Working as a perinatal psychotherapist for 10 years has taught me much about early motherhood in America. Sitting with hundreds of new moms of different races and sexual orientations, I began to notice the common thread among the women’s stories.
The theme of lacking support during a raw and vulnerable time period, both physically and emotionally, had left so many women feeling broken and incompetent, unfit for the job of mothering.
As a holistic therapist, I believe it is far too simplistic to say that low serotonin is the cause of a woman’s anxiety or depression in the postpartum period. The female body is far more complicated than narrowing the focus to neurotransmitters. Instead, I approach a woman’s life looking at the WHOLE picture of her body, mind, spirit, soul, and support system to uncover the root cause of discomfort. Far too many new moms believe they are broken, when in fact they are feeling the effects of undigested trauma in a broken culture that does not empower women or encourage wellness.
How Culture Plays a Role
The rugged individualism and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality of most Americans is a toxic way to approach motherhood, as it implies that needing others or asking of help is a sign of weakness. New moms NEED community; it’s not a luxury, but a requirement for mental health stability when raising young humans. Tribal cultures raise their children in a village, where aunts, cousins, grandparents, and friends are all in close proximity to the new mom helping her and mentoring her on how to become a parent. Tribal cultures do not have women with postpartum mood disorders.
We also live in a patriarchal culture that expects women to perform in a man’s world and greatly devalues stay at home moms. Most women who choose to stay at home to raise their children admit to me that they are embarrassed to admit what they do to others as they feel judged that they are not working. Staying at home IS work; it’s just as hard as being a working mom, only it comes with the shame of not having a paid income in a culture that values money more than raising children.
Working moms don’t have it easy either; they are expected to perform in a male-dominated culture, while also maintaining a household usually sleep-deprived and feeling like they are missing out on their child’s development. Maternity leave in America is typically atrocious in comparison to some countries that guarantee a woman’s position for up to one year after birth. On average, working moms get 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and just as their baby is adapting to emerging from the 4th trimester, they are expected to go back to work. This system does not honor the sacred relationship between a mother and a baby.
Racial disparities in the birth industry are a form of birth trauma. Did you know that in the United States, Black Women are 234% more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes compared to White Women? This statistic ought to stop all of us in our tracks; this disparity in the birth world is killing women of color. If you subscribe to the notion that we are all one, this statistic impacts all women. No one is free until everyone is free, and we females feel this cultural disparity whether we consciously acknowledge it or not.
The Effect of Our Hormones
A woman’s body is physically depleted of nutrients and vitamins from 10 months of gestation and even further if she chooses to breastfeed. So much can be said about the female endocrine system and the physiological changes that occur in a woman’s body when making a baby. This is an introductory overview, meant to educate you on the key hormones; please know that this is a simplistic explanation and the delicate balance of each woman’s body is too complex to make sweeping generalizations.
A woman’s trauma history, fertility treatments, birth control use, diet, sleep cycles, alcohol use, and pharmaceutical use all contribute to hormone balance. Pregnancy and delivery signify one of the most extreme hormone fluctuations a woman will experience her whole life.
The last week of pregnancy a woman’s progesterone and estrogen levels are the highest they have ever been; then 48-72 hours after giving birth, her levels of progesterone and estrogen drop to the very lowest levels in her life. This drastic up and down in hormone levels can cause a multitude of mental health symptoms in women who are sensitive to hormone fluctuations. Next, if the woman decides to breastfeed, the hormones of prolactin and oxytocin enter the scene when lactation begins. Some women can have the opposite reaction to oxytocin, the “feel good” boding hormone and feel dysphoric instead.
As if these hormone changes weren’t enough, then once the sleep deprivation begins from feeding the baby in the middle of the night, high rates of cortisol enter the bloodstream; every time anyone is woken up at night, a shot of cortisol, the stress hormone, surges through the body. Chronic cortisol further throws off the balance of progesterone and estrogen, which in turn impacts thyroid functioning. Postpartum thyroiditis is common and very often misdiagnosed as postpartum depression and anxiety. Thyroid dysfunction mimics psychological symptoms, therefore it is crucial to rule out thyroid or hormone imbalances when considering treatment options in the postpartum periods.
Luckily, there are many holistic options for hormone balance in the postpartum period. Getting breaks, resting, and recovering depleted nutrient sources also go a long way in healing the endocrine system. Obtaining the breaks runs back into the village conundrum and how isolating early motherhood can feel from the confines of the four walls of your house, raising a baby with one or two people in the house.
Cultural norms and hormone imbalances coincide with chronic sleep deprivation, identity loss, role changes, body image issues, and anything unresolved in the heart from childhood at the surface to create the conditions for a new mom to feel overwhelmed and undervalued. Yet, there is hope. It is clear to me that as we give birth to our babies, we are also birthing a new version of ourselves. With any epic change and shift in identity comes ego death and grief. Now, more than ever, we are the women rising up to end the cycle of intergenerational trauma and learn empowerment to heal ourselves, to heal our community, and to heal all the descendants that come after us.