Helping new moms return to exercise and leisure supports their physical and mental health

The physical and mental health of mothers with young children is at risk because they have fewer leisure activities and physical activity than the general population. The gift of time, sleep, and self-care (also known as “me time”), along with a message that she’s doing a great job, may be the most important thing to give her.

Researchers have been studying the life-changing transition from motherhood for almost ten years. We have examined the impact of motherhood on women’s lives while also challenging society’s idea of what a good mother is.

Giving new mothers freedom

In a study that is currently being peer-reviewed, new mothers who we worked with looked for leisure and physical activities in order to reduce stress, decrease anxiety, boost self-esteem, and find their new mothering identity. Participation in the study gave women a feeling of control and freedom over their lives.

Some mothers find that running alone gives them time to themselves. Other mothers found that running with their child in a stroller gave them a feeling of family.

Expectations of motherhood that are unrealistic

In our recent study, we studied new mothers from the time of pregnancy until 18 months after birth. We found that women during pregnancy had unrealistic expectations about what life would be. This was in stark contrast to their reality after birth.

It was also a frustration with the amount of time available for leisure and physical activity. This included frustration about the types and intensity of activities that they could return to, especially in light of their postnatal recovery (for example, C-sections and general tiredness). Data also suggests that women’s return to work is a challenge for their participation in leisure and physical activities.

In Western societies, “good mothers” are guided by an intense mothering ideology based on middle-class and white values. This embodies motherhood in a child-centered way, which is emotionally draining and selfless. Mothering is now more than just providing for the safety and well-being of your children. The mothers are expected to maximize the growth and development of their children. One way to achieve this is by participating in organized programs (for instance, Mommy and I are swimming).

This “good mothering,” as defined by society, can leave new mothers feeling unprepared and disappointed. They may even fear failure. Research has shown, however, that mothers who have more realistic expectations are better adjusted and experience less depression.

Create a social-economic hierarchy.

In our research, we found that parenting policies prioritize paid work and reinforce a socioeconomic hierarchy where only a few mothers can access benefits. It can negatively impact women’s health and well-being.

In our study, we found that new mothers who were self-employed were not able to take advantage of formal maternity policies. They reduced their participation in leisure activities and physical activity, either alone or with their child. It led to feelings that they were failing as moms and in their careers.

Women who were not eligible for maternity leave but had precarious jobs also experienced difficulties. Most community recreation programs require payment, which excludes women with lower socioeconomic standing.

Research has shown that even though financial assistance is offered to organized recreation programs, it can be humiliating for participants to have their low-income status publicly declared or proven. Another research shows that people are afraid to go out to unsafe neighborhoods to access programs and services.

The COVID-19 pandemic also affects low-income mothers disproportionately. In a recent study, new mothers spoke about the high costs of public transportation and the difficulty of using it with a stroller. Many women are judged from the moment they become mothers.

In general, new mothers who were eligible for maternity leave reported that they had access to more leisure time, more money, and a wider range of physical and recreational activities than those who weren’t. Despite the fact that they have a lower income and more expenses with the birth of their new baby, these mothers still qualify for maternity leave. The new parents also faced challenges like the stigma associated with breastfeeding in public places or being unable to engage in leisure activities and physical activity without their child.

Family is important

Social relations are important in encouraging new mothers to participate in their leisure activities and physical activity.

In our latest study, the mothers were helped by their family support networks to resist the idea of self-sacrificing motherhood. They also found time for themselves. Support networks for mothers and babies included their partners, extended family (such as mother, father-in-law, etc.), and extended family members. These networks of support helped mothers to schedule and find time for themselves.

After the birth of their child, new mothers may face difficulties in returning to leisure activities and physical activity. It is evident that these activities when combined with parental leave and support from family members, can help new mothers navigate the difficult transition into motherhood. They will also improve their health.