Who’s Taking Care of Mama?
By Dr. Kristen J. Lipari, PhD and PHA Community Education Chair
Much of the conversation in postpartum focuses on caring for the baby. But what about mama? Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) impacted 15-20% of moms before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now in its midst, experts estimate the rates of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders as much higher. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have made every transition and challenge much harder. Becoming a new parent is no exception. Becoming a parent in the pandemic may bring more social isolation and a very different experience of motherhood than expected.
Baby gets several appointments following birth, but the mom gets just one, which does not occur until six weeks after delivery. Many doctors do not ask new parents about mental health symptoms during this postpartum visit. Instead this appointment often focuses on physical health; clearance for sexual activity and exercise. This means maternal mental health issues often fly under the radar, leaving many women thinking that feeling awful, anxious, sad, lonely, or guilty is just a normal part of motherhood.
Although PMADS may be unavoidable for some, we can do a lot to mitigate the impact and duration of these struggles.
First, join an expectant mother or ‘new mom’ group as early as you can.
The pandemic makes it more difficult to connect with other moms in the same boat as you. But many digital resources exist for expecting and new moms to join. Helpful online communities are available as early as conception. Some center on the due-date month; others on your geographic location. Many hospitals share resources about breastfeeding groups that meet online after mothers deliver. Also, fully operational socially distanced exercise groups provide programs for new moms locally. Check for those in your area as you prepare for postpartum. These are excellent ways to connect with others. Trust me, at 3 am doing your third feeding of the night, you want a good friend to commiserate with you by text. Find your people now!
Second, attend to your basic self-care.
By self-care I mean basic needs at first: eating, sleeping, and showering. Will all of these things happen every day? No, if your kid wakes up four times a night, you will not get the best night of rest in your life. Instead, make time for a nap the next day. If you’ve had a rough night and have a partner, enlist their help for the next night. We can’t always be on all of the time and expect that we won’t burn out. When we take good care of ourselves, we do the best for our babies too. It may feel selfish and frivolous to engage in self-care with a newborn, but I assure you, it is not.
Third, let go of all the things you have in your mind that mean you’re a “good mom.”
Parents get a lot of messages about the “good” and “bad” in us. These messages start early. They influence how we feel about medical interventions in childbirth. They can include questionable messages such as “breast is best” after delivery. If we always strive for the latest version of what society deems as perfection or try to live up to unreasonable standards, we will always feel like we are failing. So, get flexible. As a perinatal psychologist I love using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for new moms because it teaches women to change their relationship with unhelpful thoughts while embracing openness and flexibility. This goes a long way in parenting an adorable but unpredictable child.
Remember, you do not need to brave motherhood alone if you feel this way. Rather…
- SPEAK OUT if you feel anxious, inadequate, or guilty.
- FIGHT for your needs. Do not let anyone tell you that it is normal to feel this way.
- ASK for a referral to a perinatal mental health specialist.
- ENLIST the help of your partner, family, or friends. Tell them you need their help to advocate for yourself.
Choosing to improve your experience as an expectant or new mother can occur in positive ways by talking with a qualified, perinatal mental health provider. Having support and being aware of resources can go a long way in managing these struggles.