For many of us, the reason we embark on the journey of motherhood is because we have a positive vision of what it will entail. We picture in our mind’s eye rocking our baby to sleep, gazing lovingly into his eyes, picnics at the park, baby giggles. If we didn’t have such joyous images in mind, we might not decide to become parents. These wondrous images of motherhood are perpetuated everywhere – on TV, in the movies and magazines; in articles shared on social media and our friends’ Instagram and Facebook accounts; and in the well-meaning comments made by loved ones and strangers alike. “Appreciate every moment,” they say, “because it all goes so fast.”
Often, those parents who came before us talk glowingly about that moment they were handed their baby and how they instantly fell in love, how it is like this for everyone and is bound to be our experience, too. Others go a step further and tell us what we should do: “breast is best,” they say, or “people should try to have as ‘natural’ a birth as possible”. And so some of us dutifully plan for an exclusively breastfed baby and a drug-free labour. Some document these intentions in birth plans.
And then you go into labour. For some, the birth goes exactly as planned with few complications. For others, however, plans change. A woman who planned a drug-free birth may decide that the pain is too much and opt for pain relief. Another woman may experience complications resulting in an emergency Caesarean. Of course, this is where motherhood begins, not ends. Perhaps you are handed the baby and feel nothing. Perhaps it takes days, weeks or months to bond with your baby. Maybe you try to breastfeed and the baby won’t latch or your milk supply is low. Maybe you’re told that you should get your baby into a routine as soon as possible, but how do you force a baby to be hungry or tired at a prescribed time?
For some women, it is easy to start to think that they are failing at motherhood, that they are somehow doing something wrong if their experience isn’t mostly blissful. We expect that we’ll be tired, but most of us have never experienced fatigue to the extent that you do with a young (or even older) baby. And for some, motherhood feels less like a series of moments of joy and more like a series of days or hours that you’re just trying to survive. It can feel as though there is something wrong with you if you’re not happy. In severe cases, this can result in PND. In our age of ubiquitous social media, being constantly bombarded with photos of everyone else’s best parenting moments can give the false impression that everyone else is coping better and is happier, and you can feel that you are coming up very short by comparison.
The reality of parenthood for most of us is very different from these unrealistic expectations. Most parents have struggles and many find the challenges overwhelming. Other factors that can increase the risk of postnatal anxiety and/or depression include a previous personal or family history of mental health, a traumatic birth, lack of support, relationship difficulties, grief or loss, and an unsettled baby. What women need during this period of time is empathy and acceptance, whether they had a vaginal or Caesarean birth, whether they breast- or bottle-feed, whether they co-sleep or put the baby in a cot in another room.