Transitioning to parenthood is very exciting but also very challenging for new moms and dads. Many new parents report feeling overwhelmed and scared of the new challenges that come after their baby is born.
In order to help you with these difficult feelings, we interviewed an expert in maternal mental health. Bina Bird, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, shed some light onto the frequent struggles and themes involved with parenthood and mental health. She answered questions on difficult topics that many new parents struggle with such as: scary thoughts, baby blues, postpartum depression, and feelings of overwhelm and fear.
We are so excited to share Bina’s expertise with all of you! Without further introduction, here is the interview:
What are some common challenges experienced by new parents?
Becoming a parent can be one of the biggest and most challenging transitions that we face. One of the most common challenges I see is a lack of support. Many families do not have practical support in the way of having a community of people they can count on to help care for the baby and even care for them.
The old saying that it takes a village to raise a child really does have a lot of truth in it. That lack of support even extends to a larger societal level in the way that maternity and paternity leave are lacking in this country. Another challenge is that parenthood can frequently bring about feelings that are not associated with love and joy. These may come from realizations regarding their loss of freedom, loss of professional identity (for those that do not work outside the home), and loss of time together as a couple. These losses are not usually talked about, so parents may feel guilt or shame if they experience them and feel like this makes them “bad parents.”
Another challenge for new parents is the stigma and lack of knowledge around the prevalence of mood disorders that occur during the perinatal period. It is often kept a secret, leading to further misunderstandings and minimizations, making the struggle even worse.
Many new mothers and fathers think, “I’ll never be able to handle this”. What advice do you have for these new parents?
The first thing I would say is that almost every parent has had this thought at least once, so what you’re thinking, and feeling is very common. Having a baby is a pretty big deal and doesn’t come with instruction manuals, so it is not surprising to feel like it is a lot to take on. I would look at whether things are getting easier as each day goes by, or if you feel like it is getting harder.
Reach out for help if you feel like it is getting too much or that you need support. Help from family, friends, and even professionals if you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people do care and want to support you.
How do you think we can better equip parents to be prepared for the transition into parenthood?
In an ideal world, all professionals working with pregnant women – hospital, birthing centre, and OBGYN – would be providing parenting information as part of their routine care to parents during pregnancy. I know many of the doulas I work with are providing this information to parents both during the pregnancy and during the postpartum period, so expanding this to other birth professionals would really help.
Offering free classes on transitioning to the postpartum period both in person and online would help make them more accessible to everyone. As therapists, we can help by addressing this transition when we work with perinatal clients, but also when working with couples who are preparing to start a family. Being proactive is important rather than being reactive.
Many mothers experience the ‘baby blues’ after giving birth. Can you explain what this is, and how this is different from postpartum depression?
“Baby Blues” includes crying easily, feeling overwhelmed, tired and feeling irritable. 80% of moms experience baby blues, with symptoms typically resolving within 2-3 weeks of giving birth. Baby Blues is NOT an illness or disorder but is instead a response to the changes in hormones and transition to parenthood.
In contrast, Postpartum Depression does not resolve on its own and can get worse without treatment, with symptoms generally peaking at 3-4 months. Postpartum Depression can include symptoms of not being able to sleep even when the baby sleeps, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, feeling numb or disconnected from the baby, irritability and anger, feeling of not being like oneself. The mother worries and thinks that she is not a good parent, or thoughts that the baby is better off without her. Postpartum Depression is one mood disorder under the umbrella of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders.
Often times mothers experience ‘scary thoughts’ after having a baby. Is this normal?
Yes and No… Scary thoughts alone doesn’t mean that a mom has postpartum depression or other Perinatal Mood Disorder. It’s more common than people realize for moms to have intrusive thoughts or images of something bad happening to their baby. What makes it more concerning is the frequency of thoughts and how much distress they cause. The occasional thought that a mom can quickly recover from and doesn’t increase anxiety or impact her day to day functioning is very different than frequent ongoing intrusive thoughts that impact her ability to sleep and other functioning.
What can a mother do if she is having scary thoughts?
Many people worry that these ‘scary thoughts’ mean that a mom will harm herself or her baby, but the fact that a mom is distressed by these thoughts means that they are coming from a place of anxiety and not psychosis. So, the first thing a mother needs to know is that she is not ‘crazy’ or ‘bad’ for having these thoughts, and it does not mean that she must stay away from her baby or that if she reaches out for help, her baby will be taken away.
One way to help manage intrusive thoughts is to try and identify potential triggers or specific situations that induce the thoughts. An example is lack of sleep. This may require support from their partner and family to develop a plan to cover night feedings. Another is irregular or infrequent eating which can affect the mother’s anxiety.
I recommend mindfulness tools as another way to reduce these feelings. If the scary thoughts are getting more frequent, intense, or are creating a lot of anxiety, it would be helpful for her to contact a therapist or other mental health professional who specializes in Maternal Mental Health.
How do you think we, as a society, can better support mothers and help them know that they are not alone?
More education and openness around the challenges and realities of parenthood, including Perinatal Mood Disorders would help support mothers. Normalizing the mixed emotions of parenthood is also a great way to help. Additionally, better laws that allow both parents better maternity leave to allow for a healthier transition would positively support this goal. Overall more support from friends, family and the community for parents after a baby is born are needed to create a nurturing environment for the mother and baby alike.
Transitioning into parenthood can be challenging, and new parents may stay silent and feel like they are alone in their struggles. We hope that this interview helps to spread the message to parents that they are not alone, and there is help!
It was a pleasure to work with Bina Bird for this interview, and we want to thank her for being such a great advocate for mothers and families! If you want to talk to Bina, or learn more about her work, please make sure you check out her website here.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in this post from our “Ask A Counsellor” series where we talk to an expert on postpartum depression and anxiety!