Research suggests that new UK mothers are spending an average of eight hours every weekday alone with their babies, and this has huge implications for their emotional and mental health, and for their ability to bond.
We humans are really good at having babies.
As a comparison: Chimpanzees are our closest animal relatives, and a female chimp will give birth only around every 4 or 5 years. We human females can pump out a baby every couple of years, and often even more frequently. Or more than one at a time if you’re a twin mum like me.
So how do we humans manage this impressive feat, in spite of the fact that each one of our progeny need a lot more looking after and for a much longer time than your average chimpanzee offspring?
We can do it because we get help. Humans are what’s known as “cooperative breeders”. No human mum can look after and provide for her baby completely unassisted, while chimpanzee mothers will never hand over their infants to anyone else – if they did there’s a good chance their baby would get kidnapped, and possibly eaten. Luckily for us though, most human “allomothers” (people who look after kids who aren’t the mum) are quite nice to our babies and this frees us up to feed ourselves, get on with our lives, and then maybe have another baby.
Well, at least that’s how it used to be. Back in the days when we humans lived as hunter-gatherers, babies would have grown up with many pairs of hands to look after them, and even in the not too distant past, people lived in extended families with grannies, aunties and older children to help out with young kids and provide company for the mum.
Not so nowadays, at least in the western world. We move away from family for education and jobs and then when we have babies we tend to get pretty isolated.
Research by Dr Sarah Myers of University College London found that UK new mums were spending an average of eight hours on weekdays alone with their babies. Our partners, if we have one, tend to be out at work all day and so we get left relying on the odd mother & baby meetup or a visit from friends. Considering what we’ve evolved to need, that’s really not good enough. Going by Myers’ research – it’s really not that surprising that many of us end up seriously stressed and depressed when we have babies.
Myers presented her work at a one-day meeting at UCL earlier this year and talked about the need for mothers to conserve what she calls “emotional capital”. Our emotional capital is a measure of our emotional energy; our ability to deal with the world on an emotional level.
We all know what it’s like when our reserves are low. We’ve had an argument at work, and then a friend needs to talk through a bad experience with her love life and we’re trying to support her. Then by the time we get home we feel emotionally exhausted so that the slightest criticism from our partner can reduce us to tears. That’s when your emotional capital is low.
But a hug from our partner or family member, a nice chat with a friend who asks how our day has been – these kind of things top up our emotional capital again. In our adult relationships there tends to be give and take, and so this balances out and we maintain our levels.
But our relationship with our newborn is different – the emotional investment is going in one direction only. We’re not really getting much support back from that little ‘un. We care about the baby, worry about the baby, and then we need to have our emotional capital levels topped up by our partners, families, social networks to avoid becoming depleted.
According to Myers, emotional support from others means that mothers can form stronger bonds with their babies more quickly. It makes sense, if we know we’ve got support behind us to help us look after our kids, then we know we can afford to invest emotionally in our baby.
We mums vary a lot in how long it takes to bond with our cherubs after birth, but if it’s just not happening for you it could be a signal that you’re not getting the emotional support you need – your emotional capital has become depleted and so you can’t afford the emotional energy for bonding.
It also seems likely that if your emotional reserves are low and not getting topped up, you’re opening up the possibility of suffering mental wellbeing issues because you have nothing left for yourself.
The clear message here then is that in order to have the best start with our babies and to protect our own mental health it’s really vital to have good emotional as well as practical support from others to keep that emotional capital topped up. We need good input from our partners if we have one, and also friends and family. So we need to be telling them about this – about the part they need to play in raising the baby and being a “cooperative breeder”. We should not feel that it’s all our responsibility as mothers to just suck it up.
I contributed to the same UCL workshop as Myers did with a talk about how I’m applying evolutionary biological approach to supporting working mums-to-be. This means arming women with the knowledge and tools they need to get through maternity leave with their mental health and wellbeing intact and to then return successfully to their careers. The need to protect our emotional capital is just one of the many insights that an evolutionary approach can give us.
Please contact me here if you’re pregnant or are on maternity leave and would like to have a one-to-one video or phone call with me so I can offer help and support using and evolutionary approach. Likewise if you’d like a free initial call!