Over the past decade we have become more comfortable than ever sharing details of our lives. Sometimes our sharing culture has led to over-sharing, but for the most part I believe the cultural shift from secrecy and shame to openness and acceptance has been a very good adjustment. One area that has seem immense growth in vulnerability is mental health.
For far too long depression has been held in secret. The secrecy of depression fosters feelings of shame, guilt, and self-doubt. I am always happy to see depression, especially postpartum depression, openly discussed in the media. Recently the New York Times published an article that gave voice to the fact that dads can experience PPD, too. For years I've ended my childbirth class with a PSA about postpartum mood disorders. Admittedly, closing the course with the heavy topic of how and when to get help if you're not loving parenthood may not be the best move for a childbirth class, but it's as good of a time as ever, I guess. In my PSA I always remind couples that it's a real thing if dads experience PPD after the birth of a child. The news usually comes as a surprise, but interestingly it also often causes the men in the room to breathe a sigh of relief - I let them off the hook for believing that they have to transition into parenthood perfectly, with no less than grateful and ecstatic emotions connected to parenthood. Feelings of postpartum depression don't indicate a lack of love or gratitude for your child; they are symptoms of a life transition.
Once moms and dads are allowed to let go of the expectation that they should feel perfectly happy in parenthood the dialogue opens about how everyone is actually feeling. Admitting that parenthood doesn't feel like you expected, or maybe isn't going how you wanted, or has adjusted your life in ways that you aren't happy about doesn't may you a bad parents, it makes you an honest parent. There are some men and women who gleefully transition into parenthood, but for everyone else, there is power in being open and vulnerable.
For too long the stigma of depression, and even more so postpartum depression, has kept women silent about their experiences. The silence breeds shame, fear, and guilt. So often I speak to women with PPD who use every ounce of their energy to carry on as though nothing is wrong. They carry on at their jobs, in their play groups, at church, with their families - they manage to smile through everything, even. But inside they are holding on by a thread because they feel the weight of disconnection and silent suffering. What they are presenting to the world doesn't match the heaviness inside.
Women report that they won't tell anyone about their PPD because they believe it reflects on their ability to be a mother. They feel guilty that during this given season of life they aren't enjoying motherhood like they thought they would, or should.
"Good mothers don't feel this way," becomes their mantra. Many women with PPD try to act like what they think "good mothers" should act like.
It's easy to get lost in the act and to get caught in the 'cycle of should'.
What should I be doing?
How should I be doing this?
I should have have that differently.
Ironically, the incriminating should list doesn't help women become the great mothers they want to be. Instead, the should list creates an unattainable goal that becomes a distraction from engaging in the present moment of motherhood.
The should list forms into a 'cycle of should' as a mom gets stuck on the mental loop of thinking about what she should be doing, judging herself over her lack of performance, and then feeling heaps of shame, guilt, and a lack of self-worth over her abilities.
The 'cycle of should' is utterly exhausting and will never produce feelings of validation or confidence, which are lifelines during motherhood.
Anyone can get caught going down their personal should list and end up in the 'cylce of should'. Transitions into parenthood - whether it's parenting your first or fourth child - cause stress for everyone. Sometimes the 'cycle of should' is one of the more overt symptoms of PPD and anxiety. Some women find it difficult to distinguish what is typical stress and what has become PPD or anxiety.
If you notice you are shoulding yourself on a regular basis, take a moment to do a personal checkin with how you are doing overall - physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. When you find yourself shoulding all over yourself. Take a pause and breathe. Find your breath. Connect to your breath. Decide what you want to do and who you want to be; rather than who you should be.
Instead of shoulding all over yourself, try embracing healthy motherhood looks like for you. Burdening yourself with shame over not being good enough is never a characteristic of healthy motherhood. Healthy motherhood is defined by boundaries that are realistic and validating for you and your family.