As a mother with Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD), you’ve likely consumed information about how to cope. You’ve probably read that rest, healthy food, water, exercise, social support and self-care are valuable and overusing screen time, eating your feelings, and wine is not helpful.
How many times a day do you think about doing something good for your mental health and then end up lost in Netflix or mindless scrolling because the decision to do something different feels too hard? When you are struggling and consumed with baby care, it’s easy to be overstimulated, tired, and distracted most of the day. There is zero time for you, let alone time for something that might make you feel alive again.
Doesn’t that all feel mind-blogging and defeating? As a woman, you ought to have the time to take care of yourself; after all, you take on the invisible load of motherhood while struggling with your mental health with minimal complaint.
Many clients have told me in my private practice that the realities of postpartum utterly blindsided them. There were so many things no one told them, then upon reflection they admit they probably wouldn’t have believed them anyways (the adage “that won’t happen to me”). Women were so consumed with getting to the birth, fielding unsolicited advice, not making mistakes and doing all the nesting, that when the baby came (and then the mental health struggles), prioritizing time for anything other than research and baby care felt frivolous and impossible.
“When would I even find the time? I think about taking care of myself all day, and I daydream about what I could be doing. Then I get the baby down for a nap, and I have (maybe) 45 minutes to myself, and all I do is lose myself in my phone or clean the house. I spend most of the day in a tailspin of feeding baby, napping baby, wearing the baby, lost in my thoughts, imagining worst-case scenarios, doing dishes and laundry,” a client said to me recently.
You may be struggling with making time for yourself; everyone has something that keeps them from doing the things that bring them joy. As a modern mother, you may be dealing with being the default parent, mental health, mom guilt, burn out and maybe even rage, and you can’t get the time for yourself that is necessary. It’s absurd, really.
You know what, though? It’s not all hopeless, I promise. Many mothers have moved through the unique and nuanced maternal mental health. I am Kayla Huszar, boy mom, survivor of perinatal OCD, social worker, perinatal mental health certified, expressive arts educator. I work solely with mothers because they deserve to feel alive (again), creative and vibrant in their lives.
I unknowingly had perinatal OCD for eighteen months before I sought support. In my heart, I knew something wasn’t right. My experiences weren’t “typical” postpartum experiences:
- Before falling asleep every night rehearsing over and over again what I would do if a burglar broke in
- In the middle of the night, having thoughts of not wanting to feed or hold my baby (who I wasn’t even attached to, he felt like a complete stranger)
- In the mornings, I would go over my to-do list repeatedly to make sure I remembered everything and didn’t make a mistake.
- At nap time, I triple-checked that there wasn’t anything suffocating in the crib.
- Every day ruminating and over-researching the best practices of baby care, not accepting help and judging my partner
I signed up for an art journal class at about six months postpartum. Creativity had always served me in difficult moments in the past, and I knew in my bones I needed a creative outlet for all the complex changes I was experiencing. The class was cancelled, and I was devastated. It took me another twelve months to go from conceptualizing using creativity (looking at other people’s art on Pinterest) to making time and doing it myself. I had to dig deep and figure out what would make me feel connected to my life again.
When my son was two, I went back to school for training in expressive art therapy. I was away from home and all the responsibilities on two occasions that year for ten days. In the philosophical frameworks and the hands-on therapy we did, I found myself again. Through that experience, I felt at home with my body again, I could communicate through art what I couldn’t say in words. In the end, I didn’t need to say it in words, the art was enough. I didn’t know how much I had lost to motherhood and how I desperately needed to prioritize, nourish and soothe myself. After I continued to a struggle with recovery, and there are days I still struggle. I’m not sure anyone “heals” from it. It’s like grief, it doesn’t go away but you learn how to mitigate, live and cope. I learned that I needed to stop conceptualizing feeling better and actually do the actual therapeutic work. Creativity was the needed outlet and answer to my suffering.
