At the beginning of this year, Katie Cloyd of Nashville, Tennessee, birthed her last child — her first daughter. After battling postpartum depression after the births of her previous two children, Katie was looking forward to having a much more peaceful and stable postpartum period.
“When my third child was born in January, I thought I had finally escaped the postpartum anxiety I suffered after the births of my first two kids,” she shared. “The first couple of months of her life were the healthiest I’ve felt in years.”
Then, in March, COVID-19 hit. And it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her.
The Shock Of Parenting A Newborn During The Pandemic
“The pandemic struck, and everything changed,” Katie says. “This isn’t the plan I had for my last ever first year with a baby. This isn’t how I envisioned any of this.”
But it wasn’t just that she now had to spend countless hours indoors with her children, isolated. It wasn’t just that she would have to miss all the “firsts” she envisioned experiencing with her new baby, like showing her daughter off to her extended family, or vacationing over the summer with her family.
The shock and stress of caring for a baby during a global health crisis began to take a toll on her mental health.
“I feel like I’m spending at least part of every day actively talking myself down, trying to manage my anxiety so I can take care of home, and my kids, including my eight-month-old,” Katie says.
On top of the parenting stress of the isolation, Katie was dealing with the real and present danger and all of the “what ifs” of the virus itself. Would she get sick? Would her spouse get sick? How vulnerable would her young children be to the virus?
“Being on high alert for pandemic danger makes parenting feel confusing, complicated, and exhausting,” she shared.
The Pandemic Has Magnified The Struggles New Moms Face
Katie is far from alone. Even before the pandemic, moms of newborns were already under tremendous stress. Newborns require round-the-clock care, and it’s nearly impossible to handle this exhausting and overwhelming task alone. And yet so many parents are forced to do so.
Modern parenting is much more isolating than it used to be, when whole communities would come together to shower postpartum families with love, support, and food. Now, families are often separated by distance, grandparents may not be as readily available for helping, and postpartum support networks can be hard to find and access.
The pandemic, with its forced social isolation, has magnified the problems new parents face — and created new ones as well.
As Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a perinatal psychiatrist, shared in a piece for The New York Times.
“In my clinical practice and in a Covid-19 maternal well-being group I co-founded, women have voiced their fears about a number of possible distressing scenarios: delivering without a support person; being one of the 15 percent of pregnant women who is asymptomatic for Covid-19 and facing possible infant separation; and recovering during a postpartum period without the help of family or friends to provide support.”
Couple all that with the loss of sharing baby milestones with loved ones, along with the grief of motherhood not looking at all like you expected it to — plus the exhaustion of enforced COVID safety protocols — and you have a recipe for a postpartum mental health crisis.
Mental Health Struggles Have Become More Common For New Moms
Indeed, postpartum mental health issues, including postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, are on the rise since the pandemic hit.
As Dr. Lakshmin points out, new moms who don’t have social support after giving birth are more likely to experience postpartum mood disorders — and she has seen this increase in her own practice.
“As a psychiatrist who specializes in taking care of pregnant and postpartum women, I’ve seen an increase in intrusive worry, obsessions, compulsions, feelings of hopelessness and insomnia in my patients during the coronavirus pandemic,” Dr. Lakshmin writes.
Although it’s still too early for a full body of research to come out about how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of new moms, some research has already come to light showing that the pandemic is having a profound impact.
For example, a June 2020 study published in Frontiers In Women’s Global Health, found sharp increases in postpartum mood disorders among new moms. Of the 900 pregnant and postpartum moms studied, 41% had depression symptoms, and 72% had symptoms of “moderate to high” anxiety. Pre-pandemic, these numbers are more in the range of 15% for depression, and 29% for anxiety.
“What we found is that the moms really are not OK right now,” Dr. Margie Davenport, one of the study researchers, told CBS News.
“We were fully expecting that women would be experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety,” Davenport remarked. “But the magnitude of the increase was really quite shocking to me.”
How To Manage Your Postpartum Mental Health During The Pandemic
So what does this all mean for a new mom or a mom-to-be contemplating raising a baby during a pandemic?
As much as it’s important to be realistic about the struggles you might face in terms of mental health, it’s not all gloom and doom. With proper support, you can get through this time, even if some mental health issues arise for you.
It’s all about being proactive, and seeking out the help you need.
“I’m urging women not to wait to seek help,” Dr. Lakshmin advises. “It can be tempting to dismiss your symptoms as just stress. But, perinatal depression or anxiety that may be caused by Covid-19 is still perinatal depression or anxiety.”
Dr. Lakshmin explains that discussing any issues you may be having with your healthcare provider is an excellent first step. But you may also need to reach out to a therapist who specializes in postpartum mood disorders to fully address the issues you are having.
The good news is that, along with all the stresses of the modern age of parenting, technology has made it easier than ever for new moms to access the mental health services they may need, especially during a pandemic. Many providers are offering telehealth services and online therapy options.
As for Katie, after the initial shock of realizing that her postpartum experience was going to be vastly different than she anticipated, she is adjusting.
“So far, I’m making it work,” she says. “No matter how I feel, I just keep meeting everyone’s needs. But doing it in relative isolation is draining me in a way I haven’t experienced before. I am lucky to have a solid support system and places to turn if it becomes unmanageable. This is a lot.”
Her advice to other new moms is similar to Dr. Lakshmin’s: don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
“My advice would be to stay on top of it with your doctor even though making appointments is so much more complicated now, and to make sure at least one trusted person in your life knows that you need active support,” she says. “Don’t try to do it alone, especially in a pandemic.”