Why Mom’s Mental Health is More Important Than Ever
Moms’ mental health has been hit hard by the pandemic, with experts reporting higher rates of anxiety and depression. Here’s how to avoid burnout.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a mental health crisis (or, some would argue, worsened one we were already in the midst of). Nobody is immune from it—especially moms. The pandemic may be waning, but the psychological impact of a traumatic two years certainly isn’t.
“Prior to the pandemic, the rates of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) were one in five. Over the past two years those rates have increased to 50 to 70 percent,” says Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, Founding Director of The Motherhood Center in New York. She believes that isolation, lack of support, and having to manage even higher levels of stress has caused enormous distress for perinatal women.
Therapist Rachael Benjamin, LCSW, from New York’s Tribeca Therapy, agrees that the pandemic has impacted moms in many ways.
“It increased stress about family care, childcare, and schools, and isolation and loneliness by forcing some families and mothers to stay home and isolate together as a family away from their supportive social circles and village mentality,” Benjamin explains.
Pandemic Pressure on Moms
For moms who were also essential workers, the stress was often heightened by the requirement to take a known risk of getting sick or their kids getting sick, she adds. They also had limited childcare and worked in a high-stress environment.
“This all impacted mothers’ anxieties,” Benjamin says. “Some anxieties were reasonable in the pandemic moment, while others were related to facing more unknowns or fears than they had to confront in the past. It felt like the world turned upside down, which can cause distress, anxiety, lowness, anger, or listlessness.”
Because mothers are usually the family organizers, they seemed to bear the brunt of the stressors related to school and childcare during the pandemic. They may also have been responsible for juggling work and childcare—perhaps working less in order to make up for limited outside childcare help.
“New mothers had a particularly hard time because there was a complete lack of in-person community,” Benjamin says. “Even now, it feels like folks stay at home more, rather than open their homes and socialize. Moms may also have felt isolation’s impact on their relationships, particularly not having the space to be independent from their relationships with their children or partner.”
Common Maternal Mental Health Issues
At The Motherhood Center, Bellenbaum and her colleagues are seeing diagnosis of perinatal anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) most often.
“There is profound stress and worry around the health and wellness of the baby considering COVID-19, and the responsibility that new mothers feel to keep their babies safe and protected,” she says.
Benjamin believes that getting back to “normal” is the new stressor. “Mothers are in the position to choose—really choose rather than get thrown into things—what they value as opposed to what people expect of them,” she says.
This means many mothers are reconsidering the old standards and trying to figure out if that’s what they want or if they want to create their own structure that works for them.
And although we’re moving away from lockdowns and restrictions, isolation still feels present for many people. “It’s almost like we got used to the isolation and socializing is like a muscle that is underused unless you initiate it,” Benjamin explains. “New moms of younger kids, toddlers, and babies are also still struggling with anxiety about their kids who are not vaccinated yet.”
She believes that the unknown mixed with restrictions being lifted has caused these mothers to face fears and create their own rules about how they will do the pandemic as a family until their young children or babies are vaccinated. “That can produce stress if there are disagreements within a family or community,” she adds.
Avoiding Maternal Burnout
Bellenbaum has witnessed many women “white-knuckle it” and wait for anxiety or depression to pass. But this rarely—if ever—works. “Months later they are still struggling and wishing they had sought treatment and support sooner,” she says.
Most moms are familiar with goal-setting, and Benjamin recommends making it personal for once. “By setting the goal and value of caring for themselves, moms can pause to consider what is important to them that gives them pleasure, satisfaction, rest, time to process their emotions, or space to foster connection in relationships,” she says.
If you name that value—that you need to take time for yourself to do or fulfill whatever you need in order to feel connected with yourself, you will likely have less burnout.
And it’s not just the mom who benefits from this practice. “It can ripple out to the family,” Benjamin says. “Families have incredible power to work things out and prioritize everyone’s needs. Sometimes moms also need to accept that they can’t get quite as much as they want, but can still get some of what they need by stating simple, reasonable activities they want to do by themselves or with their partner, friends, or kids.”
For instance, a mom could initiate a twenty-minute reading time where everyone in the family reads or plays quietly or a daily walk/run in which their partner or sitter/nanny could help care for the kids. A talk at dinner time in which every family member expresses what they need to feel good and parents work on implementing how everyone can get some of what they need is also helpful, Benjamin adds.
“Even prioritizing therapy can be important, by saying, ‘I need this hour to reflect on my life and grow. We are going to get a sitter, nanny, grandparent, or friend to help so I can get this need met,’” she says.
If you’re feeling distressed a lot of the time, and this distress is getting in the way of completing daily tasks or functions, the best thing you can do is ask for help. Wherever you live, you can call the Postpartum Support International hotline and get connected with a perinatal mental health specialist near you.
Helping the Moms in Your Life
If you’re worried about the mental health of a mom in your life, it can be difficult to know what to do. Bellenbaum advises keeping it simple. “Ask her how she is doing, how she is feeling,” she says. “Let her know that becoming a mother is one of the hardest things she will ever do and that it’s ok to ask for help.”
Offering some words of reassurance can make a big difference. “Tell her that she is not alone and that there are places that can support her through this difficult time, and that you will help her get the support she needs to feel better,” says Bellenbaum.
Benjamin points out that moms (and people in general) can hide the truth from themselves out of fear of what acknowledging it will require of them. “There might be fear that they will need to be messy or change their current situation or life, as well as fear of the energy it takes to face this process,” she says.
But remember that it’s an act of love to tell someone that you notice they’re not doing as well as they were, that they’re not happy, or that something is taking its toll on them.
“Talk to them and name your concern in a direct, honest, and kind way,” Benjamin advises. “When talking to them, name what you see in a way that simply expresses what you observe and what you’re worried about.”
For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed that you seem more stressed than usual”; “I’ve noticed that you’re snapping at the kids more and it’s not like you. What’s going on?”; “I’ve noticed that you seem more distant than you usually are. Have you noticed that?”; or “I’m concerned about you. What’s going on?”.
“By naming it in this way, it can be talked about in a process of connection and care, especially prioritizing care for the friend you see struggling,” explains Benjamin.
Moms experienced some of the highest levels of stress during the pandemic, and most of them still haven’t caught a break. Take some time to check in on the moms in your life this Mothers Day (and in general), even just a supportive listener can make all the difference for mental health.