Pregnancy and postpartum entail many changes, both on a physical and psychological level. You will come across many mental challenges. Don’t panic when this occurs. It is fairly common and perfectly normal.
By Dr. An-Sofie Van Parys
Picture by Anton Darius
Calm and perfectly content babies and parents do exist, with parents on cloud nine and madly in love with their little angel. However, fact is that young parents more often experience a different situation entirely, where their state within the new family is rather brittle. Joy may turn to sadness or insecurity very quickly, and excitement into stress. When this happens occasionally, this is completely normal.
Having a baby changes your life forever, and probably in more ways you could ever anticipate. You are passing a threshold and entering a new stage in life. None of life’s stages are exclusively fun, and the same goes for having children. Think about it: childbirth, pain, breastfeeding, lack of sleep. To name only a few inconveniences that make matters even more challenging than they already are.
In addition, a mother’s brain changes during and beyond pregnancy (in fathers this happens, too, by the way, but only after the baby is born). Brain scans and imaging have taught us that during pregnancy, the volume of the mother’s grey matter increases in the area where ‘social cognition’ is situated. So we can say that women’s brains when they have children differ from those of their counterparts who have none. Therefore, if you ever feel somewhat more anxious and vulnerable during pregnancy, there is nothing strange about that at all. I used to experience this myself when I had my baby bump, for instance when I was on the tube, or walking alone on the streets at night. It is all part of nature’s mechanism to protect our offspring, even in the womb.
Many women (but also men) are on cloud nine during pregnancy and suddenly lose this happy feeling after birth, leaving them in confusion. Others experience a fragile emotional state in the maternity period and theirs is more like a thunder cloud: one moment everything is great and fantastic, the other you want to throw your baby out the window.
As intense as this may sound, it is a reality. Realizing this, may entail feelings of guilt or failure.
‘Parents think “I wanted a child and now I don’t (always) want it,” or “I ‘ve chosen this so now I have to like my choice”.’
You may feel as if you are the only one having this kind of thoughts, but the truth is many parents have them. The majority of young parents experience difficult times during pregnancy and in the first year after the birth of their child.
It often signals some kind of overload. Too heavy a burden when it feels as if you as an individual do not exist anymore, when you seem to be the baby’s carer only. But, no one can take care of a child 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by themselves. That is not what humans are supposed to do. It takes at least two to conceive a child, and an entire community to help it grow. It takes a village to raise a child. That is how it used to be, for sure, and in fact it still is the case.
Picture by Kat J
What differs greatly today is that networks, the so-called safety nets, are often smaller and not as strong as they used to be. In an individualistic society such as ours, family units are smaller and families live further apart from one another. Nowadays children do not usually have a baby brother or baby sister when in their teens. Therefore the aftermath of childbirth is only revealed for the very first time to us when we have our own baby. Only at that time the raw reality of sleep deprivation, the efforts it takes to breastfeed and the difficulties that may accompany it, the permanent care a newborn requires is disclosed.
‘In those large families of the past, not everything was actually better all the time. However, during the postpartum period family members automatically helped with cooking and cleaning, and actively took part in the caring for and the raising of little ones.’
And perhaps most importantly, young parents had a better idea of what to expect. They had more of a realistic view of parenthood because they had already (sort of) experienced it at a younger age. Just think about it: what shaped your image of pregnancy and maternity? Chances are this image emerged through stories of your mother or your friends, but probably also films and television, or maybe even InstaMoms?
Sad after a successful fertility process
In my work as a ‘broedvrouw’ I guide couples who face difficulties and questions before and during pregnancy, and after birth. I also regularly see couples who have had a baby after long fertility treatments. They thought that they would be overjoyed. For years their focus has been to conceive and have their baby, and all along they thought everything would be better once the baby arrived. However, when their child is born not rarely do they realize “Shit! No, I do not feel happy even though I’m supposed to”.
Such emotions are quite normal. Maybe one of these scenarios is true for you: you have travelled a long journey in fertility treatment, having hormone therapy, needing to make love on command, all the while uncertain whether or not it would be successful. In short, you have been extremely challenged and tested psychologically. So it is not so strange if you feel worn out, or even burn-out sometimes. Especially true when psychological counselling is not everywhere available for couples in fertility treatment.
Whatever your story may be, if you are struggling mentally, it is very important to get help and activate your social network. Scientific research tells us that strong social support offers the best protection against mental health issues. This support can consist of simple, practical things such as someone cooking meals for you, babysitting, shopping, doing a machine of laundry and folding it no questions asked. It may also consist of being able to reach out to someone you can tell your story to (over and again) or having a shoulder to cry on …
COVID19 makes asking for help more tricky, but not impossible
Of course, the current circumstances of the pandemic are not helpful. As COVID makes pretty much everything in life more difficult, calling upon that “village” to help raise your child has rarely been more challenging.
It is good to point out that other things are still possible. Ask someone to put groceries or a prepared meal at your doorstep. Sometimes you may feel the need to go out by yourself, or have some time alone as a couple. When you are worried about COVID infection, you may ask someone to be in a different room of your house keeping an eye on the baby monitor so you can get some fresh air. In this situation, an extra tip from me is as follows: when baby is (breast)fed, you leave at once. Do not add changing nappy or clothes to the time frame you have available, because with a young baby, this free time is already quite limited as it is.
I completely understand that this can be quite stressful.
‘To be able to leave your baby behind with someone else, even if it is only for ten minutes, takes some getting used to. It is a learning curve.’
And more so if you are feeling anxious or afraid of catching COVID. My advice in this is to take baby steps (pun intended). A good start can be a 10-minute-walk in your neighbourhood for example. Physical exercise outside, a walk in actual daylight, getting some air… is refreshing. It is true to say that such a very short break is not an instant remedy, but it is a step in the right direction. Don’t put any extra pressure upon yourself for things to go faster. You are not going to feel convalesced overnight. And even though you will grow to learn how to let go, being worried about your child will never completely disappear, as parents with children who are older will be able to confirm.
Picture by Vince Fleming
You can also help yourself by doing something for you alone once your baby is asleep. So no cleaning the kitchen or mopping the floor! I know these activities sometimes helps to make you feel good, too. But instead, try browsing a magazine for a couple of minutes, or do some drawing or colouring if you like that. Lack of inspiration for short, stolen moments?
At the beginning of the first lockdown, I made this list of things to do or to try.
Dr. An-Sofie Van Parys studied midwifery, social educational sciences, sexology and psychotherapy. She worked in youth care for several years and wrote a PhD on the topic of domestic (partner) violence. She now works as a sexologist and psychotherapist in midwives’ practice Zwanger in Brussel and in the OLV hospital in Asse. She accompanies women and couples with psychological, relationship or sexual problems related to pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, she coordinates the Perinatal Mental Health project in Ghent and does postdoc research on mental health in the period from pregnancy to the first year after birth. Prior to that, among other topics, she researched caesarean sections and fear of childbirth.