Pregnant women and new mothers experiencing mental health difficulties can fear being judged negatively by professionals, resulting in a reluctance to seek help.
Professionals can help by listening and validating women’s experiences.
Stigma is particularly important to consider when discussing mental health issues during pregnancy or early parenthood. Alongside the widespread acknowledgement that having a baby brings a variety of demands on physical and emotional health and relationships, women can sometimes experience a sense of pressure to fit in with dominant cultural beliefs about motherhood, that is, what it means to be a ‘good mother’. This can include expectations about:
- how a woman should feel about her pregnancy or the prospect of becoming a mother
- how or where to give birth
- how bonding should take place
- how to care for one’s baby including feeding and sleeping
- what it means to ask someone else for help
Some women may find that their experiences, beliefs and expectations of pregnancy and early parenthood are significantly shaped by factors such as:
- method of conception
- sexual orientation
- the presence of a disability
- ongoing health issues
In these circumstances, there may be a concern about the degree to which health professionals will bring knowledge and understanding about the importance and influence of these factors. These beliefs can influence us all, and may sometimes be communicated by health professionals through the assumptions they make about a new or expectant mother’s experience.
It can be important to remember that everyone will have a unique experience of pregnancy and early parenthood. Bonding may be sudden and intense, while for others it may take time. Some women may make a smooth adjustment to motherhood, while others may find it to be a much more challenging experience. Professionals can help by listening carefully and validating women’s experiences. It may help to normalise women’s feelings by discussing how these issues affect many new parents and are nothing to be ashamed of.
Some women may benefit from viewing resources such as the Baby Buddy app, this animation featuring Leeds women’s stories or information on the Mindwell pages on pregnancy and becoming a parent. When women are encouraged to speak about their feelings without being judged, this can be useful in its own right and it can also encourage women to seek further help when it is needed.