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Maternal Mental Health: Motherhood & Self-Discovery

May 16th, 2024

  • 1 in 5 women develop mental health or substance abuse disorders in pregnancy or the 1st year postpartum, 50% go untreated
  • The US has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country, 20% of those deaths are attributed to preventable suicide
  • Of the top 40 wealthiest countries in the world, the US ranks last in maternity leave, offering no government mandated paid leave.
  • The average woman takes 10 weeks maternity leave, the majority of that is unpaid.

When I became a mother for the first time, I was mostly unaware of the shocking statistics I just shared above. As a therapist I had some knowledge and training in screening for and treating postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, but I didn’t fully understand the root causes. Is it the hormonal changes? Lack of sleep? Missed connection with friends? Increased pressure to balance motherhood and work? Perhaps a messy combination of all those and more?

In my current work with pregnant and postpartum mothers I often speak to them about a grieving period after the baby arrives. The feeling of loss of the woman they used to be as they navigate who they are now, as a new mom. The most well intentioned of mothers often forget that just because they are excited to become a new mom doesn’t mean they won’t miss the life they had; autonomy, financial freedom, the 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

The 2024 theme for Maternal Mental Health Month is “Re-Discovering You.” I interpret this as the journey each mother takes through that grieving of who she used to be as she settles into her role as mom.

Sleep Deprivation During Pregnancy and Postpartum

In March of 2020 I brought home a perfect little baby girl, who hated sleeping at night. I had already spent the last few months of pregnancy too uncomfortable to sleep well, and now that I finally could get comfortable, I was being woken up every hour or so to feed/hold my sweet girl. My experience is not unique, on average, babies start sleeping through the night at 6-12 months old.

A study found that parents on average lose about 4.5 hours of sleep per night in the first year after having a baby. In total that is two full months of sleep per year parents miss out on. Sleep deprivation can cause dire consequences to the human brain including lack of focus, becoming more accident prone, emotional instability and a decreased ability to handle stress.

Long term sleep deprivation is linked to cognitive decline and dementia. Sleep deprivation can also cause health problems such as lowered immune function, high blood pressure and even stroke.

I find myself incredibly grateful that my second child has been a far bigger fan of sleep than his older sister and generally allows us to sleep a reasonable number of hours per night. Even with this extra sleep, I often find myself more tired than I was before children and more tired than I was with just one child.

Coping with Body Transformation After Pregnancy

Organs shift as the uterus expands, feet swell, breasts grow, movement becomes harder; the joys of pregnancy. Prior to pregnancy I was an avid runner, in my free time I participated in races, did competitions like Tough Mudder and had a great appreciation for my body and what it could do.

Navigating the changes in pregnancy was hard and recovering from childbirth was even harder. After giving birth, women face many challenges such as healing the wound in their uterus, managing postpartum bleeding, and, in some cases, caring for stitches from tears or a C-section. For many, this period also involves a sense of mourning for the loss of the body they once knew.

Motherhood is a Full Time Job

I recall my doctor telling me the best way to heal from birth is to walk an hour a day. An HOUR?! Who has the time? My clients often ask me, when will I “go back” to being the wife, friend, daughter I used to be before the baby? My answer—You won’t. After having a child, things can never be “the same” and it isn’t helpful to strive for that. Being a mother takes time. The mental load is heavy.

We must make time to play with the baby, feed the baby, set up childcare for the baby, make sure the baby has diapers, wipes, clothes, toys, the list goes on and on. Time should not be a luxury in motherhood. We should not have to choose between maintaining our careers, practicing basic self-care, and being present for our children.

However, With no mandated paid leave and immense pressure to return to work quickly, it's not surprising that one in five women experience postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety.

For context Canada offers 12-18 months of leave, the UK has 26 weeks and Australia has 18 weeks paid with an option to go to 52 weeks if unpaid. If you are wondering if the maternal suicide rates in those countries are lower, the answer is yes, they are much lower.

With the lack of care we have for mothers in the US, I wonder how any of us can ever expect to “rediscover” ourselves. Time is a luxury, year after year we continue to hold the highest maternal mortality rates of any industrialized nation with no changes to the status quo.

