What is Maternal Mental Health?

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In my darkness, my son continues to be my light!

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By Susana Marquez, MFT & Mommy In Los Angeles® Magazine Wellness Columnist

I knew what the term mental health meant when I became a mom three years ago.  I have been working in the field for over 10 years; I have gone through extensive education as a student and clinician in grad school and in many training sessions, so of course the term was not new to me. 

And then it hit me. 

Like someone punching me in the stomach without warning, completely off guard and leaving me without any air, Maternal Mental Health. What’s the difference from regular mental health? Was it another label, category to place mothers in who were not behaving “normal”?  Well I was about to find out the hard way!

See I had a rough pregnancy. Working full time and finishing up my doctorate program was taking a toll on me emotionally and mentally.  I was feeling very stressed and even though the signs of depression were there for me, now that I look back, I just thought it was everything going on that was causing me to not enjoy my pregnancy. 

Being a mental health clinician gave me an upper hand to do a self checklist and scale where I was emotionally and mentally during my pregnancy but the pure joy of holding my son, the baby showers I had, preparing the nursery and seeing my parents beam of pure delight at their first and only grandson, made me think I was overanalyzing my feelings and that it would “all go away” after the baby was born, boy was I wrong!

Fast forward to my son’s birth and the fact that it was not even close to what I had planned in my head and written down as my birth plan shook me to the core.  Not only was I angry and hurt that I had to get an epidural; it was not what I had planned, but also that a lot of my decisions were ignored due to “hospital policies”.  So in other words, at the most beautiful moment, the blessing I had been waiting to hold also became my breaking point.  It was the depression that would haunt me and steal the joy of motherhood from my heart.

But how is that possible one may ask?  How is it that the joy of giving life to your child can break a woman?  Celebrities have spoken about it, but very little.  I clearly remember Brooke Shields talking about postpartum depression years before I even thought of becoming a mother and I could not fathom such idea.  Her words seemed unreal and not possible.  And what about Andrea Yates? She drowned her 5 children. I remember that story very well because that case intrigued me, wanting to find out why she did what she did, yet to everyone she was a murderer and there was no forgiving her. I know. I had the same thoughts myself.

And then I became a mother.  The term maternal mental health was introduced to me as I did my own research on my feelings and emotions.  In the middle of all my darkness, my loneliness, my sadness, the crying and feeling like the worst mother ever, I was curious to find out what was really happening to me.  Once I began putting the puzzle together, it all began to make sense and I had answers to all my questions.

Maternal mental health encompasses the mental and emotional well being of a new mother.  Every year in Los Angeles alone, 130,000 women give birth a year.  According to the Department of Health, it is estimated that 20% of these mothers experience depression, making the risk greater in low-income communities.  A sad part about this is that fewer than 1 in 4 moms are actually screened.  So in other words, there are thousands of moms suffering from postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and other perinatal mood disorders that have not been screened or are not receiving the proper treatment.  That is mind-boggling.

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But yet when we talk about maternal mental health many clinicians, social workers, mothers, and all other professional in the field think Andrea Yates.  Meaning, if something is wrong with the mother, then something will absolutely happen to the child and he/she is in immediate danger and must be removed from the mother.  Now don’t get me wrong, if these issues are not treated, then yes the risks are greater, but then again that is for any illness that is not treated. So why does maternal mental health continue to be a taboo, so scary to talk about, something we refuse to acknowledge? Could it be because our society and culture continues to perpetuate the façade and severe distorted reality that motherhood is all love, butterflies in your stomach, everyone on cloud nine, hugs and kisses, unicorns, babies always sleep, getting back into pre baby weight like the celebrities and always attempting to look flawless even while changing a diaper. Really? Who are we kidding? No motherhood journey is perfect, not even close. Yes, some days may be better than others and granted some days may be even better than your average good day but then you fight with your husband, you forgot something at the grocery store, dinner is store bought, you finished the bottle of wine when you said only one glass and your child slept miserably which of course so did you! Welcome to motherhood!

So next time you think about maternal mental health, think about your overall well-being emotionally and mentally.  Think about did you eat and if so, did you have a balanced healthy meal or just ate whatever sufficed at that moment?  Did you get enough sleep, are you exercising, are you not overwhelming yourself with so many to do’s on your list, are you sharing the tasks and daily chores, do you have a support system, have you asked for help, what are you doing for self-care and stress management, have you connected with other moms, have you let go of unnecessary expectations, are you checking in with yourself to see what needs have not been met, but most importantly are you HAPPY? All of these questions are important when talking about maternal mental health because these are all issues that we mother’s face. Being a new mom is not just about how the baby is doing or developing. It’s about getting to the core of that mother and finding out where she is at mentally and emotionally, does she need a break, a meal, a hug, some alone time, a nap or just someone that will listen to her cry and vent without judgment, simply listen.

There is more to be asked of new mothers, more conversations to be had about maternal mental health to bring awareness and education into our communities and shed light on the realities of motherhood.  Better assessments, treatments and interventions need to be made available to all mothers regardless of socioeconomic status or other factors.  Even though my motherhood journey was and has not been easy, in my darkness, my son continues to be my light!

Feel Empowered. Feel Strong. Feel Validated Mommas.

Anabel MarquezComment