Expectant Parents Mental Health Check-In with The Motherhood Center

Park Slope Parents and The Motherhood Center have been holding mental health check-ins for expectant parents since 2020. The article below is a summary of many of these webinars.  The information below will help prepare you for what may be your reality with your new baby vs. the idealized expectations that some people do not experience during childbirth and in their baby's first year. 

For more, check out the Park Slope Parents Birthing Toolkit, which has tons of resources and words of wisdom to help you through pregnancy and delivery in the time of coronavirus—including a full section on Caring for Your Mental Health.

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 Becoming a parent is one of the most amazing, sometimes beautiful, many times wonderful things you will probably ever do. It can also be the hardest.  There's a dialectic, a Both/And, to becoming a parent.  You can experience bliss, joy, and excitement. You can also feel like it's hard, frustrating, and stressful.  Holding both of those feelings is perfectly normal. 

The Common Myths of Parenthood below will help you prepare for the reality of parenthood, help make you aware of some things that MAY come up for you, and help you understand when you are experiencing real parenthood or, possibly, a PMAD (perinatal mood or anxiety disorder).  Awareness is key-- you may not experience any of these issues (yay!), but know that the vast majority of the things you're feeling are perfectly normal.  The good news is that if you are needing help for more severe issues, help is close by and you can get back on track.  These myths, and their truths, are not mutually exclusive; you can hold many or none. 

Think through these Common Myths of Parenthood and work on letting go of high expectations before you welcome a new baby.

Parenthood Myth: Pregnancy and postpartum is natural, easy, and blissful like all the commercials and social media posts that surround me.

Everywhere you look on social media you'll see very romanticized versions of what new parenthood should be, with celebrities and their great postpartum bodies, coiffed makeup, and perfect babies.  Remember that most people tend to post only photos that represent the best parts of their parenting journey. Being bombarded with these images may make you feel shameful or like a failure, but in truth you’re just experiencing REAL parenthood. Take photos of the great times and take photos of the not-so-great times too. 

We’re all going to do this differently. Social comparison can be a hindrance to your mental health. If another couple is doing it differently than you, that’s okay. Limit your exposure to social media if it doesn’t feel good. You do YOU and be where you are. 

Parenthood Myth: I will experience my exact birth plan or give birth “naturally.”

If things don’t happen like you expect, it’s okay to be disappointed. Strive for flexibility, knowing that life, and especially childbirth, doesn't always happen like you expect.  We at PSP like to say, call it a WISH LIST rather than a birth plan.  Even the subtle difference in wording can help you be less disapointed when the "plan" doesn't happen exactly as you might expect. 

Note: The pandemic's aftermath has led to fewer staff at hospitals. This leads to high caseloads, some burn-out, and less experienced nurses who need time to ramp up. This is slowly changing, but if you're having a hospital birth, go in with this awareness and try to give hospital staff grace. As one RN told us, “Whoever is sickest gets the most attention,” and “We don't mean to ignore people's simple requests, but sometimes, depending on what else is going on, these requests fall down on the priority list.” Again, lowering expectations and being pleasantly surprised is good here. 

Parenthood Myth: I will automatically 100% love and bond with my baby upon birth - UNCONDITIONALLY. 

 If that “moment” doesn’t happen for you right away, it’s okay. If you're the birthing parent, being handed your baby after hours and hours of what could be exhausting labor does not always lead to feeling an instant bond with your baby. You may also just not be a "baby" person.  It takes time to develop a relationship with ANYBODY—if you’re partnered, for instance, did you fall in love the first time you met your partner? Emotions can be particularly fraught when it comes to falling in love with a baby who has turned your world upside down and changed your identity, freedom, and flexibility. It can be difficult to feel so much love toward someone who has caused so much upheaval.

Throw away the idea of “should.” The thoughts in your head that say “I should feel blissful” or “I should be madly in love with my baby” can be ways of talking yourself out of your feelings. Instead, allow yourself to experience those feelings, accept them, and breathe through them.  Remember, you can feel both love and loss at the same time. 

Becoming a new parent is a journey, in much the same way that becoming an adolescent is a journey. Both even have raging hormones!  Check out NPR's article on How to navigate matrescence – the ups and downs of new motherhood.

