We all start with the idealized image of parenting. Then comes the first night of crying (yours and the baby’s), and you wonder if you were cut out for this at all. On this episode, mother/daughter parenting pros Marti and Erin Erickson get real about new motherhood -- the elation, the blues, being good to yourself, and why we all should be OK with asking for help (even from work) when we need it.
Read the full transcript
You can also check out the episode by reading the transcript here:
Lisa: Hey, it's Lisa. So, I remember when I became a mom. That first week, my daughter did nothing but sleep. Then week two came and she stopped sleeping at all… for seven months. I started to wonder if I was cut out for this. It wasn't just exhaustion. It was frustration, guilt, feeling of failure, the feeling that I wasn't doing it right. For all of you going through that right now, those feelings – totally normal. And that's what we're going to talk about today. We've got two health professionals who are going to get very real about the mom blues. Join us.
Lisa: Why is all of this so hard? It wasn't always such. Why is parenting in the modern era so hard?
Dr. Erin: Well, I would actually say, I think parenting has always been hard.
Lisa: This is Dr. Erin Erickson. She's a specialist in maternal child health and she's also a family nurse practitioner.
Dr. Erin: We certainly are learning more and more and have made profound positive changes in our understanding of child development and what “good enough parenting” means. So, there's a lot to celebrate in all of that.
Dr. Marti: I absolutely agree. I think Erin and I were having the same thought as you were asking that question about how difficult it was for our grandparents and great-grandparents and previous generations.
Lisa: And here's Erin's mother, Dr. Marti Erickson. She's a developmental psychologist who's done teaching, research, and policy work related to family relationships and mental health.
Dr. Marti: I do think the one thing that's unique today is that we tend to do a lot more self-examination and self-criticism.
Lisa: And that's where we begin our talk with Erin and Marti – how it's not just what other people say to us about motherhood, but that we often create our own inner turmoil. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Marti: People can feel all sorts of emotions and it kind of can vary throughout the day. And, you know, when they're holding their baby and the baby's maybe freshly fed and sitting there with the milk-drunk face and maybe they're just soaking it in and feeling a sense of elation and just great joy. And at other times, they might feel sheer frustration that they can't calm their baby down despite everything they've looked at online or everything their friends have told them. And that could just be an extremely frustrating experience.
Dr. Erin: I think also that social media can really exacerbate some of those negative feelings. It also has the capacity to be a source of support and kind of reality testing if we use it that way. But mothers in particular, I think feel such pressure these days to measure up. And when people are posting these perfect pictures on Instagram, you know, we all want to look good and kind of show off some of our special moments.
But that also really sets us to measure ourselves against what we see. And, you know, this is not only about how we feel about motherhood per se or about our baby. But it's also not realizing that we're not going to walk out of the hospital with that new baby and have the flat abs we had before we became pregnant. People vary in terms of how their bodies change and how easy or hard it is after pregnancy to get that body back. And just all of those things I think can really combine to magnify the feelings that are very natural when you take on this enormous responsibility of being a parent.
Lisa: We are all nodding here about the whole social media aspect and, you know, celebrities that grace us with their perfect post-pregnancy figures that the rest of us are [crosstalk 00:03:54.08].
So, how can you A, ease a parent's mind about what is normal worries and draw the distinction between what is and what is more concerning?
Dr. Marti: Well, I think the first thing we can do is have conversations like this and create opportunities for community, for parents so that they can engage with other parents and have a clear sense of what other people are experiencing. And we know that in those first two weeks after birth that some tears and shifting emotions is very common. However, after two weeks if someone continues to feel really down or tearful, or is just really feeling overwhelmed, it could be a sign of something like postpartum depression.
Dr. Erin: I think some of the most distressing things parents experience are intrusive thoughts. This might be, "What if I hurt the baby or what if I'm not a good mother?" And a lot of that comes from just the immense sense of responsibility of caring for a fragile being.
Dr. Marti: Just one other thing to add. I think how common these issues we're talking about are. Research shows that about 50% to 75% of women have the baby blues after their baby is born. That would be, you know, what looks like depression, but it fades away after a couple of weeks. About 20% of women have a clinical level of postpartum depression or anxiety disorder. So, that's really a lot of women who are dealing with this.
Dr. Erin: Postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD are also important things. And I think I've had several patients actually recently who have shared their experiences of postpartum OCD. And they talked about how because postpartum depression is talked about so much, they didn't really appreciate what was happening when they were dealing with postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD, which is another form of anxiety disorder. And it was really worrying for these mothers because nobody talked about that. And so, I think the more we can have these conversations, the more we can challenge the stigma around mental health, the easier it's going to be for all moms. And then the easier it is going to be for women who are having emotional changes that are suggestive of a postpartum mood disorder that those parents will get help.
