Is “me time” a thing of the distant past? If you’re a new mom, it’s likely. Taking time out for a nap, a hobby — even just staring at a wall! — can seem daunting (if not downright impossible) with a new baby in the house. Sleep deprivation, adjustment to a new family structure and the hormonal changes of childbirth can lead to stress, unhappiness and, in some women, depression. Keeping yourself mentally healthy can be more challenging — and more important — at this time than at any other in your life.
According to recent studies, taking the time to take care of your own mental health needs isn’t selfish — it’s critical, especially for mothers. The maxim that you can’t be there for your child if you’re sick turns out to be true — not just for physical ailments, but mental ones as well. Numerous studies, including a 2006 study by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, have found a relationship between a mom’s depression and the risk of behavioral problems — or even psychiatric disorders — in kids.
But the risk of such disorders appears to decrease significantly in as few as three months when the child’s mom received treatment. These studies suggest that taking care of your mental health is not only good for you, it has direct benefits for your child.
What can I do?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out and get help, whether that means hiring someone to walk the dog or asking a doctor if what you are feeling is normal. Laura Chang, a Seattle mother of five, says she doesn’t take care of herself by herself. Her husband is essential. “A huge part of it is to be a team,” she says. Together, they make sure the demands of taking care of their brood don’t get the better of Chang by incorporating her mental health breaks into the family routine every week. One day a week, Chang’s husband comes home early so she can teach yoga — something she considers vital to her happiness. Chang suggests starting with “baby steps” — maybe just an hour every few days to take a walk alone or with a good friend.
And don’t just make taking care of yourself a priority, make it a habit. For Chang, that means treating her mental health breaks as needs, not wants. “It has to be part of the routine,” she says, “less ‘something to schedule in this week’ and more ‘something that just normally happens.’”
Try finding support outside the home by joining a parents’ group. It can be comforting to talk with others who have the same struggles and feelings, and other moms are often a source of great ideas on how to cope.
Is it just the ‘baby blues’?
How can you tell if the feelings you are having require something more than self-help? Most mothers (as many as 80 percent) experience the “baby blues”: feelings of stress, anxiety, weepiness and loneliness after having a child. But for an estimated 20 percent of all American moms, the “blues” are the deeper hued and more severe symptoms of postpartum depression. According to the American Psychological Association, mild cases often involve sleeplessness, anger, feelings of hopelessness and periods of crying. Extreme cases can even involve thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby.
Some experts believe postpartum depression is one of the most underreported mental health issues in our country. They attribute this to feelings of guilt in mothers, who likely think there is something wrong with them for having “bad” feelings in what is supposed to be a happy time.
But experts say that moms should know these feelings do not make them terrible people — just people in need of some help. And it doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many treatments available for postpartum depression (some chemical, some not), and there are many resources and groups available to help. If you have any question about whether you have postpartum depression — or any other mental health issue — don’t feel guilty or ashamed to talk to your doctor or to one of these groups. You are not alone, and you don’t need to deal with this problem alone. Whether experiencing full-fledged depression or a milder case of the “blues,” by recognizing, acknowledging and starting to address your feelings, you will have taken a big first step toward taking care of your mental health — and your baby’s.
Kathryn Russell Selk lives, works, writes and parents a 6-year-old and 8-month-old in Seattle, where she is trying to make her mental health breaks a part of the family’s routine.
Parent Trust for Washington Children
PEPS (Program for Early Parent Support)
In Snohomish County, 425-744-1199
Free “Mom and Baby” groups at Tacoma General Hospital
“Speak Up When You’re Down” is a free Web site and a toll-free number that offer information and help in identifying and treating postpartum depression.
Postpartum Support International of Washington
The Woman’s Comfort Book and Comfort Secrets for Busy Women, both by Jennifer Louden
Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else by Alice Domar
Dog walkers and general helpers can often be found on the local pages of Web sites such as craigslist.com.