Taking Care of Your Mental Health as a New Parent
“It won’t be about you anymore. Parenting is about sacrifice.” Everyone says that to expecting couples, and I can’t be the only one who’s felt insulted by it. I’d sacrificed plenty of things before. Who did my dad think I was, some kind of hedonist? I was prepared for plenty of difficult things, like getting pooped on, getting by on less sleep, and buying less things for myself. But I think when people say that, they’re trying to get at something deeper. They don’t want to actually say it, because it’s a hard concept to sum up and also doesn’t cast the rosiest light on parenthood. You don’t learn about sacrifice for the first time when you become a parent. You learn to sacrifice everything. If you’re not careful, you could become swallowed whole by sacrifice. And that can be a really bad thing for someone with mental health issues.
Bending Without Breaking
Having struggled severely with depression and anxiety when I was younger, I knew how easily I could slip right back into paralyzing fear and isolation. My life was carefully structured around coping skills that allowed me to be a normal, functioning person. I wasn’t rigid about them--no daily 5:00 am yoga or anything--so I’d forgotten just how much I needed them. But the things like daily reading, relaxing my shoulders in the car on the way home from work, ice cream and Netflix with my husband each night--I did need them, or my mind went to a dark place.
And when you have a newborn? Yeah, no--you won’t be doing those things. Your life flips upside down, and every single second of every day is different than they were before, because you are different. There’s a whole new person who is utterly dependent on you. When you’re not actively feeding or changing a diaper, you’re holding them, anticipating their next need. Even when they’re sleeping in the bassinet, you’re thinking about them. And daycare after you go back to work (if you do)? That’s when the mom guilt sets in. So you’re not using your coping skills, you’re not getting much sleep, you’re probably not eating regularly, and on top of all that, your hormones are raging. That’s a recipe for disaster. How are you supposed to keep your mental health in check?
There are actually a few ways:
Have patience and remember it will get better. My first baby had colic. It was rough. Every evening between 4:00 and 10:00, she’d cry and whine and fuss nonstop, no matter how we tried to soothe her. In the thick of it, I felt like those days would never end. But sure enough, they did, and before I knew it she was sleeping in her own room and my husband and I had a chunk of time in the evening all to ourselves again. I have more perspective now that we’re on our second. I remember what a short period of time that actually was--even when it didn’t feel like it was going fast at the time. Now I look at pictures of her sweet little face from then, and while I definitely remember how hard it was, I also remember the mornings when she would give me the sunniest of smiles. I wonder, if I’d thought more about how soon she’d become a toddler, I might have taken the bad with the good more graciously.
Use small coping skills more often and more creatively. Necessity breeds invention. If you journaled, but don’t have time (or free hands) to sit with a physical journal anymore, use a journaling app on your phone and jot down your thoughts whenever you have a couple minutes. If you were an exerciser, go for a couple short neighborhood walks with baby in the stroller instead of your usual morning run. To be proactive, try making a list of things you did before baby that made you feel like yourself, and find a parenting-friendly alternative for each. As a personal example, I made sure to get outside at least a little each day. If I’m inside too much, I start to feel like the walls are closing in. My mood tanks and my anxiety goes up. So I took baby on a little tour of the backyard each afternoon, or went for a neighborhood walk. In the brief window of time between when she got her first vaccines and when the pandemic started, I took her to Target and browsed (heh, Target, am I right?). I started learning what the little things were that brought me joy that I’d taken for granted before, and did them more intentionally.
Make sure you have support. Support comes in a lot of different forms, from someone to help with diapers to someone to vent to. When my daughter was a newborn, I craved stimulating adult conversation. I was so occupied with changing diapers and feedings and silly baby songs, and talking about more complex things felt like stretching an unused muscle. So my husband taking the time to just talk, free of distractions, was a huge form of support. He also helped take care of baby so I could shower, get a little more sleep, and eat. When basic needs are taken care of, everything becomes so much easier, including coping with the really difficult things (like a colicky baby). If you don’t have that kind of support, find someone else you can lean on, even for a bit. If you’re struggling with mental health symptoms past the point you can cope with on your own, see a therapist. Get on medication. If there was ever a time to go the extra mile in taking care of yourself, it’s now.
Remember who you’re doing it for. This one’s obvious, and cliché, but remember you’re doing the most important work there is: raising a child. Even if you follow all this advice perfectly, things aren’t going to be exactly like they were before. But that’s okay. Don’t underestimate the power that the love for your baby holds. Whatever you lose in having so much time to devote to taking care of yourself, you’ll gain back in the rewarding feeling that comes with taking care of your child and watching him/her grow and learn. It gives you a sense of purpose that makes it a lot easier to cope with just about everything. I never really felt like I had a reason “why” before having my kids. I had goals, and I’m very ambitious. I was afraid I would lose that when I became a parent, and I didn’t. But knowing my littles are looking up to me, depending on me, and learning how to be people by looking at me, I have this incredible reason to take care of myself and be the best person I can be. That’s a powerful enough motivator to make “making do” with a bit less so much easier.
Sacrifice Doesn’t Mean Suffering
So, yes, parenting does mean sacrifice, but take that adage with a grain of salt. Becoming a parent doesn’t mean allowing yourself to suffer or losing sight of who you are outside your identity as a parent. It means you need to make major changes, adopt a change in perspective, and shift, not lose, your sense of self. If you do it well, you’ll be a better, happier person, for yourself and your family.
Victoria VanTol is a social worker, therapist, freelance writer, and budding blogger. She lives in Nebraska (the city part, not the cornfield part) with her husband and two beautiful kiddos. Her new project, Woolgather, is a blog for her mental health musings and book gushings.