If you are experiencing a known (or suspected) PMAD, you may find it hard to describe what you’re going through. You might be feeling anxious but not know “why”. You may feel shame for not enjoying this more, for the intrusive thoughts, or for time you spend in front of a screen.
When you think about describing your mental health to another person, do you feel like you don’t know what to say or how to capture it so they “get” it? Take a moment to imagine your anxiety or depression as a shape, a colour, a place, a metaphor. I suspect that might be easier to grasp.
Expressive art and writing are profoundly beneficial in recovery from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. They both allow the expression of challenges, emotions and changes in a safe way because you can be authentic, uncensored, free of judgement or shame, and you can facilitate it for yourself.
20-minute life-changing creative coping rituals you can use today to boost your mood:
- Uncensored expressive writing
- Writing about your struggles makes a path to acceptance and insights. It doesn’t change your pain but gives it a container to exist in. Your mood will be boosted because when you write down your struggle (your anxiety, depression, birth trauma, etc) you are giving it a voice. You are moving it from being in the dark and welcoming it into the light. By writing about the hard stuff, you are turning towards yourself – this is an act of self-compassion, self-love and self-nurturing, and you will feel more alive and connected to yourself and others.
- Art journaling
- Art journaling is like written journaling, except you are using a different form of creativity – instead of just words, you are using colour and shape. Art journaling is getting your emotions down on paper in a visual way. This self-expression benefits people who find it hard to articulate their feelings. It allows you to communicate the way you feel without using words.
Here’s how you do it:
- Get a journal and writing utensil that you love (this can be a stylus and tablet, or even the notes app on your phone, but studies have shown a pen and paper approach to be most beneficial)
- Put a reminder in your phone to express yourself daily
- Open up your journal and express yourself.
Express the hard. Draw your anxiety as a shape. Write about what keeps you up at night. Make a list of the things that make you angry. Draw your anger as an animal. And if you are having a good day, write about that too. Write about how this isn’t what you expected, how it isn’t fair that you have to live with PMADs. Write about your disappointments, challenges and celebrations. Write about what makes you laugh and cry and why. Express your frustration, resentment and needs.
At this point, many mothers tell me “I don’t have time.” These rituals are not an “extra” thing you need to do. Swap these twenty minutes with twenty minutes of something else (screen time, for example). We can find time for all kinds of maladaptive stuff; it takes real accountability and grit to do the hard work. Research shows that when we suppress, ignore or avoid our mental health, it will stay the same at best, and at worst, it will get bigger and louder. Inner critics, pain, emotions and thoughts will always find their way out. Always. It can be common to think that it will go away when you reach the next milestone, start sleeping again, or when you go back to work – this assumption is not in your best interest. Most women see the quickest recovery from doing the work, setting intentions, and staying accountable to move with not against their mental health.
Changing is hard, staying is easier. Especially when you are a new parent. I don’t have to name the vast amount of changes you are currently experiencing. It might feel more comfortable to maintain the course, engage in familiar behaviours, patterns and belief systems. Remember: you are enough and you deserve to feel alive in motherhood.
If you desire time for yourself, but can’t find the time, I implore you to consider two things: Are you prioritizing other people, relationships or activities that don’t actually bring you joy? And what is getting in the way?
In closing, here are some reflection questions to get you started in your new journal: was there anything that caught your attention in this? What are you most curious about or most interested in? What part of the reading this was most difficult, emotional, or fun for you? Is there a feeling that goes with or stands out for you? Do you experience anything in your body? If so, where?
Have a creatively chill day,
Kayla Huszar, BSW, RSW, PMH-C
Podcast: Chill Like A Mother
Kayla is a mother of two boys and survivor of perinatal OCD. She holds a degree in social work, and has specialized in expressive art therapy and maternal mental health. Her belief is that (unfortunately) a lot of families feel blindsided by postpartum and they deserve better. In her private practise she focuses on prevention, education and treatment of perinatal distress. Kayla’s creative and feminist approach brings mothers joy, inspiration, resilience and confidence.