I have heard this sentence so many times. It powerfully illustrates the isolation we feel as new mothers, when the days are long and the nights are even longer. When I first had my son, I was lucky that I was already surrounded by many mothers. The reality, however, is that women aren’t necessarily pregnant at the same time as their close friends and that makes pregnancy - and particularly the postpartum period - a difficult time to maneuver.
One could argue that social media platforms and communications apps such as Whatsapp and Instagram have made it easier to connect with others, because we have community at our fingertips any time of the day. But most of us would admit that it’s not the same as making connections in real life.
According to the CDC, about 1 in 9 women in the U.S. suffer from postpartum mood disorders. That said, rates vary by state and some have reported rates as high as 1 in 5 women. Some of these present as anxiety and ranges to the worst cases being postpartum depression that has to be treated medically. On top of that, about 25% of women also develop a condition I was diagnosed with: thyroiditis. This condition is characterized by an inflamed thyroid that mimics signs of sleep deprivation and fatigue. My primary problem with my thyroid condition was that my overwhelming feelings of anxiety - which were hormonal - were very difficult to discuss with my friends. Luckily, I was able to find a community of other mothers to talk to, exercise with in groups and know that it was normal and ok to feel the way that I did. I managed to be pro-active about finding a support system and admitting I couldn't do it alone.
What is often forgotten in this kind of scenario, however, is the birth mother's partner. While medical professionals focus on the mother and child, the third person in the picture is often left on the sidelines and in their own way - alone. I know my own postpartum anxieties were difficult to relay to my husband, who found that his wife - finally coming out of the immediate postpartum period after 5 months - was now hard to read, sad and overwhelmed yet again.
Partners often don’t feel like it’s appropriate to take up too much attention or discuss their feelings when they didn’t do the heavy-lifting of physically birthing a baby, but they can often feel left out. Sometimes, partners begin to develop feelings that the burden of the financial responsibility is now solely on their shoulders, or they may not immediately connect with the child, or they also suffer from fatigue and sleep deprivation. All of these can lead to the development of their own form of postpartum anxiety and depression. Paternal Postnatal Depression (PPND) is being diagnosed more commonly among men after the birth of a child and studies suggest that between 7 and 10 percent of new dads may have PPND. But rates are likely higher because stats are self-reported. Partners aren’t observed for signs of depression like their partners at baby well visits. They often aren’t even asked how they feel. So how can we better support them?
For both parents - individually and together - counseling may be a good first step to reaching the conclusion that either or both are struggling in the first year after a baby’s birth and to take measures to address it. There are a number of activities that have been proven to improve one's mental health and can be especially helpful in the postpartum period. It may seem counter-intuitive when you have just brought a new life into the world, but making an effort to spend time alone without the baby - either solo or with your partner - can do wonders for your mental health. It is so important to take time out for your own self-care and returning (once the doctor has cleared you) to the things that brought you joy pre-baby like taking walks, exercising or mediation.
Next, connect with other parents who understand the challenges of the newborn phase. Just having someone to vent to when things get tough can be priceless. Finally, seek out help if you need it. Read up on the matter. Try a site like Beyond Blue: an Australian mental health website with information and resources, including a handbook for new dads. The site PostpartumMen, the ACOG and the March of Dimes also have resources to guide you through this transition. Be honest with yourself and talk to a health-care provider and seek medical help when you need it.
Today many of us find ourselves miles - if not continents - away from the proverbial village we thought would help us raise our children. Many of us feel like we are going it alone. But throughout the past years of my work, I have found that regardless of race, age and socio-economic status, we all struggle with the same issues after a child is born and we all yearn to thrive in a community of like-minded individuals. Finding that community is now easier than ever, we just need to take the first step of reaching out. So maybe all the moms who said the sentence that I opened this article with, were on to something. And maybe, by reaching out to that other parent, you are actually improving their lives, too.
Roma van der Walt is the founder of Chitta Wellness and a former Member of the German national team for Modern Pentathlon who has made her passion for sports, her job. In her work with mothers-to-be and new parents she focuses on addressing the main challenges to self-care in parenthood, by offering childcare and community and using exercise for mental and physical wellbeing.