I believe that I have mentioned the quite amazing thing that happens in my psychotherapy practice week after week with moms who have postpartum depression: Themes emerge. Truly.
There will be a week when almost every mother I see is struggling with communication with her partner. Another week, the dance for nearly everyone I see is to the tune of the need for self-care and the seeming impossibility of this endeavor. One week I may have a handful of mamas wondering “where they went” once they became mothers and who are struggling with the overwhelming task of deciding who they would like to be. The next week, mom after mom is treading through the past in an effort to better understand her own experience in childhood so that she might have the courage to path new roadways for her own children. There are weeks where each mom is in tears. Weeks where laughter abounds. Sometimes it seems that the common topic is medication and the often complicated conversation about whether this choice feels appropriate. Other times the sessions abound with referrals to acupuncturists, psychiatrists, support groups, and nutritionists.
I mention this tendency for themes as a reminder that so often what you think you are struggling with alone while going through postpartum depress or anxiety is happening to the many women you pass in the street on your way here or there. These challenges are real. For many, many, many women.
This week’s theme? Beliefs. Not beliefs in the spiritual or religious sense, but the beliefs that become truths for so many women who are struggling during pregnancy or postpartum. One mom in my office believes that having a baby means that life is destroyed. One mom believes that she is not a good mom because she was unable to breastfeed. One mom believes that she should be happy because she has a healthy baby and a family who loves her. One mom believes that she should not take time for herself because “good mothers” want to be with their children all the time. One mom believes that she must be crazy and awful because she is having terrifying intrusive thoughts that she knows are wrong but she cannot turn off. One mom believes that she will be an unfit mother because she dislikes being pregnant and is not the glowing model of happiness as her belly grows. I could honestly go on. This has not only been a week of beliefs but also a week of intense struggle for the women who I see: of tears, frustration, and seemingly limitless self-doubt.
This is a place where it’s important to look at thought patterns and the way that they intrude in one’s ability to feel hopeful about themselves and their situations. You see, when the conversation really begins to unfold, it becomes a bit more clear that while each mom claims her belief to be a truth, the reality is not so. There are millions of women out there who are unable or who choose not to breastfeed and who are spectacular mothers. There are rooms full of women who have healthy children and loving families whose postpartum period is challenged by depression and/or anxiety. I think I can safely say that there is not one mother out there, struggling with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder like postpartum depression or not, who wants to be with her children all the time, and moms who take time to fulfill their own needs away from the demands of parenthood will undoubtedly have so much more to give their children for it. There are many women who would never in a million years hurt their children but who are struggling with scary thoughts that deserve support. And, quite truthfully, the idea that every woman who is pregnant is a glowing model of happiness and optimism is a myth that I wish I could crush on the spot.
Beliefs are like well-tread pathways. They come from somewhere often deep inside and they can literally color the way that we all look at the world and at ourselves. They come from experiences, from messages our parents gave us, from society, and from the often unrealistically high standards we set for ourselves. And over time, these beliefs become so true to us that the line between belief and truth becomes blurred and tangled. The mom who thinks that having a baby means that her life is destroyed most likely has an absolutely valid reason for believing this. But it is helpful to ask where this belief came from — where did she learn this and, is it possible that this isn’t a truth at all and that with support and hard work she can create a new belief for herself?
And, yes, if only there was that magic button on the wall that we could all push to make things change instantly; To suddenly see things differently and create new truths for ourselves just like that. That button would be well worn, let me tell you.
No, none of this is as easy as that, I know. But beliefs can change. And they do, lacking big red shiny buttons and all. The journey through postpartum depression recovery, and that of related illnesses, takes us through many different places and it is important to remember that you really do get to choose what you want to believe to be true. For yourself and for your little ones.
What were/are the beliefs that you have/had that influenced the way that you felt about yourself and mothering?