It’s OK To Not Feel OK :: 5 Ways to Support Your Maternal Mental Health

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Remember adolescence? Raging hormonal shifts. Rapid physical growth and development. Significant changes in roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Reconfiguring social support with family and friends. As a society, we generally understand these changes and make reasonable accommodations for young people coming of age. What we often overlook is another point in human development marked by these same characteristics: emergence into motherhood.

It may go without saying that the changes a woman encounters in early child rearing years are nothing if not dramatic. A recent stumble upon a Ted Talk by Alexandra Sacks, MD offered so much clarity to my own motherhood experience; she introduced me to the concept of matrescenceAurelie Athen defines this as:

“a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond . . . The scope of the changes encompass multiple domains — bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual — and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence.”

In other words, becoming a mom is a whole lot like going through puberty! For a long time, I thought my difficult experiences transitioning into motherhood meant something was wrong with how I was doing it. Postpartum depression didn’t seem like the right label, but I didn’t think what I was feeling was normal. Emotions, particularly anger, felt way out of proportion and not like me. I was hard on myself about this. But now as I consider the gigantic changes I went through in such a short period of time, it’s no wonder I felt off!

We Need To Talk

If you spend much time reading Birmingham Moms Blog articles, you may notice a trend. We like to confront the misconception that motherhood should feel effortless. The truth is, it doesn’t always come easily or feel rewarding. It can wear down our joy and patience in unexpected ways. Unfair expectations leave many women thinking they’re doing motherhood wrong. The beautiful concept of matrescense normalizes these experiences and encourages conversation. For most mothers, these are hard times. This is not a sign we’re bad at the job.

With that said, postpartum mental health issues are frequently under-diagnosed and often serious. As many as 1 in 5 women will experience some type of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMADs) during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. We often hear about depression following birth, but other mental health symptoms can surface as well. An estimated 70% of women will downplay or hide their symptoms for a variety of reasons. Women of color are even more likely to not disclose symptoms for fear of biased judgment by medical professionals and child welfare services.

When mothers suffer in silence, the whole family is impacted. So perhaps the reverse is true. When women share their experiences with one another, the shame can diminish, the fear can subside, and we can work together to support one another and strengthen our families.

5 Ways to Support Your Maternal Mental Health

When a body is experiencing mental health concerns, it often responds with sending signals as though we’re physically sick — isolate, sleep, minimize food intake, etc. While this makes sense, the problem is that these are the very actions which perpetuate mental illness. While responding differently to these signals is very difficult, it’s critical for healing.

On this World Maternal Mental Health Day, here are five suggested M’s to gently support your mental and emotional well-being.

  1. Mommas-only time: Where would I be without the presence of other women in my life? This may look like a date with a friend after kids’ bedtimes, or joining a motherhood support group. Whatever fits you, find some moms with whom you can be authentic.
  2. Movement: We all know that exercise is one of those things we should do, but having the time/money/energy to get to the gym can be tough. For me, movement often looks like taking a short walk up the street, having a brief dance party around the house, or teaching my son fun yoga postures. 
  3. Meditation: Even five minutes of just sitting with our breath can make a difference in the way we respond to life. Many resources exist for cultivating a meditation practice, such as Headspace and Mindful.org.
  4. Music: I keep multiple playlists (that don’t involve Disney tunes) I can turn on to lift my mood and ease my worries. Playable with the click of a button, these lists got me through the hardest season of early motherhood.
  5. Menu: Sometimes self-care means consuming that doughnut and coffee I want. Sometimes it means limiting my sugar, caffeine, and processed food intake when I know that leaves me feeling sluggish or more anxious. My dietary needs changed significantly postpartum. Tune into what makes you feel good longer term, not just what’s immediately satisfying.

When To Seek Professional Support

There is no requirement to meet the markers of depression or anxiety to seek therapeutic support. Wellness is not merely the absence of disease! Supporting yourself with the help of a therapist can be a positive and valid step at any point in life. However, there are times that extra support for your mental health may be essential.

Symptoms may include noticing yourself feeling down and depressed, overwhelmingly fatigued, withdrawn and socially isolated, or not motivated to engage in regular activities. Intense anxiety, panic, irritability, and anger can also be signs. Women may find bonding with the baby or others difficult, and at its most severe form, women with postpartum concerns may have thoughts of harming themselves or others.

If you or someone you love is experiencing these symptoms, help is available. Seek support from your medical professional or the aid of a mental health therapist. If thoughts of harm towards self or others appear to be present, seek immediate care through the Crisis Center or your local emergency room. You do not have to suffer in silence.