Depleted mother syndrome: everything you need to know

by Adejumoke Ilori |
Published on

Depleted mother syndrome refers to a condition where mothers, particularly new mothers, experience physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion due to the demands of caring for a newborn or young child. It can lead to feelings of overwhelm, inadequacy, and depletion of resources.

You might have been wondering whether your emotional sensitivity to both internal and external triggers is a sign of depleted mother syndrome; or maybe your buttons getting pushed so quickly and easily, and often finding yourself worn out and drained, is also a another symptom.

From what depleted mother syndrome is, to how to overcome it, experts Holly Zoccolan and Dr. Patricia Britto, were happy to give us some insight.

Parenting expert Holly Zoccolan explained: “To overcome depleted mother syndrome, it's essential for mothers to seek support from friends, family, health care professionals, and support groups; to delegate tasks when possible, set realistic expectations, and establish boundaries to prevent burnout. Common signs and symptoms of depleted mother syndrome include fatigue, irritability, difficulty sleeping, feelings of guilt or failure, loss of interest in activities, and physical symptoms such as headaches or muscle tension. Mothers might develop depleted mother syndrome due to various reasons, including lack of support, unrealistic expectations, sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, financial stress, and societal pressure to 'do it all'.

"Thoughts associated with depleted mother syndrome might include feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, doubting one's abilities as a parent, feeling guilty for not meeting perceived standards, or feeling isolated and alone. Reframing these thoughts involves practicing self-compassion, acknowledging limitations, celebrating small victories, seeking perspective from others, focusing on what's within one's control, and challenging unrealistic expectations."

“Decreased resources for mothers with depleted mother syndrome can include time, energy, social support, and coping mechanisms. Those experiencing depleted mother syndrome should prioritise self-care, seek help from loved ones or professionals, delegate tasks, and explore resources available in their community or online. Professional help should be sought when symptoms interfere significantly with daily functioning, relationships, or overall well-being, or if thoughts of self-harm arise. Increased demands for mothers with depleted mother syndrome might include caring for a newborn or young child, managing household responsibilities, maintaining relationships, and possibly juggling work or other commitments.

"Parental burnout, while similar to depleted mother syndrome, encompasses both mothers and fathers and might arise from prolonged stress, overwhelming parental responsibilities, and feeling emotionally drained or disconnected from one's role as a parent," continued Holly.

And, according to Education Psychologist, Dr Patricia Britto: “motherhood is one of the most demanding jobs in the world, and depleted mother syndrome (DMS) is an emotional state of exhaustion. It occurs when the demands on the mother increase and her support system and resources decrease, negatively impacting her ability to cope. It's essential for society to understand that when mothers experience depleted mother syndrome, it does not mean they are bad mothers; it just indicates that they are overstretched and need support to look after themselves so that they can have improved mental well-being. Although the DMS is growing in the media, it's important to note that it is not recognised by the DSM IV (manual for diagnosing mental health conditions) and therefore, people should think carefully about whether or not to use the label.”

Reasons why mums develop depleted mother syndrome

“Mothers experience DMS due to a lack of support and resources. No one can give from an empty cup; however, in today's society, mothers are expected to do everything for their household and look after themselves. Many mothers tend to feel guilty and selfish for taking time for themselves; however, I would always say a happy mum equates to a happy child.”, Dr Patricia Britto continued to say.

What are some thoughts a mum with depleted mother syndrome might have?

“Negative feelings associated with motherhood are complex, and those who experience DMS may have thoughts of not wanting to be a mother at differing points, which is understandable and an expected experience. When mothers begin to have persistent sadness, and it leads to other complex mental issues such as suicide idealisations or causing harm to others, it's essential to seek professional help or call the ‘Suicide and Crisis Lifeline’, which provides 24/7 support.”, added Dr Patricia Britto.

How can mums reframe those thoughts?

“Mothers can attempt to engage in self-care activities and monitor their negative feelings to see whether they improve; however, if there is no progress, I believe it's damaging to reframe their thoughts but not actually to seek help. While there are benefits to reframing thoughts, there is such a thing known as ‘toxic positivity’, which is the belief that no matter how challenging a situation is, one should maintain a positive mindset, which can be detrimental to a mother’s mental health.” Dr Patricia Britto continued to say.

How do you overcome depleted mother syndrome? What should those with depleted mother syndrome do?

Dr Patricia Britto also says: “Mothers need support to cope with the demands of looking after a child. Mothers need to allocate time for self-care activities and other exciting takes that nourish them. Healing is not linear but recursive in any situation, and it can take time; therefore, allocating one day for nourishing activities such as a meditation session or a nice bath will not resolve all the negative feelings associated with DMS. Mothers will need to support themselves or ask for help to assess their stress levels using the stress bucket analogy by exploring what they can and cannot cope with.”

The 'stress bucket analogy' means to imagine yourself holding a bucket, into which all your stresses are poured. There's a tap on the outside, which when turned, releases some of your stress - something like having a relaxing bath might be seen as turning the tap and releasing some stress. The idea of the stress bucket is to imagine your stress as a physical entity, which you can then recognise when the stress starts to pour over the edges of the bucket. Our buckets only have so much space inside them - just like our wellbeing can only cope with so much stress.

Dr Patricia Britto says: "Be reflective by asking questions such as:"

• What size and shape is your stress bucket?

• How full is it?

• What are the signs that your bucket is getting too full?

• Is your tap working?

• Do you turn to unhealthy and unsafe ways to release stress, and what does this look like?

• What would progress look like?

• How would you know you have made progress? What would you be doing, and what would need to be different?

• Select a calming relaxation technique.

Common signs and symptoms of depleted mother syndrome include:

The following are signs of DMS:

• Consistently heightened state of negative emotions and sensitivity.

• Increased and consistent feelings of frustration, anger and irritability that cannot be easily switched off.

• Decreased ability to accomplish things you typically accomplish easily.

• Being more easily triggered emotionally than usual.

What are the increased demands for those with depleted mother syndrome?

"In today’s society, many mothers might not have a network of support (a village), although the increasing demands of mothers have changed since the 1950s. Those mothers who work tend to use their pay towards living costs and increasing childcare costs. They might not have enough funds to seek external support systems, resulting in ‘doing it all by themselves’", says Dr Patricia Britto.

What is the difference between parental burnout and DMS?

"In my opinion, there is no difference between parental burnout and DMS", said Dr. Patricia.

Meet the experts:

Holly Zoccolan is an entrepreneur, parenting expert and founder of the new parenting app Carol, an app which connects and supports mums. She studied law at Newcastle University before completing her Nutrition studies at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and then founding the Carol app.

Dr. Patricia Britto is a qualified Educational Psychologist (HCPC Registered) and a mother with practical and research experience. Her qualifications include a Doctorate in Professional Educational, Child and Adolescent Psychology (DEdPsy) from UCL, Institute of Education, an MSc in Mental Health in Learning Disabilities and a BSc in Psychology. Dr Patricia works independently at the prestigious Harley Street and within Local Authorities Educational Psychology Services to promote children and young people’s (age 0-25) learning and social, emotional and mental well-being. Dr. Patricia offers families, communities, and educational settings support through consultation, individual psychological assessments suitable for children and young people, and systemic work (e.g., training, workshops and organisational psychology support).

Mummy to a little girl, Adejumoke Ilori is Commercial Content Writer for Mother&Baby. With a BA hon in Creative Writing, she has worked for digital platforms, where she has empowered women from the inside and out, by sharing real life stories based on relationships, loving yourself and mummyhood.

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