By Aparna Iyer
As a reproductive psychiatrist, I have had the unique privilege of working with many pregnant and postpartum mothers from various cultures, religions, and walks of life. Despite this being a heterogeneous group of women, many myths about motherhood are cross-cultural and, frustratingly, seem to impact many women in setting realistic and healthy expectations of themselves, pregnancies, and motherhood in general. Here, I tackle a few of these myths:
Myth 1: “Medications are bad for the baby.”
It can be tough to consider medications and medical interventions during pregnancy when society has told us that our pregnancies need to be “all-natural.”
But consider a few things first when thinking about whether you need to take medications during your pregnancy. First, this is a very personal decision between you and your personal physician. If your personal physician suggests a medical/mental health medication during pregnancy, it is probably because there is a medical need for it.
Also, consider that pregnancy is not protective against all medical ailments. In fact, some medical ailments persist or even worsen during pregnancy. This is often the case for mental health conditions.
Discussions of medical issues, medications, and medical interventions are usually about weighing risks and benefits, and during pregnancy, we need to consider this balance for both mother and baby. Untreated and undertreated medical conditions (including mental health conditions) can sometimes impact the baby’s wellbeing, so this needs to factor heavily into the discussion with your doctor of what medications should be taken during pregnancy.
Myth 2: “Baby comes first.”
Most moms will agree that their baby is a top priority. In fact, I find in my practice that moms will really pay attention when their baby’s wellbeing is integrated into our discussions of overall wellness. However, this isn’t all that hard to do, considering that mom and baby now form a dyad, a connected twosome that impacts each other in a bidirectional way. That means that while your baby’s wellness clearly impacts you, your wellness also clearly impacts your baby.
So, what does that mean in real talk?
Our data shows that taking care of mama’s wellness (in the case of my practice, her mental health) is also taking care of her baby’s wellness. If we treat mom’s depression/anxiety/other mental health conditions, the data shows we are favoring her baby’s short and long-term healthy development.
Yes, your baby comes first. But mama comes first, too. The two are inseparable, and the wellness of both is inseparable too.
Myth 3: “You can sleep when the baby sleeps.”
In an ideal world, yes. We would sleep when the baby sleeps. However, it would frustrate me to no end when people would repeat this advice to me when I was postpartum. The reality is that moms are not light switches – we cannot turn ourselves on and off at our own will! Although most postpartum mothers are exhausted and would love an opportunity to doze off, there are many reasons why postpartum moms might not be able to sleep once their baby naps. Some of these may include other responsibilities (i.e., caring for another child or pumping breastmilk), using that time for self-care, spending time with your partner, or simply feeling too alert to tap into sleep.
Chronic sleep deprivation, however, can really impact our physical and mental health. While a baby’s erratic sleep patterns can certainly result in some sleeplessness and fatigue, moms who find themselves completely unable to sleep might need to consult with their medical team to ensure that there isn’t an additional issue (such as postpartum depression) that may be further impeding their ability to sleep.
Myth 4: “Your body will know how to breastfeed when the time comes.”
Like many new mothers, I believed that breastfeeding was going to be natural and easy as soon as my child was born.
But, as many have found, it wasn’t. Furthermore, in my professional experience, breastfeeding may come easily to some, but for many, breastfeeding can be a challenge or near impossibility. The reality is that you can try your hardest, but sometimes we need some additional support from a lactation consultant or professional who can help nurture your breastfeeding journey and make it a successful one.
And yet, for many others, breastfeeding is just not in the cards, no matter how hard they try. We just don’t have complete control over if/how well the baby latches or if our breasts are even able to produce breastmilk.
Having this knowledge prior to giving birth is really important because many women can feel terrible about not being able to breastfeed their children. If you find yourself struggling to breastfeed, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your physicians (such as your pediatrician) about how medically necessary it is for your infant to have breastmilk and then to determine the next best steps.
In many cases, your physician will give you the green light to start formula feeding your sweet baby, which is a viable and high-quality way to feed many of our sweet babies! (One of mine was 100% formula fed – and he is securely attached, bonded to both parents, and well adjusted!). Self-compassion and awareness in these moments go a really long way!
Myth 5: “Having a baby will bring you closer to your partner.”
While the birth of a baby is such an important and beautiful milestone in many relationships, it will often also mark a huge transition from partnerdom into parenting partnerdom. In addition to each parent navigating this transition as individuals, recalibrating in the relationship after the baby’s birth can be challenging. Coupling this with the chaos of a new baby, financial challenges, communication difficulties, and sleep deprivation makes it even more difficult at times.
The birth of a baby also brings with it the birth of a new mother, new father, and a new partnership. My suggestion is to actively nurture that partnership. This may include setting aside protected time for date nights or check-ins to ensure you’re both on the same page and maintaining good communication. In many cases, this includes marriage counseling to keep your marriage in a healthy spot.
Please remember that your motherhood journey is uniquely yours and cannot simply be characterized or dictated by limiting societal or cultural beliefs. It is an important time to lean on supports or find a village of supportive and like-minded moms. Professional help with therapists and psychiatrists, especially those who specialize in the care of perinatal mothers, can be really beneficial as well!
Dr. Aparna Iyer is a board-certified psychiatrist in Dallas. She specializes in the care of women needing emotional and mental health support during pregnancy, postpartum, infertility journeys, pregnancy loss, and adoption. She is a speaker and writer. You can find more about Dr. Iyer at her Instagram page or at her website.
Please note that the above information is not meant to be taken as medical advice and is not a substitute for the medical advice of your own personal physician. Please consult with your own personal physician for medical concerns and advice. The above information is the opinion of Dr. Aparna Iyer alone and not necessarily representative of any institutions with which she has affiliations. Please note that if you have thoughts of harming yourself or anybody else, you must call 911 or go to your local emergency room immediately.