Motherhood is a joyous time, but taking care of a new person can be overwhelming, especially for first-time parents and caregivers. Parenting challenges multiply for mothers in recovery who are caring for children while trying to create a new life without drug and alcohol use. In addition to caring for another person, they also are working to overcome substance dependence that changes how they manage their lives.
Addiction is treatable, but long-term or frequent substance use can permanently alter how the brain works, which is why treatment is necessary for many people to get their lives back on track. How long that takes depends on the person who is undergoing rehabilitation.
Women in recovery are from all walks of life. They could be married, single, or divorced. They could be wealthy or from an economically disadvantaged household. They could have struggled with substance abuse off and on, or they may have tried substances for a while and decided to take a different road.
They may have all the support they could want, or they may not have any support from friends and family, or they might live far away from people who could help them. They may have a job, or they may be looking for one. Whatever their situation is, they have children to care for, and being a mother in recovery often comes with situations in which they might need professional help them handle.
According to the Recovery Research Institute, 70 percent of women who enter addiction treatment are mothers.
“Women entering treatment are more likely to have primary responsibility for their children, whereas the majority of fathers entering addiction treatment have another primary caretaker (e.g., mother) available,” the institute writes.
In many cases, mothers in recovery are dealing with more than adjusting to being a parent and looking out for their little one. They are also working on abstaining from harmful substances, which takes time to learn how to do. It also takes a lot of work. Once the body and mind become dependent on substances, they must learn how to do without them, and professional treatment ensures that people who detox from drugs and alcohol do so safely. This journey to a substance-free life can become more complicated when they are responsible for raising a child.
Here are three challenges that mothers in recovery face:
Many people focus on the physical part of healing from substance dependence, but the lingering psychological effects must be considered, too, for the person to become whole again. Working through them is a daily process and likely will last the entirety of a person’s life. Recovering from substance abuse and addiction is an active process that requires full participation, but so is parenting. Women must be present for both, so each mom will have to come up with her own approach to making the two work together for them.
Every mother has stressful moments that leave her yearning for a break so that she can catch her breath and regroup. Such moments are few and far between sometimes, so when they come along, many women take them, seeking whatever relief they can get. Unfortunately, some mothers use these moments to rely on alcohol, cigarettes, or harder drugs to cope with the adverse feelings they feel. They may or may not be in recovery, but either way, they can either develop an addiction or relapse right back into one.
Some women use substances to self-medicate so that they can escape pressures and self-treat mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). However, according to Healthline, self-medicating in this way can also bring on mental illness in some women.
Taking one drink or engaging in drug use one time does not automatically mean a person will go back to using substances full time. But as the pressures of being a mom mount, some women will use addictive substances to cope, causing them to abandon their sobriety and putting their lives in danger.
Mothers who are working to overcome substance addiction still struggle with cravings for drugs and alcohol, but it does not necessarily mean she is not making progress in her recovery. Whether she is breastfeeding her infant or taking care of toddlers, preschoolers, or older children, they may still desire to self-medicate if they are accustomed to using substances to help them get through the day or avoid issues they don’t want to deal with. In many cases, they receive therapy and counseling to learn how to choose healthy coping behaviors over ones that keep them dependent on harmful chemicals.
Stress is not the only reason why moms in recovery struggle with cravings. Even if a woman works to give up substances, her hormones, menstrual cycles, or menopause can trigger cravings for substances, making her vulnerable to relapse. For these reasons, women are more sensitive to the effects of substance use.
Relapse, however, does not mean a person’s treatment is a failure or a waste of time. It means the person’s treatment must be adjusted to meet their current needs. According to NIDA, relapse rates for addiction are between 40 to 60 percent, which is similar to that of other chronic illnesses.
Mothers in recovery also face unfavorable public perceptions of women who have substance use disorders. Many of the negative views against women start before their children arrive.
