You should be happy. You should be thinner. You should always be filled with joy. You should be breastfeeding. You should be equally attentive to your other children. You should be socializing. You should be stronger. You should be more resilient. You should be more than what you are.
We live in a society that tells women how they should feel, think and look as mothers, even in early motherhood. Such repeated messages are easily internalized and, inevitably, they lead to feelings of failure, shame and guilt when many mothers are unable to live up to an impossible standard.
Many moms that I see tend to feel that because they have not been able to achieve such goals, they are somehow deficient. Worse yet, many fear that they may have somehow harmed their babies by not living up to such standards. Common themes I hear are that moms who suffer from postpartum depression worry that this is a “failure” that is predictive of several further parenting failures in the future. Or that, since they endured such horrific depression this time, they might as well give up hope of ever having a second child for fear of having a similar experience.
The shame surrounding the shoulds can be incredibly detrimental and even dangerous. Moms suffering from postpartum depression can already be experiencing feelings of guilt and low self worth, both symptoms of the depression, which are worsened by the constant feeling that they are somehow not enough for their child. This is why a major goal in providing therapy for my postpartum moms is in helping them recognize just how much they have accomplished – starting with the incredible love and care that they provide for their newborn children.
The reality is that 80 percent of postpartum mothers will report mood changes, and as many as 1 in 5 mothers will experience postpartum depression. This means that even if you have not experienced it, the chances are high that your sister (wife, neighbor, daughter, mother, best friend or coworker) has. If this is such a common phenomenon, why is it seen as such a unique occurrence? Why aren’t we talking about it more? And why do we continue to insist that our postpartum moms be anything aside from women who are doing their very best to adjust to early motherhood?
“Postpartum depression draws a very sharp distinction between the joy one thinks she should be feeling and the depression that one is actually feeling.”
Perhaps it is because postpartum moms struggle to accept that they may be deviating so largely from what they think they should feel – that super happy, never floundering, always addressing everything with ease sort of mother. And perhaps, since lots of moms feel this way but don’t feel free to express how much they are struggling, each mother with postpartum depression can often feel like she is the only one with such struggles. Postpartum depression draws a very sharp distinction between the joy one thinks she should be feeling and the depression that one is actually feeling.
The reality is that mothers who suffer from postpartum depression are equally strong and vulnerable, like most people who generally suffer from depression. And often times, those who suffer from postpartum depression had pre-existing factors that already made them more vulnerable, such as if they might have had a pre existing diagnosis of depression or if they had a medically complicated pregnancy. Instead of pretending that all postpartum moms should be happy, wouldn’t it be better if we were more accepting and supportive of the unique struggles that come with each person’s journey into motherhood?
What if we rewrite the shoulds? Since the majority of women will experience some form of mood changes during the adjustment period to early motherhood, we as a society should expect it and encourage them to seek personal and professional support. We should understand that postpartum mental illness is an unfortunately but common side effect of pregnancy. We should recognize that breastfeeding is a powerful and sometimes difficult journey that should be supported; however, if a mother cannot or opts not to breastfeed, she should be supported in whatever it takes to keep her child healthy and fed. We should acknowledge that postpartum moms are raising the future of our nation so an investment in them is an investment in us all.