This year, Maternal Mental Health Week runs from Monday to Sunday, and parents around the globe are campaigning for Wednesday to be globally recognised as Maternal Mental Health Day, dedicated to talking about the challenges new parents face when their baby is born. For 2021, the theme for World Maternal Mental Health Day is "recovery".
After giving birth to my oldest daughter, Livia, I was as far from that image of a proud, radiant new mum on cloud nine as it is possible to be. I felt like my throat was being squeezed and I couldn't get any air – like I was slowly drowning. It was as if someone had thrown a huge, dark blanket over me.
When I looked at my baby, I was both madly in love with her and filled with terror. What if something happens to her? The anxiety was oppressive and I became more insecure every day. I didn’t know what to do about how I felt and, bit by bit, I lost myself. Eventually I was diagnosed with postpartum depression (PPD). Wanting to be the perfect mother had paralysed me.
The risk of a woman suffering from depression triples in the first month after delivery, compared with childless women of the same age. Fluctuating hormones make mothers more vulnerable to depression, but difficult psychosocial conditions also increase susceptibility. Maternal mental health is important for every new parent to manage, as there’s so many new changes and challenges to move through.
Importantly, when symptoms last longer than two to four weeks, new mothers should seek professional support immediately. Some warning signs of poor maternal mental health include: barely being able to concentrate; sleeping badly, even when the baby is asleep; loss of appetite; suicidal thoughts; loss of interest in the world around you and the things that used to bring you pleasure or joy; feeling like everything takes a lot of effort and you want to withdraw; crying a lot and often; feeling incredibly insecure; and experiencing intrusive thoughts.
Prioritising recovery is an important step in preventing the emotional rollercoaster of new parenthood escalating into a serious mental health issue. But sadly, recovery for new mothers is still very undervalued in today’s world.
Most women are expected to be back to work in a short amount of time, and while this varies from country to country, for the most part, it’s never enough time for full recovery to take place.
When mums go back to work, it’s still likely that their baby is not yet sleeping through the night, some mums might still be breastfeeding, and all mums are still adapting to their new role. Just because a mum has returned to work, doesn’t mean she’s fully recovered. It takes time for new mums to come to terms with their new role and to get used to the responsibilities of parenthood.
While getting used to the weight of these new responsibilities, many mums find themselves constantly switched on and feel mentally, physically, and emotionally overwhelmed by it, which can lead to mental health issues.
Key ways new mums, communities and workplaces can prioritise maternal mental health:
1. Maternity leave should be for at least six months, and take into account that both the mother and father require time to adjust to parenthood.
2. A society must understand that recovery from giving birth and becoming a parent is not linear. Even if a mum returns to work, it doesn’t mean she has fully recovered. She may still need support.
3. While physical recovery can happen more quickly, and some mothers do "bounce back", it's important to recognise that things such as hormonal changes and sleep deprivation are ongoing and are going to impact a new mum's mental well-being.
4. During recovery, mothers should be encouraged to focus on being mindful and moving slow, while being kind to themselves.
5. New mums need to be given the time and opportunity to embrace what I call “the glory of failing”. Meaning, new mums need time to make mistakes and work through them. If their mind is being pulled elsewhere, they can become anxious that something bad is going to happen while they’re not focusing. They need to be able to build their confidence and have the space to learn as they go, while being fully present.
6. Take breaks. It’s okay if you don’t like being a mother all of the time and want to escape for a while. It’s a good thing to do and can keep you mentally healthy.
7. Lastly, it's important new mums seek out their mum tribe. That is, other mums that get what they're going through. Mums need other mums they can speak freely to and share their worries and insecurities with.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I also think it takes a village to become the mum you want to be. It’s important to recognise that during the early days of motherhood the focus is primarily on the baby, and we need to give mothers the permission and support to take care of their needs too and prioritise their own mental, physical, and emotional recovery as they prepare to raise the next generation.
Tilda is a mother of two, therapist and coach specialising in supporting women around the world through their motherhood journey. Tilda suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of her first child, and is the author of "This is Postpartum", a part-story and part-toolkit for mothers who find themselves in a darker place than they may have expected, published by The Dreamwork Collective. Find her online @thisispostpartum