Why is it so hard for moms to take a break? Renowned child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott (1896-1971)said that struggling with taking a break from maternal responsibilities is normal. “Primary maternal preoccupation is a consuming attachment to one’s baby, a normal sickness from which most mothers recover.” He was talking about the mothers of typical children—who presumably have a little less to be preoccupied with on the average than mothers of children who have autism and other special needs. So it’s normal, but when it goes on indefinitely, it’s not healthy.
Winnicott appeared regularly on public radio in the United Kingdom. When asked how he knew so much about mothers, he responded that most of what he learned came from listening to mothers. He also wrote, “I think mothers are helped by being able to voice their agonies at the time they are experiencing them. Bottled up resentment spoils the loving which is at the back of it all.”
Opening up and connecting about upsetting situations can help. On the other hand, suggesting that a mother do more to take care of herself often makes her feel worse. Listening to mothers in our practice at Alternative Choices, we hear that this can sound like just one more thing to do. And another thing they just aren’t getting right-- even more guilt!
In contrast, the average overwhelmed father seems to have less difficulty taking a break. He may also have trouble talking about what he cannot fix or take action about, which offers no outlet for his partner’s feelings. He may shut down out of helplessness and emotional overload that he has no words for. The very same man may love his partner and children passionately; yet he may feel left out and ignored.
Still, most fathers admire when the mother of their children reacts like a mother lion with her cub, doing everything possible to raise their child.
So for this Mothers and Day and every day really, here’s a plan for men. Tell your partner how much you appreciate her and everything she does for your children. Be specific about all the wonderful things she does and how hard she tries. Ask what you can do to make her job easier. Gently and persistently keep asking and showing up to do stuff. This is how to be a good man in your situation. Help her to take a breath, literally and figuratively. Most likely you will be helping her feel better—it may even lead to her taking a break.