Now, some of the new research on paternal mood disorders postpartum is really profound as well. So, this is not just an issue that only affects mothers. It affects fathers too. And the more we can continue the discourse and create opportunities for everyone to connect about this, I think the mental health of all parents will benefit from that.
Lisa: Is it safe to say that working can be a form of therapy of community?
Dr. Marti: I think that's a very fair statement and I think workplaces can be hugely important in this process of educating parents. And also making the workplace a welcome space for parents to form support groups that meet over lunch or, you know, whatever works for them, but to do things that really create that support within the workplace. And I've seen how successful that is in many companies I've worked in years past around work-family, work-life issues. And we know that if people are doing well at home, they're more productive workers. And if they're feeling supported at work, they're better able to handle the ups and downs of family life. So, this is a win-win.
Lisa: If you are experiencing some of these issues, do you have recommendations for how to approach it in the office? If you're dealing with postpartum depression or just the baby blues and trying to manage it all?
Dr. Marti: The challenge is that it really depends on the individual. That can be a very private thing and people, depending on how supportive their workplace is, they may not want to talk about it with people at work. Many workplaces do have like an employee health office or they have employee assistance programs, and those can be great services for getting connected with resources and help. If you've had a pregnancy and you're connected within an OB-GYN, a midwife or a nurse practitioner who treated you through your pregnancy, that's a really great place to start as far as getting connected with resources. Most if not all, women's health clinics are going to have at least some connection to help and resources because this is such a common problem.
If you have close friends at work, I think it can be a really helpful thing to share what you're dealing with. When women share their own experiences, they often feel less alone because other people are more likely to tell them what they're going through. So, I think if people really feel courageous in that way to tell someone what's going on, it's a good thing to do. Of course, if that mood disorder is really getting in the way of work, hopefully, someone is already getting connected with services, but it may be something you need to communicate with people at work.
Lisa: How might you suggest broaching the subject with a supervisor? I know there's so much focus right now on mental health and being candid about mental health. So, what kind of advice can you give to people who are experiencing it and who feel they need to reach out to their supervisor for support?
Dr. Marti: I think one thing that can help is to have information with you. Maybe even written information about how prevalent this is. You know, you can use the opportunity to educate your supervisor a little bit. And just to be very humble and very clear and say that you're experiencing this, you're reaching out to get appropriate help, but you just felt that your supervisor needed to know because it does make work difficult. And, you know, it's going to vary a lot depending on how much that mood disorder is impinging on work. For some people, being at work might provide a little bit of relief. For others, it may just add almost unbearable pressure. And it may be that you, if you're dealing with a severe depression or anxiety disorder, you may need to take some medical leave. Certainly, you know, working with your healthcare providers and therapists to work that out.
I never had postpartum depression, but when my kids were in elementary school, I went through a very difficult time emotionally. I was really triggered by a work situation that was just terribly distressing. And so I was experiencing mostly intense anxiety but definitely was some depressive symptoms too. And I ended up getting therapy and am forever grateful for that because I learned things that have helped me in other difficult situations. I've really made it a point to talk about that just about every chance I get, because I think that that's the only way we're going to break down stigma. And, you know, I think the people I know who've dealt with those kinds of things, the smart ones get help and yet somehow we in our society often view getting psychological help as a sign of weakness. And boy, for me that's a sign of strength and it really can make you even stronger.
Lisa: Postpartum depression aside because as you said, that's a sort of a small segment fortunately. People are still dealing with just generally being overwhelmed with the realities of parenting and working, and taking care of a child and trying to be good to themselves as they navigate this new reality. Can you talk a little bit about that? What are some strategies you have for taking care of your wellness just through the normal progression of parenting and working?
Dr. Erin: Well, yeah, I can absolutely speak to that. And I will say even as a mother of three teenagers, this is still a challenge for me. The demands of parenting shift and while in many ways it's easier now that my kids don't need a babysitter. It's harder because bigger issues, more driving and carpooling and more activities. But even from the beginning, one of the things I did was to engage my kids in a lot of the things that I'm doing for self-care.
So, for example, for me it's very important to practice mindfulness-based stress reduction kinds of activities, not just formal mindfulness-based stress reduction courses, but mindfulness exercises, mind-body exercises like meditation, breathing. I have really tried to absolutely hold sacred time for sleep because it is impossible to function at your best when you're sleep-deprived, and that can be very hard as a new mother.
Lisa: We'll get back to Marti and Erin in just a sec, but since Erin mentioned mindfulness, I want to point you to another one of our recent episodes. Mindfulness in 30 seconds. It has tips from one of our favorite guests, mindfulness expert, Beth Jones. Check it out. Now, let's pick up with Erin talking about how parenting really does take a village.
