There are a number of “Myths of Motherhood” that can make it difficult for women with perinatal mental health issues to ask for help. One of these myths is that the postpartum period is a time when new mothers should be overjoyed every moment of every day. In truth, new mothers can expect to experience the full range of emotions when adjusting to caring for a newborn, including joy but also sadness, anxiety, and anger. However, mothers often feel guilty and ashamed about having negative feelings or thoughts during the postpartum period, and feel reluctant to tell friends or family about these feelings and thoughts. Many women fear they will be seen as “bad mothers” or “a failure” if they talk about these negative experiences. For this reason, postpartum depression can be a terribly isolating illness. It can be very difficult for a new mother and her family to tell if symptoms are a normal part of adjustment to caring for a baby and recovering from childbirth, or if they represent a depression.
Common “Myths of Motherhood”
- Becoming a mother means you’ll feel happy all the time.
In truth, new mothers can expect to experience the full range of emotions when adjusting to caring for a newborn, including joy but also sadness, anxiety, and anger. Parenting is a demanding and complex responsibility that can leave even experienced moms feeling overwhelmed. Motherhood is a 24/7 job with no scheduled time off, no training, limited feedback, and social isolation. It is perfectly natural to love your baby and still dislike some aspects of parenthood, like sleep deprivation, lack of contact with other adults, etc. There is no shame in admitting that being a mother is not easy. However, mothers often feel guilty and ashamed about having negative feelings or thoughts during the postpartum period, and feel reluctant to tell friends or family about these feelings and thoughts because they fear they will be seen as “bad mothers”.
- Bonding with your baby will happen instantly and effortlessly.
Although some women have this experience, most women do not. For most women, bonding with their child is a process that occurs over time as their child develops. This myth can lead to confusion and guilt for women who don’t experience an instant bond, a feeling of worry that there is something wrong with them, or guilt that “I don’t love my baby enough”.
- Breastfeeding is easy because it’s natural.
It’s very common for new mothers to have troubles with breastfeeding. The entire field of lactation consultants exists because women need help and support with this “natural” process. Breastfeeding can be difficult and sometimes painful, and many women need help to be able to breastfeed their babies. Some women are unable to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, and this does not make them less loving or nurturing as mothers. Breastfeeding is only one of the many ways a mother can take good care of her child, and being able to breastfeed easily has no connection with whether or not a woman is a good mother.
- Being a mother is easy because it’s natural.
Motherhood is often seen by society as instinctive, with the assumption that once a woman gives birth to a baby she will automatically know how to nurture, feed, and soothe her child. In truth, although most women feel some degree of maternal instinct, most mothering skills are developed through social learning. Social learning means that women learn by caring for other children and watching others care for children while they’re growing up, before they have their own child. In North America, many nuclear families are separated from extended family, and many women grow up without any opportunity for social learning around caring for a child. This means that a woman is starting from scratch when learning to care for her own baby, at a time when she is exhausted from childbirth and sleep-deprived. Not an ideal time to try to learn new skills!
- There’s one right way to be a good mother.
There are many equally good but different ways a mother can take care of her baby; there is not one “perfect” way to be a mother. Motherhood and perfectionism don’t usually mesh very well together. Sometimes other people who are trying to be supportive can undermine a woman’s confidence by offering unwanted advice. Whether it’s about feeding, sleeping, diapers, or playing, doing things in a way that works for you and your family is the best strategy.
- You won’t miss the life you had before becoming a parent.
It’s normal to feel a sense of loss with the things you have to give up after having a baby, including losing the freedom to relax or to have some personal time when you want. It’s no longer easy to go for coffee with a friend, run an errand, watch a movie, or even rest when you feel tired. Sometimes even having a shower feels like a major achievement in the first few months postpartum!
- Motherhood is all you should think about after having a baby.
Mothers often think their role is to devote all their time and energy to their baby, even if it means neglecting their own needs. It’s vital for moms to remember and honor their own goals, thoughts and emotions, and to make time to take care of themselves (see Good Self-Care). Happy Mom = Happy Baby!
