This guide was originally published on May 23, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
While the adage that “nothing can prepare you for parenthood” is mostly true, there are some things you can do to get into the right headspace before you have kids. Preparing mentally and emotionally during pregnancy can reduce the risk of mood disorders (like postpartum anxiety and depression) and ease the transition to parenthood. There’s a shift in identity that comes with becoming a parent and letting go of Instagram-glossy notions of the perfect pregnancy or birth can help immensely with this monumental life change.
Overestimate recovery time.
It’s helpful to overestimate how much recovery and support time you’ll need. Postpartum medical care generally ends after the six-week postpartum checkup, and hormones have usually evened out by that point. But studies have shown that it can take six months to a year to fully recover (physically and mentally) from childbirth. According to a study by researchers at the University of Michigan’s School of Nursing, it can take over eight months for pelvic floor recovery alone. Research by Dr. Julie Wray, Ph.D., of the University of Salford in England found that mothers need up to a year to recover. It’s just not realistic to expect to “bounce back” two weeks after birth. Unfortunately, it also may not be realistic to avoid going back to work.
To aid in recovery, Dr. Jephtha Tausig, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City, recommended that new mothers outsource some tasks. “If you can have others help with errands and chores (laundry, cleaning, making meals, etc.) that will make a huge difference,” she said. Don’t try to do it all, because that just might not be possible. Be gentle with yourself. “Being tired and slightly overwhelmed is all completely normal — you can’t plan to accomplish much if you are the primary caregiver at home with baby,” noted Dr. Nataki Douglas, M.D., Ph.D., a Newark, N.J.-based ob-gyn and an associate professor and director of translational research for the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School.
When to Worry
Once you’ve had your baby, it’s important to be monitored for significant changes in mood for that first year of your child’s life, said Springer, “because we don’t know the precise impact of the combination of an individual’s ‘ghosts in the nursery’: lack of sleep, pressures of work, finances and relationships and hormonal changes.” Fluctuations are normal, to an extent. The “baby blues,” for instance: Up to 80 percent of new mothers experience mood swings, sadness or anxiety soon after childbirth. But if you notice more serious symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts about hurting the baby or yourself, tell other people and seek support. You can discuss symptoms with your ob-gyn or go to a therapist for help. “It is important to know that anyone, regardless of culture, age or history, is at greater risk for mental health challenges during the perinatal period,” said Dr. Morelen. This risk increases if you have a personal or family history of mental health problems; have experienced significant trauma; have a history of drug or alcohol problems; live in poverty; have major financial stressors; or if you don’t have a good social support system.
Even with adequate support, postpartum depression or other mood disorders can strike. “It’s important that we’re talking and sharing about it so that women realize that PPD is nothing to be ashamed of,” Dr. Douglas said.
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