According to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) Brief, expectant mothers with substance use disorders face higher risks of poverty and mental health disorders as well as domestic violence. Their problems only compound after they give birth. Many face increased barriers to getting substance use treatment and resources that could help them deal with postpartum depression and other post-birth issues. The organization also says new mothers have to also deal with negative opinions about having a baby who was exposed to substance use while in the womb.
As NIDA explains, women who use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco during their pregnancy expose their unborn child to these harmful substances, which can affect their children long after they are born. Other harms are possible from substance use, including stillbirth, preterm birth, delayed fetal growth, low birth weight, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and problems with cognitive and behavioral development. Even a mother who uses substances after the child is born could face judgment if she drinks or uses while breastfeeding her child and doing other things for them.
ASTHO Brief goes on to write, “The social, civil, and criminal penalties for being a pregnant or postpartum woman living with SUD can be powerful enough to keep a woman away from the healthcare system altogether, putting both her and her infant’s health at risk.”
Stigmas such as these go beyond having a negative attitude toward people who struggle with substance addiction and dependence. These harmful views keep women in recovery from seeking help, which can turn into a matter of life or death for so many people, including mothers.
Some say women face harsher judgment for having problems with drug and alcohol abuse, even though men struggle with substance abuse, too. Gender bias can lead to discrimination against women, harming her and her child.
Helping women overcome internalized feelings of fear, shame, worthlessness, and guilt is a big step to getting them help for this urgent medical issue. ASTHO urges policymakers to improve programs and services to make it easier for women to receive prenatal and postnatal care.
Women who have children may also have situations that could involve legal action or involvement from a social service provider, and these stigmas only serve to keep them away from the people they need to talk to. Education about addiction and the challenges that come with it is one key way to address negative perceptions about substance use.
Not having the time to attend rehabilitation programs to end substance use is not always due to a lack of interest or motivation for some mothers in recovery.
According to the National Recovery Institute, women are more likely than men to run into issues with finding childcare while they attend rehabilitation regularly. Family responsibilities that fall on the mom in recovery could overwhelm her and discourage her from acquiring the tools and strategies she needs to effectively manage daily recovery life. They also can keep her from building the supportive network she needs to stay mentally and emotionally sound for the child or children in her care.
According to one analysis, some barriers to treatment are not unique to women, but authors emphasize that any factor that could hinder or deter a woman from getting help should be identified early on when she considers treatment. She will need the time to attend therapy sessions and work with others to understand her addiction and how to move forward for herself and her children.
Still, traditional expectations on who assumes caregiver roles, family dynamics, and relationships can all affect a woman’s path to recovery.
Before women became mothers in recovery from substance abuse, they were likely women with substance use disorders who needed treatment before becoming pregnant. ASTHO asserts that preexisting treatment for women who are of childbearing age and use substances is an unmet need. Once they conceive, their chances of entering a program to help them address their addictions are low.
For the women who do make it to the point where they decide to enter a treatment facility that can help them treat their misuse, they must receive the support that nurtures them and helps them find solutions to balance motherhood and recovery.
They should have access to various services that can teach them how to care for themselves and their children.
If you or someone you know is a mother in recovery who needs help with managing a substance use disorder and balancing this significant life change with motherhood, give Pathway to Hope a call today. We want to hear from you so that we can know how to help you or your loved one.
We understand that overcoming addiction requires taking one day at a time. We offer partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs as well as a supportive alumni program that connects our clients to a supportive, compassionate, and caring recovery community. No one has to walk this path alone. Give us a call today.
(January 2020). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Abuse. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-women
Recognizing Forms of Self-Medication – Healthline. from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/forms-self-medication
ASTHO. Welcome to ASTHO. PDF. from https://www.astho.org/ASTHOBriefs/Stigma-Reinforces-Barriers-to-Care-for-Pregnant-and-Postpartum-Women-with-Substance-Use-Disorder/
NIDA. “What Are the Unique Needs of Pregnant Women With Substance Use Disorders?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-second-edition/frequently-asked-questions/what-are-unique-needs-pregnant-women