Pandemic Recovery: Parent’s Mental Health
by Melodye Phillips

For months I sat with the decision of whether I should get the COVID-19 vaccine or not. The vaccine came out when my daughter was 2 months old and I was immediately paralyzed by another layer of uncertainty as to what the best action would be for us. After months of debate and research and consultation, I made the choice to get the vaccine. I cried in my car waiting to get the shot and then I cried after the shot waiting during my observation period. 

I had no idea the weight of all I had carried the past year until that moment. 

As a pregnant mom of little ones during a global pandemic, I logically knew how stressful this past year has been. I’m also a therapist so on another level, I understood the stress that the presence of COVID-19 and all that 2020 brought has caused myself and so many others.

But in that moment, as the fear and anxiety and excitement and relief rushed in and over me, I realized just how much weight I carried over the last year 

But part of that is just motherhood, right?

Humming through day to day life without even realizing the weight of all that we’re carrying. 

From the time those two pink lines show up on the pregnancy test, mothers are making a million different decisions a day that they believe, and hope, will positively impact the development of their child. 

So much of motherhood is survival. It’s instinct. And if it’s not instinct, there is immense amounts of research, reading and consultation to find answers and coordinate schedules and lives and make heavy decisions at warped speed.

During the day-to-day movement of motherhood, it’s easy to overlook mom. It is easy to overlook how stressful it is to make these decisions. It’s easy to be so focused on the entire wellbeing of your children (no matter what age they are) that you forget to stop and really look into the eyes you see back in the mirror. 

It is easy to miss getting your basic needs met as a mother. So, it’s even harder to notice and tend to your own mental health. 

Maternal mental health is a term that is getting a little more attention these days, as it should. But as mothers, do we even see our own mental health?

It starts early- as a mom of a newborn, people tell you “sleep when the baby sleeps”, and every mother I’ve ever spoken with says “do I clean when the baby cleans too????” 

The dance of caring for babies and homes and jobs and relationships while also thinking of our own basic needs and mental health is an exhausting one.

A little over a year ago mothers everywhere were launched into an entirely unknown, uncertain, terrifying dance. The unknowns and uncertainties have taken a heavy toll on us all. 

But we have been taught to overlook ourselves and do the things. 

I think it’s time we start putting ourselves first and model for our children healthy acknowledgement of our mental health. 

As the world steps into the light of a new normal, it’s time to see yourself. It’s time to pay attention. 

Take a deep breath and notice yourself. 

Redefine Health

Let’s start by redefining health and including our mental health in the definition of what makes us healthy and unhealthy. The world focuses on physical health above all other aspects of who we are. The pandemic heightened that idolization as we rightly chose and were guided to quarantine and distance  for physical safety. In doing the right physically safe thing, we unintentionally jeopardized so many other aspects of our health and wellbeing. Mental health being one of them. 

So it’s time to elevate the importance of mental health when we look at health and wellness. 

In this new normal, you will still have the decisions to make about what’s best for you, your children and your family. I don’t know that there’s ever a point in motherhood where the decision-making stops. 

But the truth is, it’s past time to put mamas first; in fact, we’ve always needed to put ourselves first to care for our children best.

It’s the whole airplane mask analogy. If you’re on a plane in turbulence, once those masks drop you put yours on first. Because you can’t put your kids’ masks on if you can’t breathe. 

Listen to that again… you cannot take care of your kids if you cannot breathe

6 Ways To Prioritize Your Mental Health 

So how do you put yourself first in the breaking dawn of a post pandemic light? 

Hydrate and Nourish Yourself 

As an eating disorder therapist, I work with people on redefining their relationship with food and body. For mothers, this can be especially difficult given the demands that daily caregiving puts on us. Prioritizing consistent meals, snacks, and fluid intake is normally the first step in fully nourishing ourselves.

First, take a mental inventory of how often you are eating- not what, just how often. Many moms I work with are surprised at how little they are fueling themselves! 

Second, redefine what “healthy” or normal eating means. Our culture has a long list of ever-changing food rules that are supposed to help us live our best lives. These rules often get us stuck so it’s important to think about your diet from a place of flexibility and inclusivity. All foods can fit into a healthy/normal eating pattern. Yes, even candy and chips! We want to offer our bodies a variety as they work hard to manage all that motherhood demands. A well-nourished brain receives various types of foods all throughout the day to help support our mental health. 

Hydration also includes variety- water, coffee, tea, sodas, juices all fit into hydrating your body. Many moms feel like hydration should only mean water, but there are many enjoyable ways to get fluids into your body! Drinking water is good and if you’re struggling, add fruits (lemon, strawberry, cucumber, etc) to your water! We want our food and fluids to be pleasurable! 