We are sleep-deprived, our bodies have changed, and statistically, we receive inadequate support both financially and for our mental health.

Motherhood vs Career

Research consistently shows that a strong parental bond, particularly with the mother, is a key indicator of future mental health stability and successful adult relationships. Yet, with an average of just 10 weeks of mostly unpaid maternity leave in the country, mothers are subtly told that their role in the workplace is more critical than their presence at home with their children.

Furthermore, as childcare costs continue to rise, many mothers face the tough decision between pursuing the career they've diligently built and fulfilling their parenting duties. According to a recent statistic from The Mom Project, 43% of women temporarily leave the workforce after having children. For many who are deeply committed to their careers, stepping away from work can feel like losing a part of their identity.

Self-Care Is Not Selfish

In a previous blog titled “Maternal Mental Health: Striving to be SuperMom” I touched on the concept of “mom guilt”. This idea comes into play when a mother must make the choice between herself or time with her children. The choice for self-care, time with friends, or a career can often be coupled with agonizing guilt, shame, or fear of making the wrong choice. The ability to rediscover oneself in motherhood is a privilege that is not available to everyone.

It takes resources, time and support that many women just don’t have. Eventually, sleep patterns will normalize, and the body will heal, but the weight of motherhood will remain.

Despite these challenges, it's crucial for mothers to prioritize their own mental health and physical well-being. Many mothers neglect their health, yet regular exercise, a balanced diet, and spending time with other adults away from the kids are essential.

This can be difficult when bombarded with conflicting messages about the "right" way to be a mother, whether it involves pursuing a full-time career or dedicating oneself to being a stay-at-home mom.

Mothers who meet their own needs tend to be happier and healthier, which positively affects how they care for their children. I understand it's tough, so here are a few things you can do to get started.

Self-Care Ideas For Moms:

  • Get Outdoors: Even a brief walk around the neighborhood can clear your mind and improve your mood.
  • Connect Socially: Invite a friend over for a chat. Social interactions can provide emotional support and a much-needed break from daily routines.
  • Try a Quick Workout: Engage in a 20-minute yoga session on YouTube. It's a great way to stretch, relax, and take care of your body without needing a lot of time.
  • Read for Pleasure: Dedicate 15-20 minutes a day to reading something you enjoy. Whether it's a novel, magazine, or blog, reading can be a wonderful escape.
  • Practice Mindfulness: Spend a few minutes each day meditating or practicing deep breathing exercises. This can help reduce stress and center your thoughts.
  • Pamper Yourself: Take a long bath, do a skin care routine, or light some candles to create a spa-like atmosphere at home.
  • Engage in a Hobby: Revisit an old hobby or start a new one that excites you. Whether it’s painting, knitting, or gardening, hobbies can provide a sense of accomplishment and joy.
  • Schedule 'Me Time': Block out time in your calendar for yourself, just as you would for any other important appointment. This ensures you have dedicated time to do something enjoyable or relaxing like going out to dinner.
  • Book a Weekend Getaway: Plan a short trip to recharge. A change of scenery can be revitalizing and a wonderful way to briefly step away from daily responsibilities.
  • Attend Therapy: Consider going to therapy to talk through any challenges or emotions. It's a proactive way to maintain your mental health and wellbeing.

Discover The Best Therapy Near You At Clarity Clinic

If you're a mother navigating the challenges of depression or anxiety, you're not alone. At Clarity Clinic, we understand the unique pressures you face in motherhood and are here to support you every step of the way. Whether you prefer the convenience of online therapy or the personal touch of in-person sessions, our team of compassionate therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists is dedicated to providing the care you need.

Take the first step towards feeling like yourself again. With our leading mental health services, you will have the resources to begin healing with understanding and empathy. Schedule your appointment today to find out why Clarity Clinic is the leading mental health Clinic in Chicago and experience the support you deserve.

From talk therapy, couples therapy, family therapy, group therapy, and so much more, we’re here to help you find the path to a happier, healthier life. Visit any of our mental health clinic locations in the Loop, River North, Arlington Heights, Lakeview Belmont, Lakeview Broadway, Evanston, and Mokena to find the best mental health therapist near you!

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Related Readings:

Maternal Mental Health: Commonly Asked Questions

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