We’re advised to plan our registries and plan our births, but what about planning for our mental health?
I distinctly remember standing in the bedding aisle at Babies “R” Us (RIP) for 30 minutes, simply staring.
I spent longer than that trying to figure out the best bottles and stroller and swing for our baby girl. These decisions, at the time, seemed life or death.
Yet I barely spent any time on what’s truly important: my mental health.
Of course, I’m not alone. Many of us spend hours researching the right crib, car seat, and paint color for our baby’s room. We pen meticulous birth plans, hunt for the best pediatrician, and secure solid child care.
And while these are critical, too (the paint color perhaps less so), our mental health becomes an afterthought — if we think about it at all.
According to Kate Rope, author of “Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood,” historically, we treat motherhood as a natural, easy, and blissful transition we simply assume will happen once we’ve brought our babies home.
Our society also extols physical health — but completely discounts mental health. Which, when you really think about it, is ludicrous. As Rope points out, “the brain is as much part of our body as our abdomen and uterus.”
For me, it was only after reading Rope’s insightful book, several years after I’d given birth, that I realized the importance of prioritizing mental health for every mom.
“Mental health is the number one complication of childbirth,” says Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC, PMH-C, a psychotherapist who specializes in pregnancy and postpartum wellness and is the Georgia chapter president of Postpartum Support International.
She notes that in the first 10 to 14 days, about 60 to 80 percent of moms will experience the baby blues — mood changes and feeling overwhelmed.
A major reason? Hormones.
“If you look at your hormone drop after birth on a chart, [it’s] a rollercoaster ride you never want to go on,” O’Brien says. She also notes that every person responds differently to this dip, and you won’t know how you’ll respond until you’re in it.
As you’re reading, you might be thinking, I’m officially terrified. But, perinatal disorders and mental health issues are highly treatable. And the recovery tends to be quick.
The key is to create a tangible mental health plan. Here’s how:
Start with sleep
According to O’Brien, sleep is fundamental. “If your body is running on empty, it’s really difficult to grab any of the coping skills or strategies out there.”
Both O’Brien and Rope emphasize ironing out how you’ll get 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep (which is a complete sleep cycle).
Maybe you can switch shifts or trade nights with your partner. One mom in Rope’s book got up between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., while her husband got up between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. and they’d rotate nights.
Another option is to ask a friend or family member or hire a night nurse.
Identify your people (or person)
Rope recommends finding at least one safe person you can say anything to.
“My husband and I made an agreement before we had our first child. I could say anything to him [like] ‘I wish I wasn’t a mother’ or ‘I hate my baby,’” says Rope, who had postpartum anxiety twice. “Rather than reacting emotionally or defensively, he would get me help.”
If there isn’t anyone you feel comfortable talking to, call the “warm line” for Postpartum Support International (PSI). Within 24 hours, someone who understands what you’re going through will return your call and help you find a local resource.
Exercise is a proven treatment for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, says Rope.
What physical activities do you find enjoyable? How can you make time for them?
This might mean asking a loved one to watch your baby while you do a 10-minute yoga practice on YouTube. It might mean taking morning walks with your baby or stretching before bed.
Join mom groups
Connection is critical to our mental health, especially when first-time motherhood can feel isolating.
Know all the signs of perinatal disorders
When we think of moms with depression, we picture the classic signs. Bone-deep sadness. Fatigue.
However, Rope says it’s more common to experience anxiety and red-hot rage. Moms can even become wired and hyper-productive. Rope includes a comprehensive list of symptoms on her website.
Make sure your support people know these signs, and your plan includes names and numbers for mental health professionals.
By the time moms finally see O’Brien they regularly tell her, “I should’ve contacted you 4 months ago, but I was in a fog and didn’t know what I needed or how to get there.”
Create a pact
Women who’ve struggled with depression and anxiety prior to pregnancy (or during pregnancy) are at an increased risk for perinatal mood disorders. Which is why O’Brien suggests couples sit down and complete the postpartum pact.
“Becoming a mother is difficult,” O’Brien says. “But you should not be suffering.”
You deserve to have a plan that honors your mental health.
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a freelance writer and associate editor at PsychCentral.com. She’s been writing about mental health, psychology, body image, and self-care for over a decade. She lives in Florida with her husband and their daughter. You can learn more at https://www.margaritatartakovsky.com.