That said, if it has been weeks and months and you don’t feel yourself bonding with your baby, you may want to seek support for symptoms of PMADs from an organization like The Motherhood Center. You can learn more about PMADs and find support here on the PSP website. 

In truth, breastfeeding is challenging for many parents.  It can take both you and the baby time to learn what they are doing.  Some people experience pain when feeding. You can have cracked nipples, undersupply, or oversupply. Keeping up with these challenges and keeping the baby fed may feel like a full-time job. You may feel all sorts of things during breastfeeding, from joy to sadness if it's difficult and not coming easily. Remember—fed is best, whether that means breastfeeding only, formula only, or a combination of both.

PSP has a roster of member-recommended lactation consultants to get you started. Parents in our Birth 411 events advise parents birthing in a hospital to take advantage of any on site lactation help available as well as having a number for a lactation consultant to call when you leave the hospital. 

Just like any new exercise, breastfeeding takes practice. It can definitly hurt at first, and there can be bumps along the way. With practice, and help, it can get a lot better and be an amazing experience for most folks.   A few things that can make breastfeeding easier are hydrating (keep bottles of water all over your house!), snacking on protein like nuts and hard-boiled eggs, working with a lactation consultant (have names and contact info of consultants on hand BEFORE you go to the hospital), and letting your partner help wherever possible. 

Parenthood Myth: Since I am the parent who goes to work, I need to relax when I get home and sleep as much as possible at night. 

If you are the one working outside the home, you need to give your partner a break. This can feel like double duty for the first few months, but it will get easier.   Time can fly by for the person at home, and they may feel they didn't get anything done, despite being "on" all day. Yes, it can seem crazy when your baby sleeps for 16 hours a day, but with new babies, especially the first 6 to 8 weeks, there’s such a large learning curve that there’s many times the person at home doesn't even have a chance to shower.

Think through what you want to do for leave. If you're partnered, consider a staggered leave. Being home together can be a great start to bonding as a family, but having both parents caregive separately can give everyone a chance to bond in their own way without there being another person around.  You and your partner will have more equal footing in the parenting process. If you can't make that happen, have your partner can take on the full day’s duties one day to them understand that it’s not all bon bons, baby meetups, and happy hours. 

Parenthood Myth: Aiming to be a “good enough” parent is not good enough—it is better to strive to be the perfect parent.

If we strive to protect our kids by being “perfect,” that comes at the expense of being real. Letting our kids experience and tolerate discomfort and disappointment at times, and letting them feel a range of different emotions helps prepare them to be strong and resilient in life. Your failings can benefits their growth. 

Be kind and compassionate with yourself. You’re doing the best you can, and that is good enough. Come up with a mantra to help you squelch some of the “I’m not good enough” thoughts and feelings and put it up on the fridge and on your home screen as a reminder. If you don’t feel like doing things, whether that’s work, the dishes, exercise, or laundry, give yourself a break and let yourself put them off. Integrate self-care as much as possible into every day.

Similarly, feeling overwhelmed is normal. You may need to consider the different ways you’re going to cut yourself some slack. For instance, if you have a toddler and a baby, be okay with more screen-time right now. If you and your partner normally cook from scratch every night, be okay with delivery right now.

 

 

 Parenthood Myth: Partners will have a smooth transition into their new identities as parents.

You and your partner (if you’re partnered) may have an expectation that your newfound love for the baby will override your longing for who you were as individuals and as a couple before you became parents. In reality, you may feel a sense of loss and grief around “who you used to be.”  Staying in bed until noon, brunch on Sundays, road trips may be a thing of the past for the first few years.  It makes sense you might miss your "old life."  You can love your old life AND love your baby; it's that both/and experience. 

In particular, it can be difficult to experience the loss of structure and control that comes with having a baby, particularly if you already have a Type A personality. Life with a new baby is messy, and you may miss the ability to live life through checking boxes and completing to-do lists. You may like to have your house "just so."  That may not be possible with stacks of laundry piling up, diaper delivery boxes to put away, and dishes piling up in the sink.  Practicing before the baby comes by leaving clothes on the floor, dishes on the nightstand, and supplies on the bathroom sink to help you prepare for the upheaval. 

Parenthood Myth: Caring for a baby is all about managing what is right in front of you.

