Mothers with young children have lower levels of leisure and physical activities than the rest of the population, which puts their physical and mental health at risk. So the gift of sleep, time, self-care (“me time”) and a message of what a remarkable job she is doing may be what she needs most.
We’re a team of researchers who have studied the life-changing transition to motherhood for nearly 10 years. Our research has examined how motherhood enriches women’s lives at the same time as we challenge society’s notion of being a “good mother.” The role of policy (maternity leave legislation, childcare, access to leisure services) in shaping women’s experiences has been a central focus.
Giving new mothers a sense of freedom
Similar to other research findings, in a recent study currently undergoing peer review, the new mothers we worked with sought out leisure and physical activities to minimize stress, decrease their anxiety, increase self-esteem and navigate their new mothering identity. The women’s participation gave them a sense of freedom and control over their lives.
For example, for some mothers, running on their own provided an opportunity to carve out time for themselves. For other mothers, running with their baby in a stroller helped them develop a sense of family.
But the reality is that postpartum activities are not accessible to all women.
Unrealistic expectations of motherhood
In our recent study, we worked with new mothers from pregnancy to 18 months post-birth. We found that during pregnancy the women had unrealistic expectations of what life would be like, in contrast to the realities that they faced after the baby was born.
This included frustration about how much time they actually have to participate in leisure and physical activities. It also included disappointment about the type and intensity of activities they could return to — especially when considering their recovering postnatal bodies (for example, C-sections, general fatigue). The data also suggested that returning to work poses an additional challenge to women and successful leisure and physical activity engagement.
In western societies, “good mothering” practices are informed by an intensive mothering ideology that is informed by middle class and white values. It embodies motherhood as child-centred, emotionally absorbing and self-sacrificing. Compared to previous generations, mothering now extends beyond the provision of children’s safety and well-being. Mothers are expected to maximize their children’s growth and development. Participation in organized programs is one way to do this (for example, mommy and me swimming).
These societal expectations of “good mothering” often leave new mothers feeling unprepared, disappointed and fearing failure. However, research has shown that having more realistic expectations predicts better adjustment for mothers, including decreased depression.
Creating a socio-economic hierarchy
Our research on parental policies found that they privilege paid work while reinforcing a socio-economic hierarchy in which only some mothers are able to access the benefits. This can affect women’s chances for improved health and well-being.
New mothers in our recent study who were self-employed were unable to access formal maternity leave policies. Consequently, they had reduced participation in leisure and physical activities — on their own or with their baby. This led to feelings of failure as a mom and in their careers.
Women in precarious employment who did not qualify for maternity leave programs also reported difficulties. Many community recreation programs are user pay, which excludes women of lower socio-economic status.
Although financial assistance may be offered for organized recreation programs, research has highlighted the humiliation of having to publicly declare or prove their low-income status. Other research points to the fear of going out in unsafe neighbourhoods in order to access community programs and services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also disproportionately affected low-income mothers. The new mothers in our recent study talked about the high cost of transportation and difficulties using public transportation with a stroller. Consequently, many women feel judged and vulnerable from the outset of being a mother.
Generally, the stories from new mothers who qualified for maternity leave revealed that they had more time, money and choice of leisure and physical activities that they could access than mothers who did not qualify. Yet, they still have reduced income and higher costs with the arrival of the new baby. They also had to overcome challenges such as the stigma of breastfeeding in public spaces or the inability to participate in leisure and physical activities without their baby.
Important role of family
Social relationships play an important role in facilitating new mothers’ participation in their own leisure and physical activities.
Family support networks helped the mothers in our most recent study to resist the notion of self-sacrificing motherhood and to find time for themselves. The mothers’ partners and their extended family members (for example, mother, father-in-law) were important support networks to look after the baby. These support networks helped the mothers schedule and find much-needed time for themselves.
New mothers face challenges with their return to leisure and physical activities after the birth of a child. But it is clear that with support such as parental leave and family support, these activities can help them negotiate the difficult transition to motherhood and improve their health and well-being.