Becoming a parent for the first time is a period of excitement and joy, but it also means learning new skills and developing new worries. What happens when the typical new motherhood anxieties and challenges come as our world experiences a pandemic? How can new mothers cope and adjust when the same people they would normally lean on are now socially distanced and anxiety is even more heightened?
Many parents of young children have had, in recent days, the decidedly unenviable experience of finding our typical set of daily anxieties replaced by a new set of previously unimagined worries: How will our children learn in the absence of school? How will we finish our work? How will we survive in an economy, where so many jobs have suddenly evaporated? Most of us would typically rely heavily on our social supports, the web of trusted family and friendships we have spent years nurturing, to mitigate this stress. It can be alarming to find these very sources of support walled off through mandated social distancing and by the very source of our own worry- the coronavirus pandemic.
This set of challenges is further heightened in new parents. We are increasingly familiar with the concept of postpartum depression, in which new mothers (and their partners) are susceptible to prolonged and severe low mood, loss of enjoyment, tearfulness, difficulty sleeping even when the baby is sleeping, and the struggle to care for oneself.
In studies of women during the perinatal and postpartum periods, a risk factor that comes up repeatedly is the lack of social support. There are cultures around the world that actively mitigate this risk through well-integrated and expected programs of weeks of in-home support for new mothers (e.g. the Chinese practice of “doing the month” or the Latin American “la cuarentena;” Dennis et al., 2007). These practices help to reduce the isolation of new motherhood and create a supportive space for the new mother to focus on healing and bonding with the baby. In the United States, where these practices are less common, nurturance is often focused on the baby rather than the mother, and support is contingent on the mother’s ability and willingness to ask for help as well as her loved ones’ levels of availability, comfort, and intimacy with the mother.
It is already challenging to harness needed support after childbirth, even without introducing a pandemic. However, the added stress of the pandemic means that social support is more important than ever for everyone, especially for new mothers.
There is ample evidence that in the face of trauma, people with strong community networks fare better. Studies of mothers living in flood-ravaged areas during Hurricane Katrina remind us that resilience is best cultivated through our connections with others (Lowe, Chan & Rhodes, 2010).
New mothers now face unique challenges in creating and maintaining connection with others during this time of enforced social isolation. Fortunately, solutions are increasingly available within this new context. With creativity, new parents and caring loved ones can and should facilitate new avenues of connection; here are some ways to do so.
- Schedule online dates with social groups or family members. Folks spread across the country are holding scheduled “Zoom calls” (or whatever your preferred online platform is) as a means to connect on a regular basis. If you are a soon to be new mother, a new mother, or the loved one of a new mother, go ahead and get some calls on the schedule to check in. Approach the call not as we might have in the past, as an opportunity for rich conversation to catch up, but as a time just to be near the other person. You could set up the phone while you both watch Netflix, or tell stories while Mom feeds the baby.
- Don’t skip previously planned activities; just switch them over to online. We have a coworker who is pregnant, due in June. We had big plans for an adorable baby shower at a tearoom, which will obviously not be happening. Instead, we’ll send her our presents and have our tea party through video conferencing. Creative ways to continue to make memories and signify special occasions can be found online or through talking to friends. This goes for self-care activities and important health appointments as well: New mothers can access wellness communities who have rapidly shifted into the online space, including yoga and fitness classes and meditation groups. Here at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas, we are offering psychiatric appointments and therapy services specifically for the benefit of new parents.
- Develop comfort with being direct about what you need. Prior to the pandemic, it may have been easier for social situations to naturally unfold, for casual conversations to deepen when the right questions were asked, and for others to notice when support is needed. Social distancing means we need to be more purposeful about creating time with others and more vulnerable about what we need. This means both in terms of connecting with loved ones online and advocating for that time with our partners in terms of childcare. There is a skill from Linehan’s (2014) Dialectical Behavior Therapy manual that is useful for this: DEAR: Describe the situation (e.g. “I haven’t talked with my friends yet today”), Express how you feel (e.g. “I’m feeling really sad and alone.”), Ask for what you want (e.g. “Can I have an hour to chat with them this afternoon?”), Reinforce them for giving it to you (e.g. “I would appreciate it so much.”). Things are difficult enough these days without feeling angry that someone isn’t getting the hint about what we need or feeling exhausted trying to weed through someone’s comments to figure out what they want. Practicing being assertive will eliminate considerable stress.
Parenting is tough, and being a new parent can be overwhelming. Throw in a pandemic and things may seem completely insurmountable. To make it through and potentially even find meaning in the process, we must find a balance between acceptance of the unplanned and unwanted, and swift and purposeful adaption so that our social support is as engaged as it can be.
About The Menninger Clinic Authors:
Dr. Elisabeth Netherton is board certified in psychiatry and neurology, specializing in women’s mental health issues and the psychiatric treatment of women and men before, during, and after the birth of a child.
Dr. Jessica Combs Rohr is an expert in women’s mental health and serious mental illness who is a staff psychologist at Menninger and an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. She also serves as a research mentor for psychology and social work fellows and interns.