Depending on what source you refer to, 10-20% of new mothers in the US and Australia suffer from postpartum depression (PPD), also known as postnatal depression (PND).
This devastating form of depression can leave new mothers feeling hopeless, unworthy of motherhood, or even full of rage.
The impact of symptoms on both mother and baby makes this a significant public health issue.
We’ve seen legislation requiring more screening, we’ve seen some community programs and awareness, but are we doing enough?
Is it possible that our western society is creating this mental health epidemic?
In part, I believe so.
As mothers, when things are difficult, and especially if we become depressed, we look at ourselves, our bodies, and our minds, as the cause of our being ‘crazy’.
In reality, society should take much of the blame, and here’s why:
We have completely unrealistic expectations, and a massive lack of support for mothers.
We expect women to be prepared for childbirth and breastfeeding, but as a society we’re hush-hush about what they actually look like.
We expect mothers and fathers to be ready to care for a newborn, without support, while she’s recovering from childbirth, and he’s just figuring out how to hold a baby.
We tell new parents that sleep deprivation is par for the course, even if a mother’s slept just three hours in the past day or two.
6 Reasons Why Society Is Crazy (And Making New Mothers Feel Crazy)
Given the pressure, and the lack of support, it’s a wonder more women aren’t suffering from PPD.
If you’re a struggling new mother, and wondering if you’re really cut out for motherhood, you’re not crazy. Our society is.
#1: Women Aren’t Prepared For Childbirth
Birth is a life changing event. Yet, as a society, we don’t really discuss birth openly. We see silly dramatisations in the media, and few of us ever have real people telling us what to expect.
Most women aren’t aware of all their birthing options, or there are many obstacles preventing them getting the type of prenatal and birth care they want. It isn’t our societal norm to invest in birth preparation. To many, an 8 or 12-week class seems like overkill.
However, birth is the start to motherhood. And although there isn’t one right way to give birth, there are many things that can make birth harder, and more traumatic, and even increase the risk of PPD.
When a society is more open about birth, especially normal physiological birth, women can enter motherhood feeling more confident. They’re better equipped for physiological birth (which is a complex hormonal process), and even if the birth involves interventions, they can participate more actively, and make their own decisions, which also gives them more confidence.
#2: Mothers And Babies Are Separated
Mothers and babies are wired to be close to each other. This isn’t simply a preference, it’s a physiological norm for both mother and baby. In fact, there are even physical risks to separation, including an increased risk of postpartum hemorrhage.
But from a mental health standpoint, the oxytocin released at birth is an important part of the postpartum bonding and adjustment period.
As mothers move beyond the immediate postnatal period, they’re encouraged to play ‘pass the baby’ because others desire their baby fix. They are encouraged not to “spoil” their babies by holding them too much. We also see 25% of new mothers in the US returning to work just four weeks after the birth.
This doesn’t mean a mother should never put her baby down. It doesn’t mean she can’t pass the baby to someone else, and have a break. It just means that, as a society, we don’t encourage frequent close contact. Oxytocin helps a mother combat stress hormones, and cope with the demands of motherhood. It also helps calm the baby, which means less crying, and therefore less stress for mother.
#3: There’s A Whole Lot Of Breastfeeding Information But Little Support
“Breast Is Best” or “Breast milk – The Gold Standard” seemed like excellent public health campaigns. After all, we know breastfeeding can save money and lives, so it’s important to spread that information and increase breastfeeding rates, right?
Yes, from a public health perspective, we need to increase breastfeeding rates. However, putting the pressure on mothers, without actually creating a breastfeeding-friendly society can cause harm – alongside the positive effect of increasing rates.
Even when mothers initiate breastfeeding successfully, the lack of support, the need to return to work, and even the fear of breastfeeding in public, can lead to them failing to reach their personal breastfeeding goals.
Breastfeeding hormones help mothers cope with stress. If a mother is unable, or chooses not to breastfeed, it doesn’t mean she will develop PPD, or that she should feel bad or guilty. However, when a mother strongly desires to breastfeed but lacks the support to do so, hearing about all the benefits can make her feel as though she has failed, which isn’t good for mental health.
