Maternal Mental Health: Mommy Brain?

Before having a child of my own, I spent 3.5 years working in a home based child abuse prevention program. I would screen new mothers for postpartum depression and help link them to mental health resources, while I was working on my master’s degree in social work to be a therapist myself. I would listen to them talk about “postpartum” when referencing their emotional state after giving birth and constantly heard the phrase, “I have mommy brain” or “I don’t know what’s going on with me, I’m not myself.” Never did I truly understand the weight of these phrases until I gave birth to my daughter earlier this year. 

When discussing maternal mental health, most people only know to ask about postpartum depression (PPD), but there are so many more facets of maternal mental health that need to be asked about and talked about in general. Physicians screen for PPD at appointments, but most of the time the screen isn’t discussed with the mother unless she scores in the “high risk” category and no follow-up is made if not. The questions ask about sleep, joy, laughter, and coping. I remember answering these questions three weeks postpartum and at the time thinking, “well, duh, I am not coping as well as before because I am learning a new role.” So I was honest, but I didn’t have a “high” score on the screen, so the physician saw the low score and then didn’t ask me a single additional question about my mental health. If the PPD screen was low, I must be doing fine right? 

At this very appointment, I had actually been having intrusive thoughts and fears since being released from the hospital that somehow my child was going to be hurt. I had these scary images of her falling out of my arms when I walked down the stairs, or falling off our balcony, or stopping breathing at night. Some days it took all I had to push these images out of my head. I talked with my husband about these thoughts and he helped me to manage them and checked in to see how my mental health was many times throughout each day. He encouraged me to seek help as needed. Thankfully, these thoughts subsided with each passing day as I became more comfortable in my role as a new mom, but I felt so alone in these thoughts and feelings. Why had no one warned me about this? 

Everyone told me I would be bringing home this new person, but they didn’t warn me that I would be a new person too.

I am now doing great with no intrusive thoughts whatsoever and my daughter is 2 months old. My thoughts stopped in what is considered a “normal amount of time” but I know I am lucky in that sense. Thankfully I have a wonderful support system at home and I am educated on mental health topics and warning signs because of my career, so I knew when something was off with me, but all I could think about was, what if I wasn’t educated? What if I had no support and no one to check in? What happens to all the women who aren’t fine but score “low” on the PPD scale? What happens when women are experiencing a different maternal mental health issue that doesn’t fall under the postpartum depression umbrella? What about the dads and partners that are struggling with the transition? The adoptive parents?

So, I started doing my research. Not only can new parents experience postpartum depression (notice I said parents – fathers/partners can experience this too), but they can also experience postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD, and even postpartum psychosis. 13% of new mothers in the US, 19% in other countries, are reported to experience some type of perinatal mood disorder (World Health Organization). This statistic likely doesn’t include adoptive mothers, and even more likely doesn’t include fathers and partners. 

WHY does no one talk about these mental health concerns with pregnant women and new parents?  Why is the only image we have of maternal mental health a mom hurting her baby? 

We have to do better.

The first way I can contribute to doing better is by sharing my postpartum experience with others. I experienced intrusive, scary thoughts for several weeks postpartum. I wasn’t coping with them well at first, and I was crying and fearful more than ever. I talked about them, shared them, tackled them with support, and it didn’t make me a bad mom.

I now have a “mommy brain” and I am proud of it because that means I care about the safety and wellbeing of myself so that I can care for my daughter and keep her safe as well. I am not the same woman I was before I gave birth to my daughter and I am still getting to know this new woman who came home from the hospital a few months ago. My priorities are different. My self-care needs are different. My worries are ever changing. 

But my power and strength and resilience — they are all growing by the day — and I am so incredibly proud of this new person I am becoming. 

Find Help and Support:

https://www.postpartum.net/get-help/locations/ 

Resources

World Health Organization (n.d.). Maternal and child mental health. https://www.who.int/mental_health/maternal-child/maternal_mental_health/en/

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