Trying to start afresh this year? Have a bath. No, really

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

When actors do that scene in which Lady Macbeth washes imaginary blood from her hands (“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” etc), most play it slightly mad. I’d prefer them to play it deadpan, partly because it would be funny, and partly because recent research suggests that Lady Macbeth was actually performing a fairly sound bit of self-therapy.

A slew of studies by Spike W S Lee and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan looked into the power of washing as a psychological act and found something significant. Cleansing helps us get over our dark deeds: the metaphor holds.

In one study, participants had to remember a time where they had acted immorally. Those who cleaned their hands afterwards were able to get rid of the guilt. Being asked to imagine being “clean” rather than “dirty” also gave them a feeling of moral superiority; they made stricter judgements about others and felt better about themselves. With the right sanitiser, what is done evidently can be undone.

We instinctively seek this psychological comfort, too. In one experiment, subjects were asked to tell a lie by either email or voicemail. Afterwards, when given the choice, those who had lied over the phone wanted mouthwash, while those who had lied in writing were more likely to take the hand sanitiser.

Evidence suggests that we also apply the cleaning principle to others’ doings. One study found that copying out a story about someone else’s immoral behaviour increased people’s desire for cleaning products – and these were products that cleanse the outside world, such as detergent and disinfectant.

The metaphor is surprisingly strong. The researchers point out that we use the same facial expressions of disgust when we come across moral wrongdoing and contaminants – from open wounds to rotten food. The two also consistently overlap in language use.

Why might this be? Any conceptual associations will be grounded in brain structure. The brain usually builds certain functions on top of existing ones to save space – physical disgust towards bad food is likely to be an earlier adaptation (avoiding unhealthy objects and environments) and disgust towards evil doings a later one, which happens to piggyback on the same neural pathways.

Abstract reasoning (about concepts such as morality) is also often linked to direct sensory experience (seeing maggots emerging from a loaf of bread, for example), which is why images in dreams can often tell you something about your mental state.

Clean break

Washing also seems to get rid of doubts and worries outside the moral sphere. Recently cleaned people who had just made a decision (in one case, between two types of jam) needed to spend less time justifying their choice to feel all right about it. Gamblers who had just had a run of bad luck were back making risky bets again after a quick wash. It seems the trick works, whatever feeling you are trying to dispose of. 

So, if you’re looking to start the new year afresh – have a bath. It’ll make you feel better and God knows it may make those around you feel better, too.

"Bathtub acrobat" David O'Mer during a performance. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland