The pain hit when Dr. Darria Long Gillespie tried to get out of bed.
Her hands and feet were swollen and aching. At the time, she was in residency at Yale. She had to see patients, but had trouble walking or standing for long periods of time.
She was eventually diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis that would require biweekly injections of medication to control symptoms. It marked a turning point in her life.
“When I was told that my health has to be this way, I knew every other woman was hearing it but may not have the resources to not take no for an answer,” she said.
Now the married mother of two, who weaned herself from the arthritis medication in 2011, has become an advocate for women’s health, particularly mothers — who she believes are increasingly in peril.
Women are experiencing chronic stress — and at younger ages, said Long Gillespie, 40, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. “That is likely due to our lifestyles and that is scary, but it also provides some promise. … We can figure it out.”
U.S. women are being pushed to the limit by a society they feel expects them to be as invested in motherhood as they are in the traditional workforce, while offering little assistance for them to fully realize both roles, said Amy Westervelt, author of “Forget Having It All.”
As a corporate employee and a mom of a 1-year-old, Kristen Watt has felt the pressure. Her husband, a consultant, is out of town four days a week.
“The stresses are constant and the guilt is the thing that no one really prepares you for,” she said. “As women, we put a high burden on ourselves to be all things to all people at all times and it just isn’t realistic.”
Though her financial services company has made strides in creating balance for employees — she has flex time and the ability to work remotely — Watt, 31, said many companies have yet to make the kind of systemic changes that do not put motherhood and work in opposition. “What makes it difficult is when you are a parent and you feel like you are getting a special concession because you are a parent,” Watt said. “That is a systemic problem with organizations in general.”
In 2006, Dr. Anna Cabeca became the patient. It was the year her 18-month-old son died in a drowning incident.
Her son’s death plunged her into early menopause and ovarian failure at age 38. Cabeca wanted more children, but doctors gave her no hope.
She delved into integrative medicine. She increased plant-based foods in her diet and took her family on a yearlong sojourn with stops in Australia and Indonesia where she climbed mountains and met with a traditional healer. In 2008, her youngest daughter was born.
Still, Cabeca grappled with the effects of grief. She and her husband were unable to overcome the stress and divorced, leaving her as a single, working mom of four daughters. She suffered from insomnia, sleeping about three hours a night. She began experiencing brain fog. When she found herself facing menopause for the second time, she resorted to a carb-restricted diet but found herself irritable and on edge.
Cabeca 52, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, believed chronic stress was creating an acidic environment in her body and making her feel bad, so she added more alkaline foods, including low-carb grains and plant-based foods. Over time, she could think more clearly and lost the stubborn 20 pounds that had seemed to pile on overnight.
But while nutrition is important, it is only part of the solution, she said. “It is about 25 percent what we eat, but when we eat, how we eat, the emotions we are eating and who we are eating with is going to affect our physiology,” Cabeca said.
Debra Shigley, 39, a mom of five younger than 8, realized somewhere around child number four that the perfectionist strictures no longer applied to her. “When you have a lot of kids, everyone assumes it is chaos, so there is less pressure to do everything perfectly,” she said.
Still, she employs several methods to keep life running smoothly — listening to motivational podcasts during her drives, a weekly Pilates class, opting into a local produce delivery service. At the end of her toughest days, she gives herself a big hug and tells herself that she did a great job.
Long Gillespie, who wrote “Mom Hacks,” said those are the kind of changes women can take to inch closer to full-on lifestyle changes. If you have trouble waking up in the morning, set your thermostat to start warming the house an hour before wake-up time. Time-restricted eating — in nine- or 12-hour intervals — can help you lose weight naturally rather than struggling with restrictive diets.
“If you just do one hack — one minimum viable action — you will feel more in control,” she said.
Cabeca added, “Never give up on yourself, and know you can be better tomorrow no matter what diagnosis you have been given today.”