do women tend to think more about child related issues, they have a strong voice in deciding what philanthropic causes the household will contribute to, and in guiding children to be aware of giving to others. It's important for women to embrace leadership roles in our families, in our workplaces, and in our communities.”
*Both children were referred by social workers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital - our invaluable partners in care and wishes.