Dayna Kurtz has spent years peeling back the layers of early motherhood through clinical research and personal experience.
She is currently the director of the Anna Keefe Women’s Center at the Training Institute for Mental Health in Manhattan; she’s a licensed social worker and pre- and postnatal personal trainer, an accomplished author and contributing writer to the Huffington Post and a mother to a growing 8-year-old.
April 1 marks the due date for her new book “Mother Matters: A Holistic Guide to Being a Happy, Healthy Mom,” which explores the simple yet radical concept of mothercare — the idea that new mothers can and should prioritize their own mental, physical and emotional health.
“When I had my son … I had a very surprisingly difficult transition into motherhood,” Kurtz said. “I was primed, I thought, to be a good mother ... I had a supportive partner; I had a wonderful network of family and friends; I was financially stable; I had the desire for a child. I really thought I’d positioned myself well to kind of gracefully move into motherhood. And that was not the case.”
Kurtz struggled on all fronts, she said — coping with physical and emotional exhaustion, reclaiming her identity, hormonal recalibration, breastfeeding.
It was, in a word, overwhelming.
“I think, added to the list of things that go unsaid when women become mothers is this idea of who am I now?” Kurtz said. “It really kind of hit me like a ton of bricks.”
The transition caused Kurtz to pause and make some major changes, such as tailoring her practice to counseling new and expectant mothers and throwing herself fully into research. She strove to find evidence-based tools proven to make mothering easier, even more enjoyable.
Her first thought was exercise.
Countless studies show the more you move, the better you feel. With many mothers focused on blasting the last of their baby weight, a fitness regimen served a dual purpose.
In digging deeper, Kurtz discovered the benefits of unorthodox tools such as art therapy, meditation and acupressure.
Many new mothers crave agency, Kurtz said. “Babies eat when they want to eat, sleep when they want to sleep … So it’s hard, if not impossible, for [a mother] to feel any sense of a routine, especially early on.”
Art therapy, she said, is often an empowering tool in putting a mother back in the driver’s seat.
With a blank canvas and colored stencils in front of her, “she can make all of the choices around that,” Kurtz said. “She can decide what colors to use, when to blend the colors, when the piece is finished; she can put it down and come back and assess and re-evaluate. It gives her … a tangible way to take control of something at a moment in her life when she may otherwise feel out of control.”
Mothers can also use art therapy as a means of bonding with their children.
One exercise, Watch, Wait and Wonder, allows mothers to nestle on the floor with their babies or young toddlers and a piece of paper between them. Moms can color with their children while asking themselves guided questions: Which color did my baby choose? What is my baby doodling? Does my baby hand me the crayon or keep the crayon to him or herself?
It’s a simple, fun way to observe your baby in a different context, Kurtz said. Plus, it breaks up what often becomes the drudgery of a mommy-baby routine.
“You know, it’s eating and sleeping and burping and diapers, and eating and sleeping and burping and diapers, and maybe a walk in the stroller,” she said.
Acupressure — a form of Chinese medicine using deep, firm pressure targeting particularly sensitive points on the body — can easily be self-employed and provides enormous therapeutic postpartum benefits, Kurtz said, such as alleviating uterine cramping, enabling better sleep and reducing feelings of anxiety.
Similarly, meditation offers a host of physical and mental advantages, and can even be done while holding a baby in a björn.
Her findings, coupled with her own clinical research, were very exciting and easy to digest, Kurtz said, yet it seemed no one had compiled that data into a comprehensive self-help guide accessible to everyday moms.
So that’s what she did.
First, it was the “Mother Matters” blog for Huffington Post, with contributions to NBC’s “Today” show, ProNatal Fitness and Pop Sugar, among others.
A book grew out of that base.
“It’d be wonderful if women were discharged from hospitals or birthing centers, or even given a prescription at a homebirth, for a month or two months of these … complimentary and alternative healing modalities in a group setting,” Kurtz said. “They can be tremendously therapeutic in their own right. [But,] as with so much of women’s health care, new mothers are given short shrifts; we don’t have access to these resources.”
It’s been an interesting trajectory to here, Kurtz admitted, since there was a time she wasn’t sure she’d ever want to be a mother. In fact, once on vacation with her now husband, Kurtz said she thought his being dead set on having children might cause the two to part ways.
“In a beautiful Hollywood moment he said, ‘Well, what I want is you, and the rest will sort itself out,’” she said. “He was right, and it did.”
Today, Kurtz said she and her family are in a great place. “I think we both feel like we couldn’t be luckier. We have a terrific kiddo.”
Still, she said, mothercare is an ever-evolving process.
“My son is going to be 9 and I’m still learning who I am as his mother and what aspects of that identity I’m happy about and which ones I think need work,” she said.
The trouble in articulating those feelings is they often come with a tremendous amount of guilt, Kurtz said.
“I think there is a kind of tragic misconception that mothers’ intuition and maternal instinct are all we need to be gratified and fulfilled and feel competent in early mothering,” she said. “And for many women, that is simply not the case.”
Another piece of the puzzle is feeling free enough to share those feelings with a partner.
“It’s sort of these seismic shifts that are happening under the earth … under the surface of the relationship,” Kurtz said. “There are absolutely ways to harness this transition to actually bring couples closer, but … there have to be steps in place to consciously work at it.”
Kurtz said she tries her best to explore the gray, straddling the line between celebrating motherhood — particularly the idea motherhood is a privilege not afforded to all — while acknowledging the very real challenges many of these new mothers face.
“Until we live in a society where mothercare becomes part of our vernacular, we need to be able to know how to help ourselves,” Kurtz said. “Because we need it, because it’s hard. I hope this book is at least a step in that direction.”
To learn more about “Mother Matters” or contact Kurtz, visit daynamkurtz.com.