Motherhood can be a source of joy, but it can also pose difficulties and challenges, particularly in the post-natal period. It is a time when the emotional and physical resistance of some mothers is pushed to the limit.
About 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental illness, mainly depression and anxiety. In developing countries, 20% of mothers suffer from post-natal clinical depression.
Mothers who have post-natal mental health problems face the dual challenge of managing motherhood along with the health problem. This balancing act can cause internal conflict – but fears of being judged and shame about what they are experiencing can act as a barrier, preventing many women from seeking help.
C & # 39; s an expectation that having a baby will result in the rosy glow of motherhood. But postnatal depression can leave many women with a persistent feeling of deep sadness and a loss of interest in life. This could reduce their ability to take care of their child or leave them with thoughts of self-harm or even suicide.
A mother's mask
We conducted interviews with mothers with mental health problems during the postnatal period. These were collected as part of a larger study, which explored the family-based practice of health visitors working with these women.
We found that while the mothers wanted support, there were obstacles to accepting it. The mothers with whom we spoke felt fear, shame and guilt for being a mother with mental health problems. These feelings have led mothers to cover up their deterioration of mental health, from family, friends and professionals.
And with an expectation of happiness, the reality of parenting mixed with that of postnatal depression can be difficult to accept, as one of the mothers we spoke with explained:
I didn't feel a connection with the child, and this was stressing me even more. I was thinking that I need to hear something here; I need to feel like the fireworks that go off here. (Mother of one, 37 years old)
With this internal conflict, mothers describe feelings of guilt and shame for their mental health problems, along with the belief that they did not deserve motherhood:
Sometimes I looked at these two children and thought, you deserve better than me who is sitting here and can't dress for days. What kind of life am I giving you? (Mother of two, 34 years)
Mothers in our study also talked about fearing society's judgment, believing that society equates mental health problems with bad parents:
I was becoming more and more anxious. They look at me, they think I'm a terrible mother, I'm a terrible mother. (Mother of three, 38 years)
One of the mothers talked about the fears her children would take away if she told people how she really felt – believing that people saw her as "not being a fit mom". Many of the mothers we spoke to talked about doing everything to hide their difficulties with their mental health – whether from their family, friends or the outside world:
You have that mask you put on for society. And then you have days when you simply don't want to wear that mask so you stay at home. (Mother of two, 32 years)
Mothers also felt they were judged harder than fathers because of the widespread hypothesis that women had instinctual love for their children.
The reality of motherhood
To some extent, Western society has outgrown traditional gender roles, yet mothers still predominantly exercise most of the care that children bear. And as our research shows that mothers feel stigmatized and fear judgment – which can cause them to cover their deteriorating mental health.
Our research also shows that a lack of openness to mental health problems may mean that these women will not be identified and cannot receive adequate support. Without support there is a risk that their mental health will deteriorate further, potentially producing negative outcomes for the whole family.
Services must develop a deeper understanding of the impact of poor mental health on mothers and offer mothers the opportunity to openly discuss parenting and mental health, in an environment without judgment.
Maternity assumptions and expectations must also be re-examined and discussed more openly with the general public, since the rosy glow of motherhood does not reflect the universal experience of all mothers.