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Motherhood Shouldn’t Lead to Loss of Self

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 3,945,875 babies born in the United States in 2017. This means that close to as many women became mothers for the first time or welcomed another child – or children – into their families. Being a mother to an infant is hard, as women are in a position of having to integrate child-care tasks into their already busy lives. In those early months and years of their child’s life, women often juggle multiple roles (mother, wife, daughter, employee, friend, community member) and child-care responsibilities (doctor’s visits, infant feedings, taking care of other children). Sleep loss, which is common for new mothers, can make this change more difficult and lead to depressed feelings and mood swings.

Many women find themselves taking a closer look at how they spend their time after having a child. This is perfectly normal and healthy. However, it is important not to eliminate activities that are fun and relaxing, such as spending time with friends and family, exercising, reading or watching movies. In fact, feeling supported by family and friends is very important in new motherhood. Social support can help new mothers maintain their emotional balance and avoid getting overwhelmed. Too drastic a change in daily life can be painful, confusing and may lead to feelings of “loss of self.” So, while it’s true that becoming a mother requires some sacrifice, it is important for new mothers to practice self-care and to be aware of their moods and emotions. This does not mean that all changes in mood after childbirth are dangerous or will lead to postpartum depression or anxiety. Most women experience the “baby blues,” which can mean having less patience, crying more often, feeling anxious or irritable, and having trouble concentrating.

While the exact cause of baby blues is not known, it is likely due to adjustments in hormones, a change in daily activities and sleep loss. Baby blues usually last for about two weeks and should go away on their own. They do not require treatment other than good self-care, including adequate nutrition and hygiene, and support from others.  If these feelings continue or worsen, talk to a health care provider and be as honest as possible in describing symptoms. Remember, these feelings are common but require attention if they persist.  Eighty percent of women experience the baby blues, but about 1 in 7 have PPD. PPD lasts longer and can include feelings of panic, weight gain or loss, losing interest in things you normally enjoy, and being tired all the time. The most severe symptoms of PPD are thoughts of harming oneself or one’s baby. These symptoms are rare but serious. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or your child, you should report this to your healthcare provider immediately.  For more information on PPD, visit this website:  https://www.marchofdimes.org/pregnancy/postpartum-depression.aspx. While PPD tends to get most of the attention, about 1 in 10 women develop anxiety or become more anxious during the postpartum period. Considering the responsibility of having another human to take care of, this is understandable and nothing to be ashamed of.

In fact, some healthcare providers have said that, in their observation, anxiety is more common in new mothers than depression. What might anxiety feel like? Constant worry, racing thoughts and changes in appetite or ability to rest – to name a few. For more information on postpartum anxiety, visit this website:  http://www.postpartumprogress.com/the-symptoms-of-postpartum-depression-anxiety-in-plain-mama-english.  It is true that treatments, such as medication or formal counseling, which can be very helpful, must be initiated through a healthcare provider. However, there are several things you can do to help yourself daily:

  1. Surround yourself with supportive family and friends. Social support is one of the most important ingredients for maintaining mental and emotional health. Think of social support as nourishment for your heart and mind. If support is not available through friends and family, there are several online resources where moms can connect. Check out Postpartum Support International’s “Chat With an Expert” webpage: http://www.postpartum.net/chat-with-an-expert/.
  2. Maintain your own personal hygiene. Too often, women sacrifice meals, showers and sleep after having a baby. This often backfires since the mother’s health is key to the entire family’s health. By finding time to take care of yourself, you will be better able to care for your family.
  3. Don’t abandon your hobbies. We all know that becoming a mother requires re-prioritization. However, too much change can be destabilizing. Do your best to keep up with the activities that are most important to you.

Jennifer L. Barkin is associate professor of Community Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Mercer University School of Medicine

This article was originally published in the Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin Mercer Medical Moment on Wednesday, August 15, 2018.