There’s a lot of “mental load” when it comes to caring for a new little one. Do we need more diapers soon? Do I need to pump? What do I need to take with me to tomorrow’s pediatrician appointment? While you need to live in the present, there are lots of things outside of what’s right in front of you that you’re managing with a new baby. If you can put systems in place to help with this extra work, it will help free your mind from trying to remember things.  Ideas include keeping a list of items you need to buy on the fridge, or a Google Keep list shared with your partner online.  

 

Parenthood Myth: My relationship with my partner will be stronger than ever after we have kids, and we will always have a 50/50 split of responsibility.

New parenthood creates a profound change in your relationship with your partner. Hang-out time may be stilted, and normal activities may be put on pause. Birthing parents may take on and experience “the mental load”—the many invisible things you do for your family that are necessary but go unnoticed, only drawing attention if they DON’T get done. Many parents may not feel justified in urging their partners to take on some of this load (especially if the partner is working), and that may lead to anger and frustration. Discuss this with your partner before the baby comes and find ways to work toward equal parenting. 

Research from the Pew Center showed that sharing household chores ranked third in importance on a list of nine items associated with successful marriages—ahead of common interests and adequate income. Talk to your partner and find ways that they can feel like they’re helping when you’re tied up with pumping or breastfeeding—it could be as simple as fetching snacks and water for you. If one parent is breastfeeding/pumping, the other partner can do everything else except the act of breastfeeding (burping, cleaning bottles, helping with breastmilk storage). 

In reality, division of labor can be a point of contention for many couples. One cause can be “maternal gatekeeping,” a mother’s protective beliefs about how much and whether a father/partner should be involved in their children’s lives. Maternal gatekeeping is composed of conscious and unconscious acts such as:

-Criticizing fathers/partners for their involvement in care

-Holding very high standards that they believe can only be achieved by a mother

-A reluctance to relinquish responsibilities.

Some moms may also feel that, because they were not working and making money during part or all of their pregnancy, they must be good at being a mother as a form of justification. In turn, when moms take on all the work, they can begin feeling resentful and lonely and partners/dads can feel shamed and criticized, leading to a negative cycle. Moms may also feel an impulse to look over their partners’ shoulder as they’re taking care of the baby or to give directions preemptively rather than letting their partner figure it out by themselves, which contributes to the cycle.

Fortunately, there are ways to combat these negative patterns:

Practice before the baby comes. Partners can practice things like cooking and caring for baby, and moms can practice resisting the impulse to say, “that’s not how you do it.” Work on these skills now, and it will be easier to continue them after the baby is born.

Embrace differences. Even if your partner rocks the baby differently than you do, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it wrong. Focus on safety—perhaps you can comment if your partner is buckling the car seat incorrectly but hold back if it’s something that’s more of a matter of preference.

Make time for yourself. Getting out of the house and into the world while your partner or trusted caregiver is watching the baby can lend you some perspective.

Learn together. Invite your partner to read parenting websites, message boards, and books with you so they understand what you’re thinking about and going through.

Schedule a date night. Take a class or go to dinner together—anything that helps you and your partner bond and regain equal footing.

Organize your daily responsibilities together. Consider a shared calendar or email account, or set emails from certain addresses to forward to the other person so you’re both looped in. Dividing and conquering will help things feel easier.

Check out the books Equal Partners and Fair Play for resources on division of labor and new vocabulary that aims to change the way you think and talk about your domestic life. 

Download the Gottman Card Decks app, which offers helpful questions, statements, and ideas for improving your relationship.

 Also, discuss the five love languages and find out what each partner might need. This may change after the baby, since skin to skin contact may lessen the need for touch from your partner. For one, it could be words of affirmation (“you’re doing amazing”), and for others, it could be acts of service (bringing breakfast in bed). Talk all of this out now—with the understanding that things might shift after baby is born—so that you can start practicing.

Parenthood Myth: Seeing my partner become a parent will make me desire them even more. 

With the impact of new parenting, your relationship may take a back seat to caring for the helpless baby you and your partner have. Since we've discussed needing to have times without the baby (and without just co-viewing shows together), know that you may also not be feeling turned on by anything right now. There can be some complex feelings around your partner becoming a parent that come up. 

Everyone has different love languages, and those languages may change after you have a baby. Maybe your love language used to be physical touch, but with a baby relying on you 24/7, you feel “touched out” and start to prefer acts of service. Be open to these changes and communicate them to your partner.

