By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
This Sunday, moms everywhere will be lavished with flowers, elaborate meals, and heart-felt cards. But this day of pampering is often short-lived and most moms will return to their busy lives on Monday. Lives where healthy habits and wellbeing don’t always take center stage.
In fact, research shows that mothers are a vulnerable group of people when it comes to health. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, women who had children gained more weight over 10 years than those who were single or with a partner.
Why it seems hopeless (but isn’t)
Moms may look at the predicament of healthy habits (or lack thereof) as an issue of time but there’s more going on than meets the eye. “All of the things women were able to control before kids — exercising and eating right — get lost in the new goal of being a good parent,” says Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works. Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. “Moms often see their own self-care as an indulgent behavior.”
Put simply, in the minds of many moms, being a good parent trumps self-care, including eating well and being active.
The wrong answer
When moms do put time into their health, weight loss usually gets all the attention. “I try to redirect people away from weight,” says McGonigal. “It keeps them choosing unsustainable behaviors and diets that ultimately lead to bad feelings and a loss of hope.”
McGonigal explains how this leads to what researchers call the “what-the-hell effect,” which is essentially throwing the healthy diet out the window — and indulging — when setbacks occur. And it has to do with two things: guilt and shame, which research shows actually increase activation of reward centers in the brain. McGonigal says that shame induces brain changes that make individuals hyper-focused on immediate stress release, making palatable food the easy fix.
“Moralizing food as either too virtuous or something off limits doesn’t help,” she adds. “As soon as we label something as forbidden our brains associate it with pleasure and the same is true with guilt.”
McGonigal says that what’s missing in self-care for moms is self-compassion, which is the opposite of guilt and shame.
Take a 2009 study published in Behavioral Medicine. Participants who just completed a 6-month weight control program were randomly assigned to a day-long mindfulness- and acceptance-based program. The workshop helped shift participants from a “fix it/control it” approach to one of “acceptance/mindfulness.”
Instead of judgment, they were taught to observe their experiences (without the struggle) and monitor thoughts so they can choose whether or not they are useful. For example, a control-it approach would use shame when goals aren’t met with language like “I’m ugly, weak, a bad person.” But acceptance would be much kinder, observing that struggling to meet one’s goal is common, providing more room for viable solutions.
Three months later, the individuals who attended the workshop had improved quality of life and reported less psychological distress/flexibility and obesity-related stigma and more weight acceptance. They also lost more weight than those who did not attend. It is hypothesized that this approach leads to sustainable habits that in turn help weight.
How to get started
McGonigal describes three basic steps to get started with self-compassion. The first is to tolerate your feelings instead of trying to escape them. For example, if you feel remorse for eating something, sit there and say “I can tell I’m feeling remorse — this is what it feels like.” Second, remind yourself that what you are struggling with is common and universal and that almost everyone has trouble with this. And lastly is the act of self-kindness and re-aligning yourself with your goals.
McGonigal admits that there are inherent challenges that moms have, such as getting adequate sleep, especially when children are young. “It’s harder to control impulses when you are in a state of emergence than well rested,” she says. “But the less we talk about it the harder it is.”
She also recommends moms link self-care with their goal of being a better parent, seeing that they really are compatible. And instead of weight as the goal, McGonigal says “to do the things (now) that promote the positive outcomes you want from weight loss.”
As a busy mom of two young children, I get why this works. When I’m hard on myself I treat myself less well. But when I’m kind and understanding it’s like having a little friend cheer me on, and I’m more motivated to do better.
So this mother’s day give yourself (or a mom you know) the gift of self-compassion. It might just change your life.