Maternal Eco-Distress: Moving Beyond Ecoanxiety in Mothers

ecoanxiety maternal ecodistress Apr 22, 2022

Maternal Distress

Maternal distress (Emmanuel & St. John, 2010) is a concept to describe the “transition to motherhood in which the mother responds to stress, adapting, function and control, and connecting on a continuum” (Copeland& Harbaugh, 2019, p. 29).

More Representative Term

The use of the term maternal distress in the literature creates space for the full spectrum of distress, including the “silent majority” of mothers in the middle ground who may not reach criteria for a Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD) but who experience mental health challenges.

Less Pathological Approach

The term also offers an approach that resists predominant biomedical and psychiatric interpretations of mothers’ difficulties adapting to their new role and identity. Using the term maternal distress feels more accurate to many mothers who understands how stress comes with adapting to a new lifestyle that centers care, especially in a culture that doesn’t support carers. It also feels better to mothers who are sensitive to the brokenness pathological language can sometimes imply.

Umbrella for Mothers’ Experiences

While the term has also been criticized as a nonspecific “catch-all,” so too has has depression The term depression has been used so much for mothers that postpartum sometimes stands in for postpartum depression. However, since postpartum depression occurs in 11% of the U.S. population (Centers for Disease Control, 2016), it is useful consider other approaches to viewing and talking about maternal distress (p. 28).

Maternal Ecodistress

For these reasons, there is also usefulness in using the term maternal ecodistress. Writing about it with coauthor Aurelie Athan, I note that any approach to maternal distress should  social, ecological, and spiritual context of early parenting, the dramatic lifestyle changes mothers experience, and the shifts in values and worldview that result (Davis & Athan, 2022)

The Ecological Context

The current context of parenting includes climate and ecological destruction. Many mothers are coming to consciousness about the clear and present dangers these realities pose to themselves, their families, their communities, and the planet.

A Wide Range of Ecoemotions

Just as with maternal distress, maternal ecodistress is present in all transitions to motherhood, with a wide range of ecoemotions mothers experience in a range of degrees and frequency. Mothers have shared feeling rage, guilt, connection, belonging, pre traumatic stress, anxiety, fear, grief, and more as a result of shifting enviornmental ethics and concerns.

Ecoanxiety is too Limiting

The popular use of ecoanxiety may limit mothers understandings of how enviornment affects their mental health. It may also shape how mothers view their experiences of distress in narrow ways. For instance, anxiety is often a secondary emotion to grief. It is also often a product of an intense love. Anxiety, rather than grief or love, is seen as something mothers should “fix” rather than something that can be explored for meaning and purpose. 

Purposeful Suffering

And eX-lording differing for meaning is important! Although ongoing, research on maternal distress demonstrates that a high level of stress is a prerequisite and even predictor of maternal growth. In order to experience growth, a certain combination of personal resources and vulnerability is necessary so we can go through challenges and emerge a new version of ourselves. 

In a changing climate, our feelings are our guides to the necessary and timely adaptation the earth needs from us. Maternal ecodistress as a term is expansive, thus holding space for mothers to define their own felt experiences in relation to climate- and enviornmental-related mental health challenges and the growth that can result.


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