Discussions and media representations of parenthood often focus on the joys of raising a child - the making of memories, family bonding and tender love that we associate with welcoming a new life into the world. While many parents do love their children deeply and find raising children to be meaningful and fulfilling, adjusting to caregiving responsibilities can also be a very difficult transitional time.
Being a parent is hard enough on its own, but the reality is that parents, like anyone, have very diverse experiences and independent lives that can make family responsibilities even more difficult. Pre-existing mental health and physical health challenges, financial strain, marital problems, work stress and the pressures of managing a household and caring for a child can all stack up and feel overwhelming. These can be further compounded by social determinants of physical and mental health like income, education, and housing (among other things). Collectively, these factors all take a hard thing and make it harder, and create further barriers to seeking and accessing support as a parent.
The more difficult and sometimes darker emotions that are by no means uncommon among parents can be hard to talk about. These experiences are often shrouded in shame or stigma and enshrined beliefs that struggling while caring for kids is reflective of some kind of personal failure and incompetency as a caregiver. Many parents feel like their kids and spouses rely upon them to be stable and well, and that they cannot simultaneously be both givers and receivers of care. Unfortunately, mental health problems don't discriminate based on age or family role - but mental health issues among parents tend to be particularly stigmatized, making it all the more difficult for struggling parents to get the support they need for positive parenting.
What can mental health challenges look like for parents?
Keeping in mind all of the pressures and stresses that caregivers may face, it’s no wonder that parents experience mental health challenges, just like anyone else. These issues can look difficult for everyone. For some, it can become difficult to make time to care for their own needs in addition to their child’s, which can make parenting begin to feel unmanageable.
For others, this may manifest as symptoms of anxiety around the child’s well-being or other stressors. It may appear as depressive symptoms such as a loss of interest in activities we used to enjoy, feelings of being a “bad parent” or difficulty coping with everyday life. These feelings can crop up at any time for a new parent. Parents may struggle to manage their sleep around their baby’s sleep or may experience insomnia, which can lead to trouble connecting with the baby. They may also have to reach consensus with their partner or family with respect to things like parenting styles or discipline, which may lead to further anxiety or conflict.
Mental health problems have been exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic - 60% of Ontario parents surveyed during the first lockdown reported symptoms that met the criteria for depression, and further research found that maternal mental health issues increased notably in Canada during the first wave. Medical visits related to postpartum mental illness ticked up as much as 25% in Ontario during the first 9 months of 2020. Parents often suffer in silence, but talking about issues like these is one big way to help not only current parents, but future parents and whole families.
Depictions of parental hardship and mental health
Mental health challenges can affect all kinds of caregivers facing diverse stressors and circumstances, but new parents often find themselves uninformed and unprepared to manage these challenges. Below are articles that draw on examples of different aspects of parental struggles.
Devorah Herbert, who had her first child at age 48, wishes someone had warned her about the potential for postpartum depression. Devorah found herself experiencing overwhelming fear and anxiety about her daughter’s well-being in the weeks following her birth and did not know what was wrong, later learning she’d had 8 risk factors for maternal depression (advanced maternal age, use of fertility treatments, pregnancy complications, traumatic birth, history of anxiety and depression, lack of sleep, insufficient support, and difficulty breastfeeding). Devorah could not sleep because she was so worried that her baby would be harmed if she looked away for even a moment, and this stress only compounded her difficulties breastfeeding.
Kim Hooper, on the other hand, felt well-informed and well-prepared to mitigate the possibility of mental health struggles after the birth of her baby - until not Kim but her husband fell into a depressive state that lasted for the first three years of their daughter’s life. Kim’s husband withdrew from her and from others, opting to go to bed early every night, lounge on the couch or obsessively clean while Kim cared for the baby and tried not to overstep.
While every new parent may not face challenges as explicit as those described above, these examples serve to highlight some of the diverse obstacles that may arise for any parent. No caregiver’s road to parental empowerment is simple or straightforward - being a parent is no small feat and it is not a feat that is achieved in isolation. Parents are parents at the same time as they are a number of other things, and that is not always easy, and no one should have to do it unsupported.
Advice for new parents
Adjusting to parenting can look different for everyone. If you’re struggling to care for yourself while you care for your family, here are some actions to consider:
If you are a new parent and these challenges resonate with you, do not hesitate to seek support. A therapist or group setting can support you to learn coping skills to better manage the changes associated with a new addition to the family. Layla Groups will be launching a support group for new parents on April 20, 2022. If you would like more information or to sign up please view our website here.