Post Natal Depression- When Ideals Don’t Match Reality
By Clinical Psychologist, Erika Fiorenza
“Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist”.
- Michael Levine
Becoming a parent is one of the biggest life changes a person can undergo. There are changes to their routine, lifestyle, and relationships, ever while parent and child learn together how to do almost everything. And yet, we often expect to effortlessly and naturally slip into this role.
There are a number of unrealistic expectations and misperceptions that can perpetuate distress in the postnatal period. Postnatal Depression Awareness Week is a great time to highlight some of the myths that new parents can get caught up with. Some of these common thoughts can include:
“This should be the happiest time of my life”
“I should know what to do”
“I wouldn’t have these thoughts if I was a good mother”
“If I’m not doing well, I’m not a good mother”
“My life is good….I shouldn’t be feeling depressed”
When these ‘ideals’ don’t seem to match up to reality, mothers (and fathers) can experience feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness.
In addition, the stigma connected to even expressing any dissatisfaction or difficulty with parenting can hold people back from seeking help, leading to further feelings of isolation and helplessness. We all have the tendency to ‘compare upwards’. It is common for new mothers to compare themselves and their baby’s development to that of their peers and conclude that “everyone else is doing well”.
Women with postnatal distress that present for therapy can describe a number of these unhelpful thoughts. When they become ‘entangled’ or ‘caught up’ with these thoughts they find themselves moving further away from the parent, partner, or person they want to be. There are a number of studies suggesting that cognitive processes (such as those in postnatal depression) can impact on a mother’s capacity to respond to her baby and the outside world (Stein et al., 2012).
In therapy, we work on normalising these thoughts, and help people learn skills to manage their thinking, such that it has less influence over their mood and actions. In addition to dealing with painful thoughts, therapy for postnatal disorders may also include dealing with painful feelings, urges and sensations.
Another critical part of therapy is getting back into activity. Low motivation (one of the main symptoms of depression) leads to doing less, enjoying less, and consequently feeling worse.
It’s hard to feel ‘normal’ when we don’t do normal things
If ‘normal’ is having contact with friends or doing daily activities like cooking a meal or going to the shop, then this is where we start. In therapy we work on helping people identify what it is they value. Identifying values such as ‘self-care’, ‘challenge’ or ‘acceptance’ can help parents reconnect with what is important, and help clarify goals for moving forward.
There is a lot of great information online about the signs and symptoms of postnatal disorders. Check out: www.beyondblue.org.au, www.panda.org.au, and www.blackdoginstitute.org.au for more information. Becoming more informed is the first step to seeking help and starting to debunk the ‘myths’.
Psychology Consultants have a number of Clinical Psychologists who are experienced in Post Natal Depression treatment. Visit www.psychologyconsultants.com.au
Stein A, Craske MG, Lehtonen A, Harvey A, Savage-McGlynn E, Davies B, Goodwin J, Murray L, Cortina-Borja M, Counsell N. (2012). Maternal cognitions and mother-infant interaction in postnatal depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121, 795-809