Motherhood and Your Mental Health
As soon as her baby was born, Anna felt a change. Something wasn’t right. She feared for her baby’s safety to an extreme degree. She would sit awake, staring at her baby through the night, terrified something would go wrong, and her daughter would die. After feeding, Anna wouldn’t allow herself to leave her baby’s side for even a moment, worrying something would happen in her absence.
As her daughter grew older, Anna felt intense anxiety that she was doing everything wrong: she hadn’t read to her daughter enough, she hadn’t cleaned up enough, she hadn’t completed enough puzzles with her child. Like many mothers, Anna held it together at work and with friends—the people who saw her every day didn’t know anything was wrong. But on the inside, she was bubbling over with anxiety.
One day, she found herself screaming into a pillow for release, and she knew then she needed help. As supervisor of the Northwestern Medical Center (NMC) Birthing Center in Vermont, Anna was in a knowledgeable position—she knew where to reach out for help.
Is What I’m Feeling Normal?
Feelings of depression, compulsion or anxiety do not mean a woman is a bad mother; they also do not mean she doesn’t love her baby. Many expectant mothers imagine motherhood will be fulfilling and uplifting. But when the baby is born, they may not feel that way at all. Mothers may experience depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A mother may experience PTSD as a result of a real or perceived trauma during delivery or following delivery. This can happen due to a feeling of powerlessness or a lack of support during delivery, an unplanned C-section or a newborn going to intensive care. Postpartum Support International (PSI) estimates around 9% of women experience PTSD following childbirth.
If you are experiencing anxiety, flashbacks or nightmares, you are not alone and it is not your fault.
What Should I Do If I Have These Feelings?
There are screening tools to help find troubling feelings. The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) is a 10-question screening tool that asks mothers to consider their feelings over the week leading up to the test. In the NMC Birthing Center, the EPDS is conducted after delivery, within the two or three days that a new mother stays in the hospital, two weeks after delivery and six weeks postpartum.
“[These feelings] can be easy to brush off,” Anna says. “But it’s okay to say, ‘Something isn’t right. I’m not okay.’” When a mother does say this, nurses might follow up with questions like: “Can you tell me more about that? What does it feel like?” Nurses can help attach vocabulary and understanding to certain feelings. A mother experiencing these unsettling and frightening feelings should not push them away.
Everything can feel strange following a birth, so be gentle and honest with yourself about your feelings. If you are experiencing troubling or upsetting feelings, ask your nurse or doctor if they can help you find programs and resources. Many mental health agencies offer programs that can help, or there may be counselors in your area that can offer the right kind of support.
It can be helpful to find a solid support system that encourages open, honest communication—this can make all the difference for expectant and postpartum mothers. For Anna, talking to her family and her doctor provided her with the support she needed.
Anna hopes that by sharing her story she can help more mothers feel comfortable about expressing their feelings. Every mother is on her own journey, but she need not travel alone.
Meredith Vaughn works at Northwestern Counseling & Support Services in St. Albans, Vermont, a mental health agency that employs nearly-600 staff over three direct services divisions. Meredith was an English teacher within a day-treatment facility for eight years before moving into her current role in administration and community relations. Since 2009, Meredith has worked as a freelance writer, writing about education and mental health. She lives in Vermont with her husband, Chris, and her two loveable pets, Gusty and Mallie. You can visit her website at www.meredithvaughn.com.