Maternity can be a source of joy, but it can also be synonymous with difficulties and challenges. This is particularly the case during the postnatal period, which pushes the emotional and physical endurance of some mothers to their limits.
About 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth suffer from psychological disorders, mainly depression and anxiety. In developing countries, 20% of mothers experience clinical depression after giving birth.
Mothers who experience psychological problems after giving birth face the double challenge of having to manage motherhood together with their health problems. This can lead to internal conflict, and the fear of being judged and the shame of what they are living can prevent many women from asking for help.
When a baby is born, it is generally expected that everything will be suffused with the soft pink glow of motherhood. But in reality many women with postpartum depression may feel deep, persistent sadness, and lose interest in things in life. This may diminish their ability to take care of their baby, or cause them to develop inclinations for self-injury or even suicide.
Wear a mother mask
We conducted interviews with mothers with mental health problems during the postnatal period. These data were collected as part of a broader study, intended to explore how health visitors who worked with these women interacted with families.
We found that even in cases where mothers wanted help, there were barriers that prevented their acceptance. The women interviewed reported feeling fear, shame and guilt about being a mother and having poor psychological health. These feelings led them to disguise the deterioration of their mental state to their family, friends and the professionals who followed them.
When we were expecting happiness, finding ourselves in the face of a reality that combines parenting with the suffering of postpartum depression can be difficult to accept, as one of the mothers to whom we explained spoken:
"I did not feel any connection to the baby, and it made me feel more stressed. I thought I should have felt something; I needed to feel a firework inside. (37-year-old woman, mother of a child)
Faced with this internal conflict, mothers are ashamed of their psychological problems. Their feelings of guilt are associated with the belief that they do not deserve this maternity:
"I really sometimes looked at these two kids and said," You deserve better than me sitting there, unable to even get dressed for days. What kind of life am I preparing for you? "" (34-year-old woman, mother of two)
The mothers who participated in our study also expressed fear of society's judgment, saying that mental health issues are often considered to be related to poor parenting practices:
"I became more and more anxious:" They look at me, they think I'm a horrible mother, I'm a horrible mother. "" (38-year-old mother of three)
One of the mothers spoke of her fear that her children would be taken away from her if she told how she really felt. She thought that people would consider her a "poor mom". Many of the mothers we spoke to said that they went to great lengths to hide their psychological difficulties – from their family, friends and the outside world:
"You have this mask that you wear for society. And then there are days when you do not want to wear it. So you stay at home. (32-year-old woman, mother of two)
Mothers also felt judged more severely than fathers because of the widespread belief that women's love for their child is instinctive.
The "smiling depression", or when the smile masks a deep malaise
The reality of motherhood
To a certain extent, Western society has gone beyond the traditional roles of men and women. However, mothers continue to take on most of the child care responsibilities. And as our research shows, they feel stigmatized and fearful of being judged, which can lead them to conceal the deterioration of their mental health.
Our research also reveals how a lack of openness to psychological issues may mean preventing these women from being identified, thus depriving them of appropriate support. Without the latter, their mental health may deteriorate further, which could have deleterious consequences for the whole family.
Health care workers need to be concerned about understanding the impact that poor mental health can have on mothers. They must provide the opportunity to openly discuss parenting and mental health issues in a judgment-free environment.
The assumptions and expectations regarding motherhood also need to be revisited and discussed more openly with the general public, as the soft pink glow of motherhood does not shine for all mothers.