How many times have you scrolled on your phone looking at your friend’s perfect picture with perfect hair and makeup? How many times have you felt exasperated that you don’t have that beautiful family picture with your kids? You know the one — families with color-coordinated outfits and perfect smiles.
As a pediatrician, while I care for babies, often times I am also caring for their moms. I get asked about everything from incision pain and painful nipples to birth control and safety of medications while breastfeeding.
However, over the past four to five years, I have seen an increase in moms telling me that they feel inadequate as a mom. That they’re not doing it right. And as you may have guessed, much of this has to do with social media.
I had a baby in the office with both mom and dad present. The baby girl was perfect; developmentally and nutritionally she was exactly where she needed to be. However, when I looked over at mom, something just seemed off. I sat down next to her and asked her if she was feeling okay. And then she began to cry. I just held her hand as she told me that she felt that she wasn’t good enough. Breastfeeding was hard. Her baby cried all the time. She couldn’t go out to dinner with her husband. When I asked her if she had talked to her friends who also had new babies as a source of support, her reply: No, because I see them on social media, and they are doing everything right. This mom, as many do, chronicled her pregnancy through her social media account: the baby bumps, the professional pregnancy pictures, the baby shower. However, as for so many of us, none of that prepared her for the postpartum period. And to make things worse, her social media reel was making her feel more anxious, upset, and inadequate.
Sadly, this is not surprising. I don’t care how old you are: 10, 20, 30 or 50, social media impacts us, especially women.
When my oldest received her first smartphone in middle school, as I was trying to teach her how to navigate social media, what I saw, not only as a mother, but as a physician and woman, truly alarmed me. Women of all ages, many of whom were mothers, were feeling inadequate based on the images they were viewing on social media.
When I was in the early stages of motherhood, I only had to contend with the images I saw on television or on the magazine covers in the grocery check-out aisle. Headlines like “bounce back to your pre-pregnancy body in 6 weeks!” or photos of celebrity women with perfect makeup taking their kids to the park (never mind the entourage of people helping them in the wings). With technology at our fingertips and every social media app accessible at all times, the onslaught of images and posts is never-ending. I observed this not only as a mother but as a physician who sees pregnant and postpartum women in my office every day. I also experienced this with friends and neighbors who were new mothers.
Studies have shown that exposure to social media can increase anxiety and/or depression. In fact, it can directly impact your mental health and emotional wellness. It can also affect your sleep.
When you combine sleep deprivation with postpartum hormones, it is not surprising that social media can make women feel worse, a lot worse. New mothers are already struggling with so many unknowns. Some will question if they are doing the right thing and others will feel weighed down by what seem like life-altering decisions.
Social media often obscures reality. It can make many of us feel inadequate, guilty, and as if we’re not being good mothers. Comparison is the thief of joy. It is always difficult to match expectation with reality. Whether it’s the Pinterest mom or the woman who is back in her pre-pregnancy jeans within a month, all the images affect us, even if we think we are just scrolling. A psychologist I work with told me that the images we see, what we bombard ourselves with, all affect our brain, even if we think we are not actively engaged.
To all my mamas, please use social media and online sites only if they help you. If they stress you out or make you feel like you are a bad mother or everyone else is doing things right—then please take a break. Sometimes you just need to unplug. Practically, you can set a time limit on your apps. You can have your smartphone shut everything down (except necessary functions) after a designated time. It doesn’t matter how many years you have been a mother, all of us can benefit from this downtime. Please don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others, as you have no idea what their true story is and are only seeing what they choose to share. As I said earlier, social media can have adverse effects on your mental health.
Remember: Do not compare your reality to someone else’s highlight reel.
My mantra, as a pediatrician, breastfeeding medicine and postpartum specialist, and most importantly as a mom, my mantra is: Happy and healthy mama (this includes mental health) equals happy and healthy baby.
Natasha K. Sriraman MD MPH FAAP FABM PMH-C
Creator of Natasha.Mom.MD
Associate Professor of Pediatrics & OB-Gyn
Eastern Virginia Medical School
Natasha Sriraman, MD, MPH, FAAP, FABM, PMH-C is a mother, wife, a board-certified academic pediatrician and an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School/Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. She is also Faculty in the Department of EVMS OB-Gyn at the Center for Maternal & Child Health and Advocacy.
In addition to seeing patients, she teaches medical students and residents and has received numerous awards for her teaching and research. She has spoken internationally and is a recognized expert on breastfeeding and postpartum depression. She is tri-lingual and has published about cultural, linguistic and racial differences with respect to breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is a strong advocate for moms and babies and has worked with the Governor’s office on having May declared as Maternal Mental Health Month in Virginia; she has also lobbied in Washington for women to have protected time and lactation space in the workplace.
On the National AAP, she has served as EDI District Champion and currently sits on the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child & Family Health. She is also currently the Vice-President of the Virginia AAP Chapter and Honorary Chair of the Postpartum Support Virginia.
She believes that as a mother and pediatrician, her role is to empower mothers as they care for their babies. In her free time, she likes to run, do yoga, read and spend time on the beach with her husband and 4 babies (3 human, 1 canine). You can purchase her latest book: Return to You: A Postpartum Plan for New Moms at all online retailers.