We Need to Celebrate New Parents Who Make Mental Health a Priority
I never disclosed that I was an abuse survivor to the staff at the hospital where I gave birth to my first child, but when I was in my 50th (yes, 50th) hour of back labor and third hour of pushing, a nurse took my husband aside and asked him if I had a history of sexual abuse. She explained that she “sees this a lot” where labor does not progress well in traumatized women. I eventually gave birth to my magically perfect child, but I was too lost in the pain, past and present, unable to think, speak, or function, due to what I now understand to be complex PTSD (C-PTSD).
I didn’t know it as trauma at the time; I only knew it as shame. All I was able to feel when I brought a magnificent being into this world whom I love with my whole heart was a debilitating toxic shame for already not being enough. My first task as a mother, and I could not give my child a smooth start. I carried that shame into the following days, weeks, and months when I failed to breastfeed. Shame stayed up with me all night while I pumped instead of sleeping. When lack of sleep pushed me to my limits, shame pushed me over the edge. I fell completely apart due to untreated, minimized, and ignored depression, anxiety, panic, and PTSD all expressed as fear and shame because I was terrified of messing up my own kid.
Being a new parent is hard enough, but when one must also manage their own mental health issues amid caring for the needs of their baby, it may sometimes feel impossible. Many new parents agonize over making the right decisions for their child, especially in the first year when the words “crucial age of development” are stamped onto their minds. However, in caring for their baby, the mental health needs of new parents tend to get tossed out with the bathwater. Moms with a history of mental health needs are exponentially more likely to experience anxiety and depression during pregnancy and postpartum, yet few (in the United States) are given more than a pamphlet and a prescription to understand, process, and cope.
Even more so, survivors of childhood trauma face a particular challenge when having children of their own. The decision of whether to have children is often related to childhood trauma. Pregnancy, birth, and the “fourth trimester” where the baby needs constant contact is challenging for almost anyone, but childhood trauma survivors who are new parents may feel an extra need to “prove” they are worthy parents, both to themselves and anyone else who may be watching.
With all this added stress, some trauma survivors are incredibly resilient when faced with new parent challenges, because it gives them something to focus on other than their own past. After all, being on call to a tiny human 24 hours a day requires new parents to be in constant survival mode, and it’s easy for trauma survivors to park here without even realizing they are dissociating or lost in their own familiar trauma responses. Survivors survive, and they will survive the challenges of being a new parent. But in order to thrive and to be truly present for parenthood, it means taking excellent care of their own mental health. Trauma recovery and mental health maintenance is a lifelong process. Being willing to reprogram old brain junk at every new stage of life requires courage with every step.
New parents often receive tons of unsolicited “advice” on caring for their child, which can add to the already gargantuan load of stress and pressure for a trauma survivor. I would never presume to give blind advice to a new parent without knowing their situation, but I can now give advice to myself.
Here’s what I needed someone to tell me:
“Hey, I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but you’ve got this. Before you say, do, or think anything else, get some sleep. Like, a whole eight hours all at once. If your circumstances absolutely can’t allow it, hang in there and don’t make any judgments about yourself until you can. Promptly punch anyone in the throat who makes you feel like any less of a mother because you can’t breastfeed, make your own baby food, or exercise daily. Take your meds. Acknowledge your limitations — they make you human. You don’t need to go to that mommy playdate that gives you social anxiety. The only requirement is to love yourself and love your child.”
By the way, I now have nearly 18 years of parenting experience, and my oldest graduates soon. Turns out he’s pretty great, and our relationship is founded on mutual love, trust, and respect. Yesterday, I got a call from the school psychologist who was assessing my youngest, and she told me how much he talked about his love and admiration for his parents and siblings, whom he considers his “best friends.” And while I may not be able to keep my kids from experiencing their own mental health challenges, I am committed to supporting them through it. For me, what makes me able to claim my status as a great mom is prioritizing mental health, especially my own.
Photo by Jenna Norman on Unsplash