  

 

Parenthood Myth: As a father/partner, you need to fix “it.”

Dads/partners may operate from a “reasonable” mindset—one that is cool, rational, and task-focused, with a desire to go in and make things better whenever there is a difficult situation. It is common for dads/partners to look at a situation with the baby from the “Reasonable Mind” whereas moms/birthing parents are seeing through an “Emotional Mind” lens (jumping to the worst possible conclusions and viewing situations with the baby as black-and-white or all-or-nothing).

Watch this video: "It’s not about the nail," to help you better understand that it's not always about "fixing it."

  Dads/partners may feel an impulse to fix “it” by saying things like, “You’re overreacting,” “everything is fine,” and “just do [blank] and everything will be okay.” Instead, try: 

-Telling your partner what you are seeing. “I can see that you are in a lot of distress right now because the baby didn’t take a two-hour nap today.”

-Asking questions/being curious. “Tell me more about what you are most worried about.”

-Validating your partner. “I can understand how and why this would stress you out.”

-Offering another possible perspective. “It seems like other days this week, the baby’s nap was two hours. He didn’t sleep that long today, but there is a good chance he might tomorrow considering the success of other days.”

-Establishing a code word or sign for when things get really tense and you both need a 15-minute time-out.

-Using “I” statements to avoid blaming.

-Expressing vulnerable emotions (underneath anger). Anger as an emotion is easy to go to, but it’s typically cloaking another emotion.

-Pointing out things your partner is doing well.

-Being clear about what you need.

-Focusing on “good enough” parenting and that perfection is not achievable.

-Getting back to basics by considering and talking about each other’s love languages.

-Setting aside 10+ minutes to be with each other each day.

-Asking for breaks to get time alone.  You don't have to leave the house. A shower in the dark can be a great escape. 

-Asking for help. Move past the idea that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Practice asking for help on a regular basis, both with your partner and with others.

Think of letting people help as a gift to another person, whether that means picking out items for the baby, making you meals, buying you groceries and postpartum supplies, or doing a Costco run. Ask fellow parent friends to text you encouragement or have them put together a baby album of new photos. Don’t feel obligated to send thank-you notes for all of this helping, but if you do, you can even have a friend help with the notes!

 

Parenthood Myth: Postpartum depression won't happen to me, and if it does, I'll be able to get through on my own.

In reality, if the birthing partner is having a hard time, they may feel like they’re drowning and their partner may be the only one who’s able to recognize that and help them find help. One in five women/birthing people experience a PMAD.  Tthe vast marjority of cases go undiagnosed, in part because moms and birthing parents may resist letting others know that they are struggling because of feelings of shame, stigma, and fear and expectations that everything should be perfect and happy. 

Presentation of PMADs can include depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and postpartum psychosis. It can look like:

-Overfixating on the baby’s health or their own; inability to "turn off the brain"

-Low mood, sandness, helplessness, hopelessness that is not going away

-Intrusive thoughts (“Something is going to happen to the baby”) to an intense and continuing degree

-Difficulty making decisions

-Tension, nightmares, flashbacks

-Not finding joy

-Feeling stuck, trapped, or like they made a mistake and want their old life back

-Not feeling connected to the baby after weeks or months.

It's important for partners/friends/family  to recognize PMADs. Birthing parents can feel like they are lost and barely surviving and can't see that they need help. 

The good news is that PMADs are very common (presenting in one of four perinatal women) and extremely treatable via therapy and/or medication. Learn more about PMADs and find support here on the PSP website.

P.S. Postpartum mental health is a men's issue too. One in ten dads gets postpartum depression, and up to 18% develop a clinically significant anxiety disorder at some point during the pregnancy or the first year postpartum. That can manifest in other symptoms, including anger, irritability, sudden outbursts, withdrawing from relationships, poor concentration, and low motivation. Find help for dads here from Postpartum Support International.

Things to Read: 

 

You may not experience any of uncomfortable feelings listed above when you have a baby. Life may be just like the social media posts, your relationships are not tested, and life is perfect. Then again, you might see a few of these things pop up in your parenting journey and be able to say, "oh, that's both normal and understandable. MUCH GOOD LUCK on your parenting journey. 

The Motherhood Center is available and has support groups and personalized programs to help you. We thank them for their continued partnership on these events. 


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