As a psychotherapist who specializes in working with women during the perinatal period and beyond, consistent themes come up related to mental health and motherhood.
Motherhood is a period of incredible personal growth and change. We move from being just ourselves: professionals to partners and individuals to parents.
Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist who first theorized the 8 life stages in a social context, identified that in early and middle adulthood, we move from being self-focused to having our lives revolve more around the needs of others as we build our own family and then help to care for our aging parents.
We are navigating under a tremendous amount of stress for those of us in these two stages (early and middle adulthood). Without tools to manage the emotional impact, the toll can be great. Through my professional training, along with my in-the-trenches motherhood experience, the following are key components of maintaining one’s mental health during this challenging time.
Nothing is quite so fetishized in parenting circles as sleep. Is your baby sleeping? How much does your baby sleep? How do you get your toddler to sleep longer?
In my work, “how much are you sleeping?” is often one of the first questions that I ask. Whether you have an infant or school-aged children, lack of sleep is a key component when struggling with mental health issues. I cannot stress enough the impact of sleep (and lack of it) on mental health, especially during the postpartum period.
I’ve never worked with a new mom struggling with depression or anxiety who did not report a huge sleep deficit. To my new moms, I encourage at least a solid 4 hours in a row at least one time during the night; however that can happen.
And if moms are struggling with insomnia (raise your hand if you are a nighttime phone scroller), I always ask about “sleep hygiene.” For those of us in the mental health world, that means: going to bed at a reasonable hour; limited screen time, and no TV in the bedroom. The bedroom should be a sacred space, only for sleep and sex. If you are doing all of the above and still not able to sleep due to anxiety or insomnia, speak to your doctor. Medication is not always necessary. Some people find that melatonin can be beneficial. I personally have found it to be helpful in gummy form.
Moms have no time. Unfortunately, those who are not so great about getting regular exercise may also struggle with insomnia. Exercise is very important for mental and physical health. Most people with regular exercise routines also sleep better. I am constantly struggling with where/when to exercise, especially since I’m now doing telehealth for sometimes up to 9 hours a day. The struggle for me is real. Even a brisk walk for 10 minutes here and there can make a world of difference. Let’s get moving moms!
Eating well is key to mental and physical health. If you are a mom who sometimes sustains yourself on the rainbow of leftovers from your child’s plate rather than preparing yourself a balanced meal, it might be time to rethink your approach to food. Also included in nutrition is caffeine and alcohol consumption. Caffeine is known to contribute to anxiety, and alcohol is a depressant. If you consider taking antidepressant medications, a good first step would be to review how much caffeine and alcohol you are consuming.
What’s that again? I know firsthand how difficult this can be. However, it is very important to build in a bit of time each week just to be you. Whether it’s a few minutes a day to meditate or go out for a coffee with a friend, moms need to remember who we are as individuals and be that for a bit of time each week. My husband and I have really been trying to give each other pockets of time to do things just for ourselves, and it feels like a much healthier balance for all.
Time With Our Partners
While I realize Netflix at night isn’t a romantic achievement, it’s better than nothing! Schedule those date nights if you can but if you want more connection, think about playing a game, just the two of you. Sit outside and look at the stars. Watch a YouTube tutorial about massage and practice your skills on each other. Partner relationships are often easy to take for granted, but feeling connected to our chosen person has an important impact on our own sense of well-being and mental health. As a wise long-married person once told me, “One day the kids will leave, and you will be left with this person you chose so long ago. Make sure you continue to prioritize and invest in that relationship.”
In my experience, service is a key component of mental health. Moms feel of service to their children; let’s face it, we serve them all day long! But do we really take in the importance of what we are doing? We are forming human beings. We are showing them (and teaching them) how to live in this world. We are imparting our values, even when it’s not intentional or with purpose. And yet, aside from our families, how are we serving our community and the greater good? Helping others contributes to our own sense of wellbeing.
It is a huge component of my sense of self and important for my mental health. I’ve been lucky enough to work as a psychotherapist part-time since my children were born, and it’s fulfilled me in ways that I find difficult to express. I absolutely love my job but helping people achieve goals and grow doesn’t feel like a job. I care very much about the people that I work with, and I absolutely feel better in my own mental health because of it.
As a mental health professional, I also see a therapist. Thanks to telehealth, mental health care is more accessible than ever before. Websites like Psychology Today can help you to find trained mental health professionals in your area. You should also call your insurance company, and they can provide you with a list of therapists who participate with your insurance. Be sure to ask about your co-pay or deductible, along with your “out-of-network benefits.” If you find a therapist who doesn’t take insurance, you may have some of the costs covered.
Moms, if you are really struggling, get help, especially if you are having any thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else. You do NOT need to suffer alone or assume that you have to figure it out on your own. Help is out there. You are NOT alone. Here are some helpful resources related to maternal mental health:
- Postpartum Support Resource Guide for Fairfield County
- Postpartum Support International
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- National Institute of Mental Health