We focus so much on children but who cares about mothers?
I have a friend who is a gynecologist. She works in a hospital and part of her job is to help women delivering their babies, as a result, she knows a lot of women who get depressed after giving birth. Postnatal depression is a common phenomenon. According to the World Health Organization, about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of new moms worldwide experience some form of depression. This number is even higher in developing countries with more than 15% during pregnancy and almost 20% after giving birth.
According to postpartumdepression.org, postpartum depression can affect people from all races, ethnicity, cultures and educational or economic backgrounds. In this context, it’s also important to point out that not only women can be affected. Studies also found that about 10% of men worldwide show signs of depression from when their wife just got pregnant until six months after the baby’s arrival. However, in this article, I will put focus on women.
Why many young mothers suffer from stress and depression?
There are multiple reasons as to why women might suffer from depression after childbirth:
- Biological: During pregnancy and in the following months women experience high fluctuations in hormone levels as well as neurochemical changes that occur in the brain as a result of lack of sleep after birth.
- Media influence: the media industry draws an idealized picture of motherhood — cute babies sleeping peacefully, excited mothers interacting with their happy children. This image is reinforced through social media. Users want to portrait their life as an endless sequence of happy moments. Impressions of grumpy children and stressed out moms don’t fit into this narrative. As a result, soon-to-be parents don’t get much exposure to what giving birth and raising a child really means: it requires real effort required from both parents to take care of a newborn. Babies need to be fed every two hours. They cannot sleep through the night until they are older. Some of them suffer from colic which makes them cry for long periods of time. A lot of new parents get stressed out and depressed due to the huge difference between reality and their media-fed expectations.
- Modern society is formed by smaller families. In the past, multi-generation families stayed together or lived very close by. Thus, young parents could rely on those tight networks for help and benefit from the experience of other family members. Nowadays, members of a family live far apart from each other due to study, work or other reasons. Daycare for babies or having a private nanny are used as substitutes for unavailable family-networks. But these solutions often place a high financial burden on those concerned. If no external help is available then the balance between working and taking care of a baby can bring a lot of stress to new parents.
- External pressure: A psychotherapist once told me a story of a mom who never wanted to breast-feed her baby because it hurt her. But because she was told by everyone around her that breastfeeding is the best for the baby she unhappily did it nonetheless. Since she disliked it so much she would only feed her baby every two hours according to what the books and guides say, regardless if the baby was hungry or not. This caused both her and the baby a lot of stress. Due to the high external pressure, she felt to do things the “right” way this young mother suffered a lot of stress. But very often, there is no “right” way. In fact, babies grow up healthily, regardless if they have been breastfed or formula-fed. Good parenthood involves many factors and how parents choose to feed their babies plays just a small role.
- After a new family member has arrived, it’s natural that most of the attention is being put on the baby and its well-being. But while mom gets showered in well-meant advice about how to raise the baby in the best possible way, her personal happiness often gets somewhat neglected. This expectation to function, put aside own needs, and just do their job can place a heavy burden on young mothers. In recent news, even Meghan Markle who married prince Harry admitted having a baby was a struggle and not many people had asked if she was fine . What’s making things even harder is that mothers in many countries and cultures are expected to carry most of the burden of raising a child. Thus, moms get easily criticized by relatives and acquaintances for not taking enough care of children. If for example, a child falls sick, it’s more often the mother who gets blamed rather than the father. What is more important: people often ignore the fact that getting colds and viruses can help children build a stronger immune system .
What solutions are there to help young mothers?
So what could be done to improve the situation for mothers? There are a couple of possible solutions:
- All students from 16 years old should be taught not only sex education, but also what it means to get pregnant, and what responsibilities come with having a child. Studies and reports by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) show that programs addressing both pregnancy prevention and HIV/STDs are very effective when it comes to teaching adolescents about the issues revolving around sex and pregnancy . Based on this knowledge it’s likely that programs who teach young people about what it means to have a child will sensitize them in a similar way.
- It is very important to seek professional help if mom and dad are showing symptoms of depression. A lot of people feel ashamed about going to see a psychotherapist, because they do not feel comfortable to share their weakness with other people. There is also a deep desire within many to give others an image of a perfect life. (See the part about the negative influence of Social Media above.) But parenthood is hard and a perfect life actually does not exist. Everyone has their problems and troubles and its important to face them and seek help when things become overwhelming.
- Psychotherapy often lasts for several sessions, which can be very expensive. In many countries, medical expenses are covered by social insurance, but psychological therapy treatments are not. In Western Europe, one session with a qualified psychotherapist costs around 80–100€ per hour. Many people cannot afford it even if they realize that they need help. What’s needed in most cases is a political solution to get this form of help covered by social insurance, so that it is more affordable.
- It is important that parents also take care of their own personal needs. If things get too stressful, there is no shame in asking relatives or a part-time nanny for help. Thus, mom and dad can enjoy some free time for themselves, sleep an hour longer, read the news, or simply have a cup of coffee with friends.
The topic of postnatal depression including the questions and solutions that this article covers are very complex. No baby is like another, every mother is also different. What causes stress in one person doesn’t affect another. Likewise, what helps one young mother to overcome her postnatal depression might offer no solution for others. Nonetheless, it is important to raise awareness of these issues because in our superficial, fast-living world they get ignored too often. Accepting that depression exists and that it is important to help those who suffer from it can greatly contribute to a society’s overall well-being. The lesson here is that only happy parents can raise happy children.