[Editor’s Note: Many of you have asked how to be a parent after going through postpartum depression and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders—how to get over the guilt and how to move on as a mom. Today, Ann Dunnewold, PhD, is our guest author. Ann is a Dallas psychologist whose mission is to arm women against the pressures of modern motherhood. A past president of PSI, she is the author of Even June Cleaver Would Forget the JuiceBox, and co-author of the new book Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide, a book for real moms that tells the honest truth about what to expect emotionally after the birth of a baby. -Katherine]
Have I wrecked my child’s life?
What mother’s brain has never entertained this question? Proof of our mother-blaming culture lurks in the scowls and murmurs aimed at mothers whose children fall apart in the grocery store checkout line or on any plane. Pre-mama days, the fleeting thought “when I’m a mom, I’ll never let that happen!” is nearly universal.
Growing up in this culture (vs. the moon, for instance), this subliminal standard of “good baby, good mom”—or its darker side: “bad kid, bad mom”—takes root in our brains. Then comes the powerful whammy of postpartum depression and anxiety symptoms, a big, black cloud obscuring the mom you want to be. Overwhelmed with worry, you second guess every decision and freeze near your baby. It’s definitely not the Hallmark card mommy vision you embraced during pregnancy. Concern skyrockets not just about your ability to parent, but about the effects of your mood on your baby. How to be the mom you pictured? Can you ever get past this? Will this warp your child? These fears are entirely natural.
Be reassured. Over 25 years of working with new moms, I’ve seen that moms routinely rally for their babies. Women paste on a smile, push through the daily grind and parent effectively even when bombarded with symptoms. Research says that when moms with postpartum depression cannot care for their children, the baby’s relationship with others—fathers, family members, paid caregivers—protects the baby from ill effects. Babies bond to others, in addition to mom, and learn to trust and love. When mothers get effective treatment, there need be no long-lasting effects on the child’s development.
In the midst of PPD and parenting, it’s helpful to stop and acknowledge what you are doing for your baby. Leave a sheet of paper on the counter. Tally each mothering task: You changed a diaper, you fed, you burped, you rocked, you wiped up spit-up, you patted, you soothed… ad nauseam. Every moment counts, so count them.
Once you’ve recovered, how can you drop the self-doubt about your parenting? Parenting after postpartum depression is just parenting. Feeling good about your parenting, depression and anxiety or not, comes from tuning into some simple truths.
1. We’re human first, mothers second. We all make mistakes, have days good and bad, moods sunny and rotten. On balance, it is the ratio that matters. Even June Cleaver, the pearl-adorned, cookie-baking icon, raised her voice at the Beaver in exasperation. And he was still a perfectly well-adjusted kid.
2. No single parenting event, or period of time, will make or break your child.* Were your symptoms debilitating for two months? Surely you know the importance of the first five years of a child’s life in determining the person he will become. Keep perspective: out of 60 months, two months equals .03%. This is a minuscule influence in the sum total of your child’s life.
* = with a few horrific, unmentionable exceptions. Please don’t go there! Stop, chattering brain—that’s just anxiety! NO reason to assume that because you imagine it, that catastrophe is headed in your direction. Take a deep breath. Consider the odds.
3. You are not solely responsible for your child’s development. You are ONE influence—along with the combination of genes, temperament, fathers, partners, grandparents, siblings, teachers and peers. Resist the mother-blaming and again focus on the big picture.
4. Acknowledge that total control in parenting, as in life, is an illusion. We think that if we live the right life and follow the rules, results are guaranteed. A perfect life for our perfect child. Wrong, really just wrong. The phrase to tattoo on your forehead is “control what you can, let go of the rest.” Have you made every effort to ensure your child is safely cared for and healthy? Is your baby talked to, fed and changed, loved on, sleeps when tired? You are doing the best you can, controlling what you can. Your child will be just fine.
5. Find a parenting philosophy that fits for you and stick to ONLY that expert advice for two weeks. Read nothing else. Mimic a CD on repeat: “This works for us, this works for us.” Say it to well-meaning advice-givers who flock to new moms like gnats on a watermelon. Listen to your gut. Parenting is not instinctual, but you do know what fits you.
There’s no single magical Right Way to parent. All we can hope is to be the best moms we can, given our strengths, personal foibles and world view. This is what I call a perfectly good mom. No one is a perfect mom. But we each can be a perfectly good mom, the perfect mom for our perfectly good kids, by simply embracing our true selves …warts, moods, worries and all.