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Our local JCC has a very popular camp, and members get first crack at signing up a week or two before the general public. This year, they released spots at 2pm on a Sunday in January, and they were already waitlisting people by 2:02pm. I saw one mom comment on a Facebook page that this camp signup frenzy was “the most stressful 10 minutes of the year.” I’ve been writing a lot about summer camp this month, and I think we too often brush aside the very real stress this and many other childcare challenges pose. But what if stress wasn’t seen as a personal problem, but the result of social policy failures? What if as a society we worked to remove the stressors of motherhood, rather than give glib advice to “treat” the symptoms?
I love these provocative questions, sparked by the new work of Dr. Molly Dickens. She’s a stress physiologist who’s attempting to map the sources of maternal stress and do a major reframe of how we address it.
This quote from a recent New York Times Op-Ed she co-wrote called “What the Childcare Crisis Does to Parents” stopped me dead in my tracks:
“Unpredictability itself is a source of stress. Even when parents manage to secure care for their children, it can be unreliable, and they never know when it might go away. Childcare precarity — a state of insecure and unreliable childcare — has been linked to negative mental health outcomes for mothers for at least six years afterward.”
I feel so validated by this research, and I bet some of you do, too. A childcare crisis was a tipping point for a mental health spiral I had in 2021, and I am very much here for how Molly is interested in reframing stress as a social and community problem, rather than a personal one, so I asked to talk to her more about her work. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Molly Dickens: The Maternal Stress Project is a thought experiment initiative that is really aiming to essentially map the stressors related to modern American motherhood. It’s a visual map, but we want to go beyond that. And the mapping process is one just getting something down and letting it evolve. The next stage of it is how do we then layer on the evidence that these [situations] are indeed stressors. And the other part of that with the stressor nodes and the connection points and having this view is to also have the conversations around solutions.
Katherine Goldstein: It sounds like a lot of it is also about changing narrative of how we see these issues as separate or social issues and you're trying to showcase that they're all connected and have underlying health implications. That feels different to me.
Molly Dickens: Where it started was with this moment when Build Back Better was being proposed, there was a lot of the debates around childcare and paid leave, as an economic argument, an equity argument, and a justice argument. The conservative rebuttal to that is “why are mothers working in the first place?” So [I thought], how do we just neutralize this and make it so that it's not a “working mom” problem? We saw this during COVID. When you take away childcare, it doesn’t matter if someone’s working or not working. It's still really freaking stressful to lose it, and it still affects health. So how do we just neutralize this and start from a point of this is an “everyone” issue?
Katherine Goldstein: I love what you wrote in one of your first articles that the Maternal Stress Project aims to distribute that responsibility to all levels of relationship, community, and society. So, tell me more about this goal specifically.
Molly Dickens: I can't stand how stress is used in everyday language. I think it is overused and not helpful at all because we use it to describe how we are feeling. And then the solutions that we are fed back are exactly what you might expect: nap, meditate, exercise more. And you're like, “I just need childcare. I just need better mental load distribution. I just need to not be playing secretary when I'm an executive in my workplace.”
I'm working on this project with Lucy Hutner, who's a psychiatrist, and we had been talking a lot about how it's used in a clinical practice and how to make it more effective. You have to see it on that generalized label, you have to change the language around how we see stress, and because when the solutions are on a personal level, it again almost adds stress, right?
It's not considering what stress is in a physiological way, like how our body is taking in information from the outside world, feeding it through our brain, processing it physically, causing those physical changes that then relate to how it would impact our health down the line. That is a biological, psychological, physiological response. When you consider it at that response level, the solutions that exist are ones that essentially take it away from the beginning.
So [our goal should be] that you are not even being fed that external stressor at all and that you are not processing these moments in time that are feeding your body and causing a stress response. But instead, all of our solutions now are like, “you're feeling stressed! Here's how you deal with it.” The real way to deal with stress is addressing the underlying situations so you didn't lose you childcare spot, or you don’t have to go back and have a whole pregnancy knowing you only had had a three-week paid leave, and then all of the things that you had to get in order to take a three-week paid leave. If you had all of these things removed from that external side, your body's not even being fed those as stressors. You're not reacting to those stressors. You're not having the health impacts of your body reacting to those stressors. There are so many other solutions that exist before it gets to that point. I think that is how I want to shift that language and that responsibility. When you recognize it, it’s almost like that precursor level. Then we can distribute that responsibility to partners and family and workplace and society because it's their responsibility to not have those stressors exist to begin with.
Katherine Goldstein: It’s sounds like the difference between preventative medicine at the sign of symptons vs. an ER visit when you have a raging infection.
Molly Dickens: 100% I think that's exactly what it is. And that's a lot of the language that I'm trying to use with this.
This is absolutely preventive medicine. But It's hard to work on that level, on that preventive side because it's much easier to say, “You are sick. Here is the diagnosis. Here is the treatment.” And so, I think that's why the language around stress tends to be like that. Like diagnose and treat. But stress is not an illness.
Katherine Goldstein: What would be the best outcome of the maternal stress project?
Molly Dickens: I think that narrative reframe that we were discussing, I see an opportunity to just have a reframe around that [stress is a societal problem, not a personal one.] There are a lot of people working on aspects of this and being able to pull it all together and just speak the same language would be a really good outcome.
If you enjoyed this conversation, stay up to date on the latest from the Maternal Stress Project with Molly’s Substack.
Ok, Double Shifters, I want to hear from you: for our members-only thread, I want to know, what are some of the biggest sources of stress you feel right now?
Members get this prompt in their inboxes Thursday. If you want in on the fun, join the Double Shift member community. It starts at $7/mo.
One good thing happening in the 2024 run-up: I recently wrote about what I'm watching for to see if care can take a central role in the 2024 election.
Listen: I talked to my friend Paul Sullivan for his Company of Dads podcast about talks about today’s dads and their involvement as a part of the bigger conversation about systemic support around caregiving.