How to thrive in motherhood (not just survive)

Motherhood is a mixed-up bag of experiences and changes to every facet of life. I’ve had the great privilege of supporting new moms in my therapy practice for 9 years, and here are some of the observations I’ve made of the ones who thrive, and how they do it.

Make a village. In these modern times, many are far from their villages, and can’t fly them out often enough for real impact. You will not make it without a village. If most of your dearest connections are not near where you live, then you need to make another village where you are. You need the friendly faces and helping hands of folks who can assist and support you. Find a local moms group, and go there. Perhaps the first one that you visit won’t be right for you, but eventually you’ll find your niche. Keep searching, it’s worth it. You will look into the tired eyes of other moms who are in the trenches just like you—sorting out all the confusion of this mysterious new baby, asking questions, voicing doubts, offering encouragement, and laughing through tears, and you will know you are with your journey-women. The women who thrive, find good traveling companions.

Self-care. Taking good care of yourself is critical. Moms often falsely believe that the quality of care of the baby is in direct proportion to their level of self-neglect. No one benefits if mom goes down, least of all the baby. It’s extremely important that you return to doing some of the pleasurable activities you enjoyed before the baby. Whether it’s running, knitting, meeting friends for dinner, or movies with your partner, they need to get dialed back into your life. The challenge of motherhood is that there’s so much less time to nourish yourself in the ways you used to. Difficult though it may be, it’s important to keep making it a goal. The women who thrive make their own care a priority.

Accept ambivalence. There is ambivalence in every single relationship. Read that line again. I say this to my patients all the time, and initially they look surprised, and then there is a moment of profound revelation when it sinks in. There is ambivalence in every relationship - whether it’s with your sister, your partner, your parents - or believe it or not, your baby. It’s completely normal to miss many aspects of your life before children. It’s normal to have mixed-up feelings about it all, because as we know well, the overwhelming joy of the new life comes with many trade-offs, and even losses. The better you can acknowledge the ambivalent feelings, and allow them to exist within you without judgment, the better you will also experience the incredible joys as they come. The women who thrive can accept that mixed feelings are a part of every experience and relationship.

Depressed and anxious symptoms are very common.  They are much more common than you may have imagined, but do not have to just be accepted.  The milestone of childbirth is the most psychologically fragile time in a woman’s life. It’s really a perfect storm of upending events—there are the hormonal shifts during pregnancy and postpartum, the chronic and debilitating sleep deprivation, the round-the-clock demands of this new life, the logistical changes to every. single. aspect of life—and this list could go on and on. Depressive and anxious symptoms are the body’s response to change, so it makes perfect sense that they would emerge in the postpartum period. This time is often bumpy, which can feel surprising, especially if this was a very longed-for baby. The better that you can accept the range of emotions associated with the transition to parenthood, the easier it will be to ask for help, and the better you can thrive in the mix of them. Deciphering whether it’s a postpartum depression or postpartum stress/anxiety—and getting help for it—is very important, because there are real risks for mom and baby associated with not getting treatment. The women who thrive acknowledge what emotions and symptoms they are experiencing, and do something about it.

[clinical notes: a postpartum depression / stress reaction is determined by intensity, frequency, duration and start of symptoms. Generally the symptoms are in clusters, and are characterized by an “agitated depression”. This is not an exhaustive list, but symptoms include; feelings of hopelessness, guilt and shame, anger and irritability, uncontrolled tearfulness and sadness, low interest in the baby, loss of interest, joy or pleasure, intrusive and scary thoughts, constant worry, racing thoughts, insomnia, loss of appetite, restlessness, brain fog, and obsessive thoughts.]

The mother inside. There was a mother inside you, before you became one, and she needs to become known. There are many ways that our own childhoods inform the way we approach motherhood, and this isn’t always good news for everyone. Most of us were mothered in some way, by some brave soul who came ahead of us.  Many of our mothers gave it their all, just like we are trying to do now, but sometimes it wasn't enough. The fact of the matter is, that the mother you had lives on inside you, in some form, for better or for worse - and there’s nothing quite like the crucible of new motherhood to bring her to the surface in very real and new ways. It can be overwhelming to reckon with her, and it can be liberating when you gain the insight to realize that you can make different choices. Here me when I say that no single milestone evokes the past like the transition into parenthood - and nothing else holds the potential for personal growth and expansion quite like it either. What a truly mixed-up bag it is - and likely if you’re reading this, you’re in it already, probably up to your eyebrows. The fantastic thing about insightful friends, therapists, mentors, and wise women is how they can help us to decode the past and inform the future. Reach out to one of these folks, you’ll be so glad you did. The women who thrive get to know the mother that they carry inside, and learn to make choices out of that knowledge.

Chelsea Hibbard

Greenville, SC