Dr. Erin: I had the great benefit and joy and blessing of having an amazing friend who has kids the exact same age as mine. So, even when they were little, we would take turns watching each other's kids. "Hey, could you watch my kids while I run to the grocery store?" Oh, "Hey, I've got to go get a dress for an event I have to go to with my husband's work. And the last thing I want to do is bring a baby with me." So, those kinds of things that are day-to-day activities that are harder to do with kids, it can often get done faster if you have someone to help.
But I think also just being very mindful along the way of where we are emotionally and physically. So, if we are finding that we're just, you know, keep getting every cold that comes around that might be a clue to us that our body is needing a little extra TLC. Another really practical thing that my husband and I have done is we do a kind of advanced meal preparation. So, whenever we make soup or any sort of larger meal, we might make six times the recipe. And we've got all these freezer containers and we bought an inexpensive deep freezer, and that has been an absolute lifesaver on those nights when we are just exhausted and we have 10 million things going on and we still need a good meal. And I think for new parents, what a gift you could give to the new parents in your life by bringing over some frozen dinners that are healthy foods that you've prepared.
Dr. Marti: I was just going to add to that when my kids were little newborns, actually, I started a book group because I was going to be home for a while with my son and I would be returning to work but I was really hungry for intellectual stimulation in those early months. And I still have that book group meeting 45 years later, believe it or not, the same people. But that's been one thing. And I had a group of close friends in my neighborhood when our kids were little , we started walking around a lake that's just about a half-block away from our homes. And we would have to get up a little early so we could do that before the kids were awake and we got fresh air and exercise, and company, and support of good friends. And I also tried to take my children from very early ages, outdoors as much as I could. So, they learned at a very early age that being active and exploring in the outdoors is a wonderful thing and it was very, very healthy for me. So, I think you just have to figure out kind of what's most useful to you, but really put those things on your calendar just like you put major work commitments on your calendar. I used to take a shower on my calendar when my kids were babies because it was hard sometimes to find time for those basics.
Lisa: That is one of the rude awakenings when you find out how hard it is to take a shower as a brand new mom.
Dr. Marti: Isn't it though?
Lisa: Oh, boy.
Dr. Erin: And, you know, there's one other thing that I think is really an important part of self-care for parents who are in a partnership with another parent. Maintaining that relationship can be essential to your health and well-being as a parent. You know, I see with so many of the parents I work with in clinic, that relationship kind of takes the back seat or prioritizing date nights or even if it's just a night at home where someone else comes and, takes the baby for a walk or something. Connecting with your partner can really just have so many benefits for your relationship, but also for your mental health. And so, I would really encourage parents to find ways to prioritize that relationship.
Dr. Marti: Very, very important to nurture that and your kids learn then from seeing you have a good time together and being affectionate with each other. So, it has great value to kids. Sometimes I think we get caught up in thinking that we have to be with our children and responsive to our children 24/7, but the fact is they get many benefits from the times that we step away to take care of ourselves and to take care of our primary relationship.
Lisa: Maybe the biggest part of this equation is to let people know this is all normal, what they're feeling is all normal, and it is okay and actually advisable to take care of you.
Dr. Erin: This is kind of a common thing to say now, but we always talk about that oxygen mask metaphor, put your own oxygen mask on first before you help others. I can say without question in my clinical practice, the parents that are actually putting that adage to use are doing better as parents because they've learned that they can all only give what they have invested in themselves. If you have an empty cup, you can't fill someone else's cup up. And so, it's hard to do sometimes, but we have to do it, and it's not a selfish thing to do. And that unfortunately I think is the message a lot of women get that, you know, if they've put that time into themselves that they're somehow shirking on their duties as a mother, but it's absolutely not true.
Dr. Marti: And we have to be intentional about what we want to do. Sometimes we're so drawn into just responding or reacting in the moment. And we need to create those little spaces to just sit back and reflect. How do we really want to use our very precious time and energy both in caring for ourselves and in taking good care of our children and being with the other people we love?
Dr. Erin: You know, I think this idea, and this would probably be my parting words, is that we have to just be so much gentler with ourselves and other mothers. And that is the absolute best thing we can do for ourselves and our children and our community. It's always been hard and I think it will always continue to be a challenge. One that is without fail, absolutely worth it.
Lisa: We'll leave that as the last word. Parenthood sometimes hard, always worth it. You can hear more from Erin and Marti on their podcast series "Mom Enough." If you liked what you heard today, get more of our podcast by subscribing. While you're downloading, let us know what you thought or give us a share. Thanks to everyone for being here. We look forward to seeing you next time as we help make the work-life equation add up.
Recommended for you
We have a library of resources for you about all kinds of topics like this!