Let me first say that I’m glad that many many mothers around the world can go about the challenging and rewarding job of parenting without experiencing mental illness. Clearly the majority of mothers can weather the storms without having their boat completely capsize. But the reality is that a modest percentage of mothers do experience depression, excessive anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
As a mother who’s had postpartum depression and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, I don’t have a grudge against the moms who have stayed healthy. Not that they would have all sunshine and lollipops every day as a mom either. Motherhood can be tough no matter how resilient you are. In fact, I thought I was being exposed to how difficult it really was — the truth behind the facade of constant happiness.
Of course, I know that isn’t true now. Motherhood is challenging but humans are certainly capable of bouncing back from difficulty and renewing themselves. So what could make a woman vulnerable to mental illness as a mother? Well there could be many answers to that. Genetics, social environment, really bad luck, other stressors at the time of motherhood. It is often the perfect storm of some of these characteristics affecting a woman’s ability to be a mother.
Gender expectations and gender differences seem to create disadvantages for mothers, especially if there are genetic factors or other problems at work. A woman’s brain is wired with so many more connections in the areas of communication and emotion. This makes women more sensitive to all kinds of subtleties in these areas.
These allow moms to be closely attuned to the minutia of her children’s moods, needs, schedules, conflicts, etc. Moms can be responsive to issues dads might not be aware of. Nothing against dads, but it seems that moms are often tuned to a different frequency than dads are.
However, this high capability with emotions and communications can backfire when the system is overloaded or impaired. I think of Superman floating above earth, holding his ears shut because his sharp hearing ability is overwhelmed at times. Moms with a mental illness are already overloaded with their own emotional imbalance. Depression makes them feel desperate and lonely. Anxiety creates constant rumination and obsessive worry. A personality disorder may make normal kid struggles seem like personal attacks.
When a mother isn’t healthy enough to give of herself, she mostly does what she can to protect herself. And this often means that somewhere, somehow, the kids will lose out on having a mom when they need one. Some moms with mental illness give every last ounce to their kids to make things seem as normal as possible, while they run themselves dry on the inside.
This taps in to the gender difference and social expectation that women are caregivers, geared toward making everything pleasing to others, and sensitive to others’ needs. While this is generally true, a depressed mother giving everything out will eventually backfire. There will be no more to give because her “bucket” has a big gaping hole in the bottom.
Other moms may feel overwhelmed by affection and interaction, doing the minimum amount they need to for their kids and keeping their distance. It’s not that they wouldn’t know that kids need more, but they simply can’t do it. It makes the mom feel worse to engage and touch than to back off. She conserves herself to “fight another day” by limiting herself each day. Of course, this means that the kids are missing out on emotional connection, teaching moments, social interactions, and so on.
Moms today are vulnerable in so many ways. With so many opportunities and freedoms, women can choose a lot of life paths including motherhood. But when genetic factors, relationship stressors, and other situations collide with motherhood, everyone can lose. It’s my hope that as we keep exposing this issue, more women will feel comfortable to reach out when they are in this terrible spot. And those surrounding a mother in so much pain will have the courage to speak up for them, reach out a hand and get them the help they cannot manage to ask for.