Women need healthcare professionals with up-to-date feeding education; they need practical support; and they need a society that not only expects breastfeeding, but also makes it possible (e.g. breastfeeding in public, no predatory marketing, less separation of mother and baby).
The best breastfeeding education helps women understand that there are some rare physical complications which make breastfeeding impossible, and if they fall into that category they can believe they have not failed in any way.
#4: We Don’t Let Mothers Sleep
You have a new baby. You shouldn’t expect to sleep, right? Wrong.
Certainly, you shouldn’t expect a solid 8 hours every night. However, as a human being you need sleep.
In hospitals, we spend the first 24-72 hours after the birth waking mothers every few hours to check vital signs. This does not always happen at the same times that baby is waking to eat. Clinical needs are important, but when they are coupled with a normal newborn’s needs, it often means sending home an utterly exhausted mother.
A new mother goes home with expectations that she will feed baby, swaddle him tightly, and lay him in a crib. She isn’t told he might fuss because a newborn is wired to be close to mother. She isn’t told how to keep him from getting overtired. She isn’t taught to babywear, for naps during the day, or how to co-sleep safely to maximise her rest.
Parents aren’t encouraged to tag team so both can get through the next day. They’re encouraged to buy the massive nursery set from the big box baby store, rather than spend the money on postnatal support (e.g. a postnatal doula, meal services, etc.).
And when mothers express their fatigue and frustration, they’re told it’s simply par for the course.
Yes, you’ll be more exhausted once you have a baby. But the reality is, mothers shouldn’t be fatigued into depression. They need a village, they need rest, and they need coping techniques.
#5: Mothers Are Expected To Have It All, Do It All, And Do It Alone
New mothers are expected to exclusively breastfeed, keep a job, be a stay-at-home mother, arrange play dates, take their 4-week-old to music class, get back to their pre-pregnancy fitness level, keep on top of the latest fashion (for themselves and their kids), and keep the house tidy and in order. And they’re expected to do this all on their own – and maintain their sanity at the same time.
Sure, just ignore society’s expectations. That sounds like the simple answer. However, for many mothers that not only seems impossible, it feels like they have failed.
All the things on the list are reasonable. Breastfeeding is healthy. Fitness is good. Having a fulfilling career, or staying home can be perfect choices, for different families. There’s nothing wrong with being into fashion. The problem isn’t the items on the list, but rather the lack of honesty about the impossibility of having everything on the list, at the same time, by yourself, and without losing your mind.
What new mothers really need is to understand that, even though society undervalues the therapeutic power of postpartum rest, it simply needs to be a priority.
#6: Mothers Are Isolated
Every mother’s circle will look quite different from another’s, but many mothers report feeling quite isolated. Unfortunately, the days of the village are gone. Gone, too, are the neighbourhoods, now that many mothers are out and about.
Mothers need to find their ‘village’, but it’s been made much harder. A new breastfeeding mother might be uncomfortable getting out and about while managing feeds. She might go to the playground, only to find everyone looking down at their phones. Many women go back to work and simply never find the time to connect with other mothers.
Whatever the reason for feeling isolated, the feeling isn’t helpful during postpartum adjustment. Our society needs to give priority, right from the birth, to mothers, their health, and their social interactions.
Even if you have an excellent birth experience, easy breastfeeding, and a supportive circle, you might still suffer from PPD. Sometimes our hormones just don’t adjust well postnatally. However, when a society really supports mothers, we see fewer incidences of PPD. And when PPD does occur, it’s caught and managed better, with proper medical and social support.
Ultimately, if you have PPD, it is not because you’re crazy or not cut out for motherhood. It simply means you’re a human being in need of basic support. The most important thing you can do for yourself is reach out, connect and seek out your own support network, because in today’s society, it’s not there for us unless we create it.
- What Mothers Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing by Naomi Stadlen
- A Mind Of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives by Dr Kelly Brogan (highly recommended self help book for depression)