Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a husband whose wife’s switch from lawyer to stay-at-home-mom has triggered an obsession for diet, exercise, too much drinking, and the overscheduling of her children’s lives.

 

WineDrinking too much has been identified as an issue for stay-at-home mothers.  Image from Flickr via

Dear Dr. Ford:

I am very concerned about my wife. She is 47 and a lawyer who retired after we had our third child, who is now 5 years old.  My wife is brilliant—she was always ambitious and driven. She was a success at her law firm. She really pushed to have a third child, although we were struggling to pay full time help while she was at work and on weekends to give the kids quality time and so we could find some time together. Nine months after the birth of our last child, my wife told me that she could not do it all and that the children needed her to be at home, to direct their homework and after-school activities. We could afford for her to stay home, with four hours of help on the weekdays.

To be honest, our lives are much worse. I work until 6 or 7 every night during the week and have to travel internationally once a month for several days. My wife is often in a bad mood. The children’s lives are so scheduled that they have no free time . . . ballet, piano, chess, gymnastics, swimming, tutoring, on and on.  My wife is heavily involved in the private school the children attend. She is the head of the annual fundraiser this year and is in two parent groups, one in the kindergarten and the other in middle school. We never have date nights or time to be alone.  And our sex life is nonexistent.  “I’m too tired” is a constant refrain.

But my wife does have time to run five to six miles a day and go to spinning class with her girlfriends three times a week at 5:30 in the morning. Which leads me to my real worry. I am concerned about her obsession with dieting and her drinking. I don’t know if this is menopause or some other problem, but we need help. I used to have a glass of wine with dinner, but now that my wife has had a drink while cooking before I get home and plans to have one or two glasses of wine with dinner, I have just stopped drinking. And this makes her mad too. She cooks, but she eats very little. Green smoothie for breakfast, God knows what for lunch, and salad, salad, and salad for dinner. She eats six nuts as an afternoon snack. She weighs 105 pounds and is five-foot-five. The weight loss occurred over the last two years. I insisted that she see her doctor to make sure that she didn’t have a serious illness and she was just told to “eat more and run less.” Fat chance.

My three daughters are increasingly stressed with the tension at home. Our marriage is in trouble. I don’t know what the diagnosis is or where to start to get help, but this family is in trouble.

Henry

 

Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Henry:

The transition from work to at-home mothering is full of challenges. It can be particularly rough for a driven and ambitious woman like your wife. Imagine, for a moment, if you had to do it. What would you do with all your energy and focus?

Many women redirect their energy and focus inward, toward the family and toward themselves, but with an intensity that it not always well suited to healthy habits. There is a general trend—which may be part of what’s influencing your family—that I think of as a “culture of grooming.”

This grooming is directed both toward the children and the self. The kids are relentlessly coached, tutored, and generally rushed around from place to place (often joylessly), in the name of preparation, or “grooming,” for a bright future. While it’s true that the world today is competitive, we as parents are sacrificing our children’s happiness—and in some cases, health—for their “future.”

Meanwhile, at-home mothers can get caught up in their own form of competition and grooming: a struggle to retain control over their aging bodies. It is well known that eating disorders are the frequent result of feelings of powerlessness—and hard-driving, self-disciplined types like your wife fit the profile of women at risk for anorexia in particular.

It does seem that she is suffering from a form of eating/exercise disorder; the two are often combined. Eating disorders often continue well into middle age (and beyond), and your wife may be experiencing a relapse of an earlier problem or a new, developing one. In any case, eating disorders can be very dangerous if left untreated. While she may be maintaining her weight, rather than starving, the long-term consequences to her general health of living this way could be very serious. At the very least, she is setting a very bad example for your daughters.

Eating disorders are commonly seen as co-addictions with alcoholism as well. Whether or not your wife fits the profile for that disorder, clearly she is drinking too much. This too has been identified as an issue for stay-at-home mothers. According an article, “Why She Drinks: Women and Alcohol Abuse,” in the Wall Street Journal by Gabrielle Glaser, the author of Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink,  “social scientists . . . find a link among women who step away from their careers to be at home” and alcohol abuse. Rates of alcoholism among women are on the rise, and Glaser claims that “the more educated and well off a woman is, the more likely she is to imbibe.”

In your wife’s case, it may be that she has a family history that predisposes her to alcohol abuse, or maybe not. However, her low weight would make it very likely that even one or more drinks would have a strong effect on her and are too much on a daily basis, especially on an almost empty stomach.

Obviously your wife is involved in an inner drama and daily struggle for control that leaves her little time or energy for her marriage or other relationships (including with the children, I suspect), let alone your sex life. You are right to be worried about your family and you should seek counseling immediately. While it’s true that I’ve seen people go on like this for years, and some families even appear to be flourishing, there can be a great hidden cost. There is an emptiness to this pursuit of perfection which can only lead to Pyrrhic victories.

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