You have just given birth to a baby who you have been waiting anxiously to meet. Even if you are someone whose pregnancy was not ideal, it is likely that you have been holding onto the hope that when you meet this baby on the outside, many of the discomforts or insecurities will dissipate. You know the drill: “When I pass through the first trimester, when I hit the 37 week mark, when this baby is born, things will get better.”
You finally do get to meet this little one face to face and then, out of nowhere, comes a sudden panic: “What if I can’t do this? What if I am just like my mother? I don’t have a road map for this that I feel comfortable with!” Or, for others: “What if I can’t be enough like my own mom?” For some mamas, this may look different. For some, meeting baby for the first time brings great joy and excitement and it is later, when the adrenalin wears off, that the stuff from childhood creeps in. This can happen to anyone, regardless of whether you think of your childhood as conflicted. New moms who have wonderfully secure relationships with their own parents can suddenly feel the ripple of ambivalence creep in when their own babies are born.
Early childhood trauma experiences are often the most unexpected risk factor for developing a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder like postpartum depression. With the increasing information out there on PPD, many women now anticipate the bumps that come with hormone change, identity shifting and breast-feeding challenges. But few new moms anticipate the emotional turbulence that can accompany old memories if and when they resurface.
The hardest part about this is that you may not always be aware of where some of your emotion is coming from … and so what is actually an older feeling or memory that is being triggered can appear as an emotion or a challenge in the present.
Let me explain this with an example:
A mom comes into my office because she is feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and helpless when caring for her newborn baby. When this baby cries, she is overcome by feelings of worthlessness. She gets angry with her daughter for not nursing better. For not sleeping more. For not “loving her.” And then, this mom is filled by guilt for these feelings. “I must be a terrible mother for thinking these things!” she says. “I just can’t do this!”
And through further assessment, it becomes clear that this mama never really felt heard or validated for how she was feeling when she, herself, was a kiddo. If she were to come home feeling sad because another kid bullied her at school, she was told to “stop crying and be a big girl.” When she fell and scraped a knee she was told to “shake it off.” When she crawled into her parents’ room late at night, scared of the dark, she was expected to “stop being such a scaredy cat.” In short, this woman was always told that she shouldn’t feel the way she was feeling and that showing emotion was simply not ok.
And now she has become a mom herself. And guess what? She is unsure of how to respond when her own baby cries. And, truthfully, why should she be sure? It is amazing to me how we all expect ourselves to know exactly what to do in moments of stress even if we haven’t been taught how to do this. If a mom wasn’t validated and empathized with by someone in her life when she was a child, how can we expect her to know how to do this with her baby? And, just as importantly, how can we expect her to empathize and validate herself in these moments of difficulty?
Of course, the examples go beyond just this. If a woman had a conflicted relationship with her own mother, the label of “mom” may be complicated for her and this may interfere with her ability to settle into this role. If a woman was frequently told how to act or what to do by her parents, this may make it difficult for her to feel empowered and make her own decisions about the care of her baby and she may doubt that she really does know what is best. If a woman’s own mother appeared as “selfless” and dedicated herself and everything that she had to her children, it might be difficult for this woman to give herself permission to take her needs into account when she has a baby of her own. And for many women, the conflict of being both a daughter and a mother shows itself during visits “back home” when old patterns from childhood inevitably resurface and, suddenly, she becomes both a mother and someone else’s child simultaneously.
How does this all show up in a mom’s postpartum depression? Identity shifting is a huge part of the early weeks and months of parenthood, and all of this old stuff can ignite feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and overwhelm. Those moms whose biochemistry is out of balance may have a hard time separating what is happening in the moment from what is being resurfaced. And so these moms are likely to blame themselves and feel like they are failing at motherhood. Separating one’s own experience being parented from her experience parenting her own child can be a complicated project.
I had a Mom and 9-month-old daughter in my office today, and our conversation went as follows:
“I just can’t bear to hear her cry,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I am failing her. I can’t get her what she needs, no matter how hard I try. She must hate me. I mean, she just looks at me with these eyes of desperation like she knows that I will always disappoint her.”
I look at the new mom and her daughter, sitting at the sofa in front of me. Closely entwined. The baby’s head rests delicately and sweetly on her shoulder and she plays gently with her Mama’s long hair. And this mom, instinctively, caresses the top of her head with her cheek. I can almost see them breathing together. This is not a baby whose needs aren’t being met. And this is without a doubt a baby who loves her mama deeply.
I ask her to consider whether or not this fear of hers feels familiar to her. If she has, at some point, been in a situation in which she can relate to how she imagines her baby girl must feel in the situation that she is envisioning.
The tears fall. “Yes,” this mom says. “I am so afraid that she will feel the way that I felt as a kid.”
And the work begins.
For more on this, here are two more stories on childhood trauma and postpartum depression.