- The relationship with your partner will be better than ever.
The perinatal period (pregnancy and the postpartum) is a period of tremendous change for both mothers and fathers. You may form a closer bond as parents over time, but expect this to take some work and to cause some mutual frustration.
- Parenting books will be helpful.
Some books about parenthood are quite informative, but others can create unrealistic expectations about caring for a baby. Statements like “if you follow this routine, your baby will be sleeping through the night at three weeks” can add to feelings of failure when mothers have a hard time achieving the results promised in the book. Other books highlight the joys and minimize the difficulties of motherhood, contributing to a woman’s feeling of failure if she is not happy all the time (see above).
- Good mothers can do it all on their own.
In most societies around the world, both in the past and currently, caring for children is a family responsibility that is shared between the mother herself and several other (usually female) relatives, e.g. grandmothers, aunts, cousins. In North America, couples often live far away from extended family, which decreases the availability of this traditional type of support. It’s natural for a woman to need social contact with other adults and help with the baby during the postpartum period. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help! It is a sign of strength and wisdom to let supportive family and friends into your life. Asking for and accepting help prevents you from burning out. Remember – parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself!
Myths of Motherhood: True or False?
- I’m thinking about having a baby, but I have battled with depression in the past, which means I am doomed to getting PPD. FALSE!
Although having a past history of depression or mental illness can increase your risk of developing a perinatal mental illness, it does not necessarily mean you WILL develop one. There are some proactive steps you can take to be prepared if a perinatal mental illness does hit. The first step is being honest with your partner, doctor and public health nurse.
- PPD is something that will never happen to me. FALSE!
PPD and related illnesses are the most common complication of childbirth. As many as 1 in 8 new moms experience some form of perinatal mental illness. PPD does not discriminate. Even celebrities such as Gweneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields, Marie Osmond, Courtney Cox and Princess Diana have struggled with a perinatal mood disorder.
- PPD can only happen to women. FALSE!
New studies show that 1 in 10 men can experience some degree of paternal PPD. Approximately 50% of men whose partners have PPD are at risk of becoming depressed themselves.
- Women with PPD look depressed and cry all the time. FALSE!
PPD is not a one size fits all illness. The symptoms are unique for every woman and while it’s true that some women with PPD may cry a lot, many don’t. With the lack of awareness in society about PPD and related illnesses, many mothers feel too ashamed and guilty to admit their PPD for fear of being labeled as a “bad mother”. Many women mask their illness and suffer in silence.
- I have PPD – therefore I am a bad mother. FALSE!
PPD is an illness. Just like diabetes is an illness. Having diabetes doesn’t make you a bad mother, so why would having PPD? This is not your fault and it does not make you a bad mom. You did not choose this. It is the most common complication of childbirth and it can happen to anyone. You are not to blame. You are the best mother for your child and it’s okay to ask for help.
- I would get better if I could just get more sleep. TRUE & FALSE!
Though insomnia and fatigue can worsen PPD, simply getting a good night’s sleep will not fix the problem. Getting adequate sleep is vital to recovery, but generally treatment requires a combination of treatment options such as counselling, support groups, increasing social support, improving self-care, talk therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, group therapy and/or medication.
- I had PPD with my first, so I am doomed to get it again. FALSE!
The bad news is that there is a 50% chance that you will develop PPD again. But the silver lining is that there is also a 50% chance that you won’t. And just think of how much better prepared you will be the next time around. You will have many more tools for your mommy toolbox.
The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women by Susan Douglas & Meredith Michaels
Breaking the Good Mom Myth: Every Mom’s Modern Guide to Getting Past Perfection, Regaining Sanity, and Raising Great Kids by Alyson Schafer
The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality by Christy Turlington Burns & Avital Nathman
Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box by Anne Dunnewold
Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother by Shari L. Thurer
Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why it Shouldn’t by Suzanne Barston