Mother’s little helpers. Wine o’clock. Sleeping pills. Parents have long relied on a variety of chemicals to help them get through the day.
But modern-day expectations — along with the pressures of balancing work and home — are breeding guilt and anxiety, leading some moms and dads to look for new ways to relax without the woolly-headed side effects of alcohol or medication.
Enter cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical found in hemp and marijuana. Although the science is far from conclusive, it has been marketed as a cure-all for problems as varied as anxiety, chronic pain, inflammation, and sleep disturbances. But unlike THC, another chemical found in cannabis, it doesn’t make users high and, according to the World Health Organization, it does not appear to be addictive.
“It definitely helps when your kid punches you in the face,” said Fritz Hubig, 45, a real estate broker in Washington, D.C., and the father of a 2-year-old. “If I did not embrace meditation and CBD, I’m not sure where I’d be.”
About nine months ago, Mr. Hubig started experimenting with CBD oil at the encouragement of his brother, who has been in the cannabis industry for more than two decades. After a month or so, Mr. Hubig figured out which dosage felt right, and now estimates that his stress level has been reduced by at least half.
“Being high-strung and nervous and then having a kid, it’s like — holy smokes,” said Mr. Hubig, who works up to 80 hours a week. “I was just so worried about everything.”
CBD use is growing among all adults in the United States, not just parents. The Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research firm, says CBD sales are expected to reach $22 billion by 2022. But is it safe to use? So far, the Food and Drug Administration has approved only one drug containing CBD: Epidiolex, which is used to reduce seizures associated with two rare forms of epilepsy. The agency recently announced that it is holding a public hearing at the end of May to gather information about the safety, manufacturing, product quality and marketing of cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds, including CBD.
The chemical is making headlines in part because of a new law. The 2018 farm bill legalized the production of hemp, which is defined as cannabis containing less than 0.3 percent THC, a move that is expected to help CBD vendors. But the F.D.A. said on its website that it does not permit CBD to be sold as dietary supplements or in food that crosses state lines, and has sent warning letters to several companies marketing products containing CBD.
Despite the need for more scientific information about CBD and its long-term effects on the body, CBD products are everywhere, including coffee, cocktails and ice cream. It also appears in oils, salves, powder, bath bombs, gummies — even sexual lubricants.
“It’s important for people to know that there’s been no research at all on the CBD products that are sold online or in stores,” said Dr. Esther Blessing, an assistant professor of psychiatry at N.Y.U. Langone Health who has been studying CBD for about five years. “There’s no safety net here.”
While some companies selling CBD products perform third-party lab testing and tout rigorous protocols to ensure purity, there isn’t central regulatory oversight to ensure high standards, which means there’s plenty of snake oil.
A 2017 study analyzing 84 CBD products from 31 different companies found that the amount of CBD on the label was often inaccurate. Perhaps most concerning, THC was detected in 18 of the 84 samples. Some of the products had levels of THC roughly equivalent to “a few deep puffs” on a joint, according to Dr. Brian F. Thomas, one of the authors of the study and a senior research scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute.
But the inadequate oversight of these products hasn’t stopped people from buying them. In fact, some users swear by their CBD products, and say it has become a balm for the pressures of parenting.
Jen Bernstein, 38, the mother of a 3-year-old, uses CBD to help her sleep and decompress.
“I’m less likely to scream and freak out that there’s, you know, hot pink Play-Doh smushed into the carpet,” she said. “It kind of washes away the day’s stress.”
So instead of having a glass of wine, at the end of the day, Ms. Bernstein prefers to eat CBD gummies.
“Eating a gummy it’s just kind of like, you know what? She’s 3, I don’t have to take it personally that she’s not eating my food. She’s just picky right now,” she said of her daughter, adding, “I don’t have to sweat the small stuff.”
Last year Ms. Bernstein co-founded Women’s Cannabis Club in New York City, which holds events for women interested in cannabis, art, culture and science. A recent workshop, headlined by a urologist, explored how CBD can enhance one’s sex life. So far the club has more than 500 followers on Instagram and an active membership of about 50 women, many of them mothers, Ms. Bernstein said. She and her co-founders are planning to create a similar club in Boston this year.
Ellie Zitsman, the mother of a 3-year-old, joined the New York club last year.
She takes CBD oil a few times a week to help her sleep better, and as an antidote to “having to be on all the time as a parent.”
“I have a pretty high-stress job,” said Ms. Zitsman, 33, who is the head of research and development at Van Leeuwen Ice Cream in Brooklyn — a company that debuted a CBD ice cream flavor before New York City cracked down on CBD edibles. “I have a hard time with my mind kind of settling at the end of the day.”
Families in the United States face anxiety-provoking challenges, especially when juggling home life and work, researchers say. There is no federally mandated paid parental leave, no universal child care, no universal health care — the list goes on.
That makes parenting hard in “a new, novel and increasingly frightening way,” said Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. “Exhaustion, chronic stress, little exercise and free time — these have public health consequences.”
Parents today also tend to spend more time working, said Dr. Elizabeth M. Fitelson, a perinatal psychiatrist and director of the Women’s Program at the Columbia University Medical Center’s department of psychiatry.
In addition, she said, it can sometimes seem as though “there are a million and one ways to do parenting wrong and there are plenty of people willing to tell you so.”
Over the last year, she added, some of her patients have asked about CBD oil and its effectiveness for anxiety or insomnia.
“If someone tells me they’re using it and it’s helpful for them and it doesn’t appear to be causing side effects, I’m not judgmental about it,” she said. “But because we just don’t know enough about it, it certainly wouldn’t be anything I would recommend.”
Tara-Lynn Bailey, 25, a student and the mother of two young children in Proctor, Okla., has been taking CBD oil to help calm her anxiety for about a year.
“I feel like it’s just made my life easier,” she said. “I don’t want to call it magical,” she added, but she feels “1,000 times better” when she uses it.
Dr. Blessing, who is studying the effects of CBD on PTSD, said the results of her clinical trials won’t be available for years. Until more clinical trials are performed, there is only preliminary evidence to show that purified CBD can reduce anxiety, she added.
When it comes to CBD, “there are worse things, for sure,” said Dr. Lucy Hutner, a reproductive psychiatrist in New York City. But, she added, if parents are feeling anxious, that can also be an opportunity to model mindful and effective ways to cope with stress for their children as an alternative to using a substance. In any case, parents need to be kind to themselves.
“We’re all doing parenting in the way we do best,” she said. “Nobody does it perfectly.”