Beyond postpartum depression, there are several other lesser-known mental health risks during the perinatal period (just before and after a baby is born), and this includes the added pressure of becoming a “super” mom or dad, according to a University of Kansas researcher who will present her findings at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.
“Both mothers and fathers need to pay attention to their mental health during the perinatal period, and they need to watch for these other types of conditions, not just depression,” said Carrie Wendel-Hummell, a doctoral candidate in sociology.
For the study, Wendel-Hummell conducted in-depth interviews with 17 new fathers and 30 new mothers primarily from Kansas and Missouri. The participants represented a range of low-income to middle-class parents. There was no requirement that subjects have a perinatal mental health condition, but all participants happened to have prolonged symptoms of at least one.
According to Wendel-Hummell, the goal of the study was to highlight the biological and sociological problems that new parents face. Medical researchers for years had attributed postpartum depression in new mothers to hormonal changes, despite evidence to the contrary.
“It has been framed so much as being a hormonal disorder, but the evidence there is actually very limited,” she said. “Childbirth itself is a life change and a life stressor, so actually there’s far more evidence that those risk factors are the cause, more so than hormones.”
Stressed parents in the study generally reported worries about social problems, including cultural expectations of parenting, relationship stress, family-work balance issues, and struggles with poverty.
At the root of their perinatal mental health issues, low-income parents reported ongoing struggles of tending to their baby’s basic needs in the face of low wages and job insecurity, as well as finding affordable quality childcare, reliable transportation, and safe housing.
“Many of these parents were unable to afford mental health treatment. Frequently, pregnancy-based Medicaid is cut off after a post-birth appointment, which prevents coverage of treatment of postpartum depression or other post-pregnancy mental health disorders,” Wendel-Hummell said.
“They aren’t getting the support they need,” she said.
As for middle-class moms and dads, these parents tend to put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect mothers and fathers.
“Middle-class mothers often try to do everything to balance work and home life, and fathers are increasingly attempting to do the same,” she said. “This pressure can exacerbate mental health conditions. If everything is not perfect, they feel like failures — and mothers tend to internalize that guilt.”
“Fathers often suffer from stress from working in places that did not have family-friendly leave policies and from generally lacking resources to prepare them for fatherhood,” Wendel-Hummell said.
“Nobody is asking about the father and how he’s doing,” she said. “People typically focus on the mom and the infant, so not only is it more difficult for men to express their emotions, nobody is opening up that window for them either.”
She notes a need for more awareness of these perinatal mental health conditions and, in addition, to find ways to screen for them.
“We really only have a screening procedure for depression,” she said. “There should be improved screening, and it should be done in the later stages of women’s pregnancy and throughout that first year after the baby is born, for both mothers and fathers.
“We focus way too much on, ‘how do we fix this individual,’ but we really need to address the state of social and family policy,” Wendel-Hummell said.