Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW
This Isn't What I Expected
We must make it safe for postpartum women to tell us how they feel.
Posted Nov 10, 2017
No one talks about the negative thoughts new mothers have after they have a baby. Not healthcare providers. Not mothers. Not family members.
It is making postpartum women sick.
Even though there is increased attention to pregnancy and postpartum mental health, we remain stunned to hear that sometimes, a mother doesn't feel so great about being a mother. There are times when it is just plain hard, exhausting, and wearisome. Sometimes, it's terrifying.
If a postpartum woman experiences anxiety after the birth of her baby, it can manifest in many ways. It can make her doubt the choices she makes. It can damage her self-esteem. It can cause her to ruminate and worry more than she has ever done before. Or, it can give rise to negative thoughts that swirl around in her head and make her feel as if she is losing her mind. But she is not.
Despite advanced public awareness and increased attention to the experience of motherhood on the whole, expectations that new mothers feel good about themselves, and particularly about their babies, remain extremely high.
Thus postpartum women do not talk about how they are really feeling.
The unspoken words often reflect a strong negative inner critic. Women fear being judged, or misunderstood, or dismissed, or deemed unfit to be a mother. They fear having their baby taken away from a mother who surely, must be crazy.
The taboo against mothers expressing negative feelings about their experiences or about their babies, operates as reinforcement for their silence. Some women try not to think about how bad they feel, hoping it will all go away by itself. Others worry that this is a permanent state of being. Still others are not sure if seeking help will make things better or worse.
This prevailing notion that mothers should endlessly radiate joy paradoxically keeps them feeling sick longer.
Postpartum women are not sure what to expect. So they often choose not to disclose the extent to which they are struggling. They pretend to be fine. They go to great lengths to look good and create the illusion that everything is in control. They often find it difficult to ask for help and spend a ton of energy making sure that everything appears perfect.
It needs to be public knowledge that anxiety is an expected part of motherhood. Even negative thoughts about being a mother and scary thoughts about harm coming to the baby are common during the postpartum period. They are common in all new parents, not just those with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Furthermore, women discover that when they talk about what they are feeling and thinking in a safe environment with someone who understands that this is a universal phenomenon, they feel better. Their anxiety decreases.
Those of us in a position to understand the nature of these thoughts want postpartum women to know:
It’s okay to talk about your negative thoughts and feelings.
The isolation and shame associated with the reluctance to disclose will make the anxiety worse. Find a safe person and let them know how you are feeling and what you are thinking. If your feelings of distress interfere with your ability to get through the day, let a healthcare professional know so find support and feel better.
Copyright 2017 Karen Kleiman