Long before their babies are born, women everywhere begin to cultivate thoughts and ideas about what motherhood means. Powerful social images and cultural norms help shape our beliefs about what our lives will look like, post birth.

Maybe we picture ourselves scrubbed clean, looking bright and chipper as we stroll through a sunny park. Latte in hand, baby sleeps blissfully in her shiny new stroller as we smile contentedly – full of joy and barely tired.  As we replay this happy vignette in our mind’s eye, our dream gains momentum, reinforcing our hopeful expectations of what is to come.  

With baby’s arrival a new life begins, and so, too, do the endless “shoulds” of parenting.

Never far from our thoughts, these rules dictate how we “ought” to behave. Sleepless nights and our new 24/7 workday can challenge the dreams and expectations we carefully nurtured while pregnant.  If things aren’t quite how we imagined we may begin to experience some unhelpful thinking patterns which, left unchecked, can intensify, taking a significant toll on our mental health and well-being. If our vision of motherhood and the reality of parenting are too far apart we are at risk of postpartum depression and other peripartum mood disorders. 

The well-rehearsed myth of motherhood doesn’t concern itself with the unpleasant emotions that can come up during pregnancy and postpartum.  Sadness, negativity, anxiety, anger, insecurity, stress, disconnection, numbness and helplessness aren’t generally part of our rosy picture of motherhood, despite their very real existence.

As we welcome our newborns, we learn to juggle it all, trying to feel great, act great, look great and (fingers  crossed) win the best-mom-ever award as we try our best to protect the new little life in our arms.  

Maybe we reach out for help or maybe our little voice tells us we need to manage on our own. As we grapple with the “shoulds” and try to keep our heads above water, we may repeat the mantra “it takes a village to raise a child.” Yet, establishing and nurturing that village can be harder than it sounds as we navigate motherhood in a culture that values independence and self-reliance.

Our healthcare system fixes its attention firmly on our physical health, often leaving us to fend for ourselves on matters of the mind. Mental health and wellness in our reproductive years is no exception.  

This stage of life can bring with it a wide range of raw emotion; our feelings can shift from joyous and excited to scared and confused in the span of a few days, hours or moments.  We aren’t always expecting these moody houseguests and when they show up unannounced, we might be unprepared.  Perhaps we pretend they aren’t there, slapping on a smile, more determined than ever to turn our dreams into reality.

But what if those feelings persist?  How does a mother step out from behind any perceived stigma to acknowledge and manage these non-perfect images and emotions?  What are the steps to cultivate and nurture our village of support?

Paying close attention to our emotions in pregnancy is a solid first step.  Too often, we dismiss our very real and important feelings, glossing them over with an “I don’t know what’s wrong with me” or a self-berating, “I should be happy right now!”  Disregarding our feelings can undermine the magnitude of the enormous life event of becoming a mother.

Understanding our own personal risk factors for mental health concerns is also crucial. While we can’t predict who will develop postpartum depression and/or postpartum anxiety while pregnant, there can be  important indicators such as a family history, a previous episode, feelings of isolation and stress, pregnancy complications or traumatic birth experiences. Remaining aware of our symptoms, feelings and moods is essential to our well-being.  

Awareness comes first, followed by action. Motherhood is a massive identity shift and we can steer through it more successfully and effectively when we acknowledge its enormity.

A number of studies now suggest that mental health symptoms are one of the most common complications of childbirth and yet a mental health check – up might not be a routine part of pre- and postnatal care. Attending to our mental health can reduce our risk factors for postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression and lead to better outcomes for mom and baby.

Simply acknowledging and talking about our hopes, fears, worries, stresses and thoughts can improve our health and strengthen our village.

Connecting with other parents, swapping stories and surrounding ourselves with wellness resources and self-care plans can help manage the minefields of early motherhood.  Let’s hear each other’s stories. Let’s build that village and then use it to support and nurture our best selves, individually and collectively.

If you are a pregnant or postpartum mom struggling with moods or emotions, help is available. Reach out to a friend, call a counsellor, talk to your midwife, doula or doctor, but don’t wait until things get worse.  Get connected and improve your own and your baby’s overall health and well-being.

Some resources to get you started:

Better Outcomes Registry & Network (BORN): this comprehensive website covers everything from pregnancy, labour and postpartum including physical and emotional impacts.  

OMAMA.com: this website and smartphone app puts women in touch with perinatal supports in Ontario and beyond.

PSI: Postpartum Support International: this organization provides current information, resources, and education to support perinatal mental health; online support group and “chat with an expert” available.

Online moms groups on your community Facebook or social media page: these groups can offer valuable support during the first days, months and years of becoming a parent.

Early Years Centre in your community is a great place for moms and babies to connect.

Generally speaking, when symptoms persist, intensify or continue for more than a couple of weeks, professional support may be helpful.

To access professional support try:

Your own health care provider: family physician, midwife, nurse, OB/GYN,  counsellor can provide necessary referrals for further follow up and care

INFO line to find your public health agency: 1 866 532 3161

Telehealth Ontario: 1 866 797 0000 or TTY 1 866 797 0007

Mental Health Services Information Ontario: 1 866 531 2600

Written by Cree Lambeck. Cree is a Psychotherapist at Cherry Tree Counselling who specializes in women’s mental health concerns.