We’re aiming for consistently fueling our bodies with a variety of foods and fluids at regular intervals throughout the day. 

Move Your Body 

Movement can feel tricky because so often exercise is seen as a vehicle for intentional weight loss or food compensation (aka punishment). 

Instead of seeing movement in terms of exercise or working out for a certain amount of time or to burn a certain amount of calories, challenge yourself to view movement as a way to offer kindness to your body and mind. Begin to view movement as a way to support your mental, emotional, and social health as well as physical health!

Consistent, enjoyable activity has proven to be supportive of mental health for everyone. In addition, research shows us that enjoyable movement is more sustainable long-term than weight-loss focused or punishment exercise. 

Making space for movement in your days can vary from day to day. Some days it may mean a trip to the gym or yoga studio. Others it may be several dance parties in the house, gardening, housework, a walk around the neighborhood or through a park. Get creative with what feels good in your body and delights you!

Sleep

How much has sleep occupied and alluded mothers?? From pregnancy on, most mothers have a complicated relationship with sleep, most often meaning we don’t get enough of it. Now is the time to really make sleep a priority. 

You know your family so you and your partner are the ones to determine what sleep can look like for you but it’s important to make adjustments to ensure that YOU get adequate sleep. If you have a newborn or infant at home, try to map out at least one 4 hour segment of sleep for yourself (and your partner) at night. If you have older children, make sure you’re getting 7-9 hours of sleep! 

Attempt a decent bedtime- ideally between 9-11 PM depending on your wake time. Turn down the house at least an hour before the kids go to bed and hopefully a few hours before you go to bed.

Just like your kids need a bedtime routine, it’s helpful for you. Set up a bedtime routine that sounds comforting and soothing to you. Once again, get creative so you’ll look forward to winding down! 

Know the Signs 

Before we can ask for help, we need to know we need help. It can be difficult to know we need help because mental health struggles can be so overwhelming we don’t even realize that what we’re experiencing might not be normal. Throughout the last year, we’ve had to cope with high levels of stress constantly so it can be difficult to see that this is not the way things are meant to be. 

Here are signs things aren’t quite right if you’re struggling to recognize signs of mental health distress.

  • Feeling disconnected from your baby, children, partner, loved ones, pets
  • Trouble falling asleep 
  • Trouble staying asleep (not in reference to a newborn or child waking you up)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of energy (that doesn’t go away with adequate sleep)
  • Moodiness/Irritability
  • Tearfulness or spells of crying 
  • Rage/Yelling
  • Trouble making decisions 
  • Weight changes 
  • Physical ailments (headaches, stomachaches, increased illnesses, heart palpitations)
  • Hair falling out
  • Period irregularities
  • Intrusive thoughts 
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or your loved ones

This is NOT an exhaustive list, but it can help get you started on a self-examination. If you’re having trouble with this, ask a trusted loved one to share what they see. 

If you are having thoughts of harming yourself, your children, or your loved ones, please take action and call or text 800-273-8255, go to the nearest hospital, or call 911. You can find freedom. There is hope. You are not alone. 

Seek Personal and Professional Support

Once you’ve recognized the signs that your mental health is suffering, reach out for help! There is no shame in asking for help from your partner, family, friends, faith communities, or support groups. They say it takes a village and that saying really hits home because as humans we are made for connection with others. We are biologically wired to need other people. That is a beautiful thing. 

The people around you can be a source of support and help but reaching out to trained professionals is a huge step in breaking free from the weight that the pandemic put on you. Therapists are trained to offer space for healing and restoration in a unique way. If you’ve never been to therapy, now is a good time to start. If you’ve been before, it’s a good time to go back!

PSI offers great support groups that are free of charge to connect you with other mamas that are feeling what you feel. There is also a list of resources and help waiting for you at https://www.postpartum.net/

It’s also extremely important to acknowledge that maternal mental health struggles are extremely common! Many GOOD mothers struggle. 

It’s okay to struggle.

 It’s not okay to suffer alone. 

You are worthy of acknowledging your own struggle. You are worthy of help. 

You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well. 

Melodye Philllips is a Licensed Professional Counselor- Supervisor and Certified Spiritual Director in Tyler, Texas. She specializes in eating disorders, body image issues, and issues related to pregnancy loss, pregnancy complications, and birth trauma. She deeply desires to help mom’s find freedom from the things in life that hold them back from being their most authentic self. For more information, you can find her at melodyephillips.com