Entering motherhood is a rite of passage for most women. For many new moms, however, the first months and years can be a lonely place. A new study finds that several types of social support are crucial for staving off negative feelings.
Although only 10 to 15 percent of mothers from Western nations will develop a full-blown case of postpartum depression (PPD), many more will experience some serious symptoms of depression, explains Patricia Leahy-Warren, a senior lecturer at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at University College Cork in Ireland. “Feelings of PPD are on a continuum, with PPD at the end,” Leahy-Warren says. Even if PPD can be diagnosed clinically, there is no standard for measuring where the remaining 85 to 90 percent of mothers land on the scale. Yet she estimates that most first-time mothers are overwhelmed.
Becoming a mother is a major transition, points out clinical psychologist Ann Dunnewold, whose practice in Dallas, Tex., provides support for mothers. New mothers give up autonomy, sleep and relationships to tend to the relentless needs of a baby. On top of that, they are also expected to be in a constant state of bliss and fulfillment with their new role. “There's a lot of pressure to be the perfect mother, and women are afraid to say they're not coping,” Leahy-Warren says.
Making matters worse, research that demonstrates the importance of early childhood experiences in determining future success and happiness puts additional pressure on moms to get it right. Also, for working mothers (57 percent of women are in the U.S. workforce), who are used to a productive mind-set and established social routines, it can be difficult to adapt to the repetitive life of meeting the basic daily needs of a baby. “A lot of women go back to work because of the loneliness,” Dunnewold says.
According to Leahy-Warren's recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, mothers with strong social support who have confidence in their ability to parent were 75 percent less likely to be depressed than mothers who had neither advantage. There are four parts to social support, Leahy-Warren explains: hands-on, emotional, informational and appraisal, meaning affirmation that a mother is doing a good job.
Moms require a network of people to meet these four types of social needs. Generally they lean most on their partner, then their own mother, then sisters. Health professionals, other family and friends can be an important part of a mother's community. Good social support will also boost a mother's confidence and ability to parent, Leahy-Warren says, which has a significant positive influence on her mental well-being.