Here are seven stories looking at the particularities of mental health struggles faced by mothers.
The Atlantic’s Adrienne Lafrance looks at how motherhood changes a new mom neurologically. A rush of hormones causes new mothers to undergo changes in the operation of various regions of their brains, changing the way they feel and think. This period of neurological flux can be both the source of the stereotypical ‘maternal love’ as well as serious anxiety or depression. Some researchers believe that actions like hyper attentiveness or compulsive behaviors around checking on a child’s wellbeing could be tied to these brain chemicals, highlighting this area of neuroscience as one for necessary study in attempts to treat maternal mental health. Men can also see mental activity that exhibits the same kind of intense bonding when they engage in caregiving activities, leading Lafrance to conclude that “the act of simply caring for one’s baby forges new neural pathways—undiscovered rooms in the parental brain.” More than this though, the degree to which neurochemicals are responsible for mothers’ postpartum behavior may offer some solace to those blaming themselves for their mental health struggles, pointing to the lack of control mothers have over behavior that they do not choose, as well as offering the potential for future treatment.
For Bitch Media, Vanessa Mártir uses her personal childbirth experience to examine the lack of support, both emotional and financial, for mothers in the United States. She explains how a cultural expectation that she “go it alone and not complain” led her to struggle mentally postpartum, a sensation that she identifies as crossing racial and ethnic lines. Mártir then broadens her focus to look at the systemic inadequacies that lead parents to experience emotional struggles. She highlights the absence of parental leave, cuts to poverty assistance, and lack of access to childcare as structural impediments to maternal wellbeing, structures that disproportionately impact poor women of color. While Mártir points to the need to bolster these programs, as well as mental health services, she also identifies how we must eliminate the cultural context pushing mothers to grin and bear it and “[dismantle] the idea that the sole or primary purpose of women is to become mothers.”
In another piece written for Bitch Media, Hannah Moulton Belec looks extensively at media depictions of postpartum depression (PPD). She begins by crediting Brooke Shields’ memoir as jumpstarting a public discussion about PPD and surveys how the media landscape has changed in the intervening ten years. PPD is exceedingly rare in films and is more likely to be represented on television, where it is represented in a “sensational and stigmatizing” manner. This sensationalism includes a fixation on drowning babies in bathtubs, hospitalization, and custody loss plot lines. Belec then turns to discuss why the media misrepresentation of PPD is actively harmful, as it conflates multiple mental illnesses, stigmatizes mothers with PPD as murderous, and contributes to an overall culture in which suffering mothers are reluctant to ask for help.
This article also includes mentions of the nonprofit blog Postpartum Progress
Brianna Bell writes an intensely personal piece for The New York Times, reflecting on her own experience as a mother with agoraphobia. While living with agoraphobia had already added stressors to Bell’s life, she reached a heightened level of anxiety during COVID, with the pandemic disrupting the routines upon which she had relied. These disrupted routines were coupled with an exacerbation of her agoraphobia, as COVID erected further barriers to any attempt to go outside. She then relays advice offered to those with agoraphobia, as some doctors have suggested taking small trips outside. Overall, Bell offers an important insight into the ways that the pandemic has worsened the mental health of those with mental illness, beginning an honest dialogue about mental struggles while offering some positive steps people may take, like meditation.
Anna North, writing for Vox, takes an in-depth look at the parents “trying to hang in there while struggling with the isolation, uncertainty, and sadness that are practically the definition of parenting in 2020.” One of the primary stressors imposed upon parents was increased educational responsibilities, as parents who were instantly expected to assume the role of teacher struggled to adapt to their new reality. This, along with all of the other pressures of the pandemic, has led to a drop in parental mental health, as they have experienced increased levels of sadness, isolation, and family tension. These pressures have had a disastrous impact on parents’ work lives, as lack of child care has forced women to drop out of the workforce in stunning numbers and those who continue to work are left unable to fully devote their attention to work while at home. This constant pressure to stop working is untenable for poor families who cannot afford a loss of income. While North points out that some individual families have found ways to make their situations work, she also identifies the need for large-scale assistance, offering several government measures that could improve parents’ quality of life.
Reporting for The New York Times, Katharine Gammon speaks to several mothers recounting the peculiar experience of being pregnant during a pandemic. One mom recounts the guilt she felt for testing COVID positive at 39 weeks pregnant, detailing her experience in a Facebook post. Healthcare and birth plans can be disrupted because of a positive COVID test, even leading to mothers being separated from their children at birth. These experiences, as well as just the anxiety of potentially catching COVID, has skyrocketed stress levels for expectant mothers, with this increased stress potentially having deleterious health consequences. Scientists have continued to study the impact of the COVID era on pregnancy, and this piece speaks to the unending ways COVID has shaped our lives, as well as the specific mental health needs of pregnant mothers during this time.
In the immediate aftermath of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, Danielle Campoamor writes for The Lily about the powerful way in which Markle’s honesty about her suicidal ideation emotionally resonated with her. She writes that she knows the feeling of feeling unable to talk about suicidal thoughts for fear of being labeled “selfish,” a label that is frequently assigned to parents who are expected to ‘live for their children.’ She identifies the sacrificial ideology around motherhood as leaving mothers particularly vulnerable to suicidal ideation, and this suffering too often occurs silently as mothers outwardly conform to the expected image of pregnant bliss. Campoamor concludes by crediting Markle with speaking with an honesty that is rarely heard around mental health, an honesty that could potentially “[save] many of us moms, too.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255).
You can also text a crisis counselor at 741741.
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