The best kept secret of parenthood – it is hard work!

Having a baby is a beautiful and wonderful thing, but it can sometimes feel traumatic, depressing and frightening. A woman I know, who has 3 grown up children and a grandchild on the way, said to me, “everyone is so excited and happy when a 1st pregnancy is announced, but I just want to say, ‘oh shame, you poor thing…you have no idea what you’re in for…but of course I don’t say that…I just say, ‘congratulations’ and pretend to be delighted as well. Lots of people will own up to the ‘best kept secret’ that babies are sometimes hard and parenthood – particularly motherhood – can be grueling but at the same time, of course, be the best thing in the world.

Some facts

  • Women are more likely to become depressed in the first year after having a baby (and the last trimester in pregnancy) than any other time in their lives
  • 10-15% of mothers develop postnatal depression (PND), and in developing countries and poverty stricken areas, the figures are much higher
  • Research has shown that 1/3 of Khayelitsha moms suffer from PND
  • Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in developed countries
  • The new father can also get depressed. Dads often feel left out and unwanted when babies come along.

As a new mom, it’s so easy to feel frustrated, disappointed, confused, depressed and anxious when you’re expected to be blissfully happy. The media contributes to this problem by perpetuating a lie about motherhood and babies by publishing only pictures of young, beautiful, skinny, model mothers, and bouncy, smiley, contented babies. There are relatively few pictures in baby and parenting magazines of the graveyard shift, mothers looking and feeling like hell, trying to soothe an unhappy baby, trying to breastfeed a screaming baby who can’t seem to latch, etc. In the context of this fairy tale, idealized image of how motherhood and babies are supposed to be, the reality can feel like a huge let down. It can even feel like a betrayal.

A Cape Town couple, Lisa Lazarus and Greg Fried, co-wrote The book of Jacob which, unlike most other books about babies, is an honest, frank description of the hell they experienced during the first year of their son’s life. Although loads of people have loved this book and find it a huge relief that others too struggle with parenthood, Lisa and Greg have received hate mail from outraged readers who couldn’t bear the fact that these brave parents owned up to how hard it can be having a baby. In writing this book, they shattered the image of perfect, idealized babies and parents.

The truth is that real babies can disappoint their parents sometimes …especially sick babies, colicky or refluxy babies, unplanned babies, high need babies who cry a lot and are irritable and difficult to soothe, babies who don’t feed well, and babies who are abnormal or handicapped in some way. It’s very disappointing when you realize that your baby can’t meet your own unmet needs and he won’t be everything you want him to be.

In addition to this, motherhood goes hand in hand with a substantial number of significant losses, such as:

  • your sense of self and aspects of your identity
  • your own life takes a back seat and the level of self-sacrifice is very high
  • your freedom and personal space and time
  • your status and credibility (motherhood is undervalued)
  • your relationship with your spouse becomes altered
  • your sexuality and physical appearance…there’s no time or energy to make yourself look beautiful and most moms would rather sleep than have sex
  • your career and financial freedom
  • independence and marital equality
  • energy levels are compromised
  • sleep deprivation takes a terrible toll on your mental state
  • your mental health can become compromised

What can help?

The loving support of a spouse is really important! Part of the dad’s role in the beginning is to look after the new mother. Support from friends and family is also protective, as long as it is the kind of support that empowers rather than controls. Often your own mother can be the most powerful factor that either strengthens or undermines your ability to cope as a new mom. Connecting with other people, especially other new moms, is extremely important. New mothers are often socially isolated, and being alone with an unhappy baby is not easy.

If you find yourself struggling as a new parent or if you need emotional support or guidance with your baby, contact one of our Babies in Mind practitioners in your area, either to join one of our workshops, attend one of our talks, or for individual consultations.  All our practitioners are mental health professionals with specialized training and expertise.

By Clinical Psychologist Jenny Perkel