We tend to pay a lot of attention to pregnant women and their needs but once the child has been delivered, attention shifts to the newborn. Mom devotes all her energy to her new baby and, in many cases, neglects her own needs. A new mother often experiences overwhelming physiological and psychological transformations in life and in her body. She needs support from friends and family to regain her equilibrium.
Childbirth is an extraordinary journey for every mother. It’s the start of a new chapter in which everything is different. Pregnancy and giving birth are challenging physically and emotionally, and that is only the beginning. Life has now changed for good and centres around a new human being 24/7. Even the best-planned, most magical childbirth brings challenges. One that is often neglected is postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression or postnatal depression describes a depressive mood many women experience after childbirth. It is more common than many people realise, affecting at least one in nine new mothers. However, as some women feel uncomfortable sharing that they are experiencing depression rather than joy after childbirth, the percentage may be significantly higher.
It’s common to feel the ‘baby blues’ for a few weeks after giving birth. After all, the human you were growing inside you for nine months is now out in the world. Your body is undergoing drastic hormonal changes that affect your moods and your physiology. But if feelings of sadness, emptiness, and lack of focus continue for more than a couple of weeks, you might be experiencing postpartum depression.
This is a serious condition that requires a specialist’s attention, otherwise, it can impair the mother’s ability to carry out her daily activities, risking the safety of both mother and baby. A newborn child needs a great deal of care and attention in the coming months and years and the new mother also deserves help and compassion. If you or someone close to you just had a baby, reach out and talk to the people who care about the challenges you are experiencing.
Although other factors can contribute to postpartum depression, hormonal changes are the most common culprit because during pregnancy oestrogen and progesterone reach their highest possible levels, but directly after giving birth levels drop precipitously and soon return to pre-pregnancy status. Hormones regulate many vital bodily functions, so it should be no surprise that a sleepless new mother caught between the demands of caring for a baby and physical changes she cannot control might experience mood swings and depression.
Female sex hormones are directly linked to ‘happiness chemicals’ called endorphins. When progesterone and oestrogen levels drop, so do endorphins. Other physiological factors that contribute to postpartum depression include deep fatigue after labour, postpartum pain and recovery, the tiredness of caring for the baby, and the need to accept a lack of autonomy and a changing body.
Even so, physiological changes are only part of it.
They are urged to bond and care for a baby and be the perfect mother. Which sooner or later becomes impossible to maintain because no one can be prepared for such a life-changing event and not make mistakes (Learn more by reading the myths about pregnancy). Financial uncertainty and other new responsibilities can also make the situation worse.
You may not notice if someone you love is going through postpartum depression; you may not even notice if it’s happening to you. You might think that fatigue and sleepless nights cause sadness and lack of energy or anxiety. Many new mothers hide feelings of sadness and regret because it’s socially unacceptable not to feel happy about your bundle of joy. Some tell-tale signs to look for include:
If not treated, postpartum depression can develop into clinical depression. It is important to pay attention to the signs and ask for help before patterns of shame and harm have the chance to develop. Many women hide negative feelings because they don’t want others to see how hard it is for them to deal with the challenges of being a new parent. Friends and family members sometimes neglect a new mother without meaning to because she can no longer interact with them as she did before. This is often another unanticipated blow. As rough as they are, these feelings are normal, and we shouldn’t pretend that becoming a parent is or should be easy.
If depression persists, a child might develop an anxious attachment style, develop more slowly than other babies, or become passive. These early setbacks can eventually lead to behavioural and mental health problems for which the mother generally carry the blame. But she cannot give to her child if her own resources are lacking.
How to make the transition for new mothers easier
While mothers should be encouraged to share their struggles with people who care, there are ways society can contribute to supporting new moms.
Society provides attention and resources to expectant mothers, and then to their babies once they are born, but no one prepares mom what is to come: 24/7 responsibility made more difficult by sleepless nights, distancing from friends who don’t have children, pressure from family and from society to do things a certain way even though she may not agree, not to mention the struggles of postnatal depression.
Family doctors and healthcare practitioners must find better ways to communicate the changes new mothers will experience in their bodies and in their life situations. When a woman knows what to expect and doesn’t feel alone, she can better understand her capabilities and limitations and ask for help. Being shamed or neglected causes many women to suffer in silence, thinking they should have known what to do.
Growing a human in your body isn’t an easy job, but it’s actually the easiest bit compared to taking care of your baby, protecting them from danger while helping them grow to face challenges themselves, making sure they get a good education and find their place in the world, and most of all feel loved, secure, and connected. Parenthood is a responsibility that lasts a lifetime, and no one prepares you for all the situations you will encounter. Feeling a bit desperate, lost, and sad in a whirlwind of new responsibilities and guilty for all the things you didn’t know or could have handled better as you learn to be a parent is simply par for the course. These experiences must be normalised; they are part of the human journey. Understanding this will help those women who are needlessly feeling shame about what everyone goes through. Parenthood is about rupture and repair, as are all worthy relationships.
The belief that a woman is fulfilled only through motherhood still exists. Many women are pressured into becoming mothers even though they haven’t had enough time to come to their own conclusions. That can lead to regret and child neglect. Consider deeply what it means to bring a new human being into this world. Parenting is not only cute moments we see on social media, but also the day-to-day slog of taking care of a growing human, a constant stream of new and unexpected challenges, coming to terms with the problems in the way you and your partner were parented, and the journey of putting someone else first—someone who may be much less like you than you imagined—and loving them anyway. Do you have the resources necessary to take care of a baby? Are you ready to commit even though you can never be fully prepared? Do you have a network of friends and family who can and will support you in all the little ways as you embark on this adventure? Remember, people who are happy to pressure you into motherhood have no intention of helping you care for your babies.
Read more about Do I Want a Baby?
Motherhood is a blessing for many women, but it can be challenging even when children are dearly wanted. There’s no shame in struggling to care for a new baby, no one gives you an instruction or a plan on how everything will go. Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and guilt are normal and by keeping silent about these experiences, we contribute to the pressure new mothers feel. Postpartum depression isn’t just ‘being hormonal’, it’s a serious condition that can be overcome with love, support, and medical attention.
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