The transition into motherhood is many times accompanied by a wide-range of real emotions aka ‘The Feels,’ that are often overlooked. There are so many variables that can effect how we feel, and all the feels are okay to have.
Ever find yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed and feeling ‘less than’? Here are all these new mothers looking pulled together and having a delightful time with their beautiful, perfectly cherubic babies. Especially if they’re breastfeeding. They’re having fun, looking lovingly at their baby, joyous. And you feel that way, too … most of the time. But the rest of the time … well … not so much.
It’s a big leap going from pregnant to parent, physically and emotionally. Physically, you’re no longer producing pregnancy hormones, but instead churning out breastfeeding hormones (even if you’re bottle feeding, at least at first). During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone (among other hormones) support the uterus and growing baby. But once the baby is born, a dramatic shift takes place. During breastfeeding, oxytocin and prolactin take center stage, and levels of estrogen are suppressed. This hormonal roller-coaster may be the source of the ‘baby blues’ many women feel in the immediate postpartum.
While oxytocin is the ‘hormone of love,’ as well as the main means of milk delivery and prolactin is the ‘mothering hormone’ and main milk-making hormone, their presence doesn’t always equal a smooth breastfeeding experience or transition to motherhood. While breastfeeding can be a very rewarding experience, women who face challenges nursing their baby may feel a whole host of emotions – from disappointment to frustration and more.
The emotional upheaval of new motherhood can run the gamut from joy and exuberance to depression and anxiety – sometimes even on the same day.
The emotional changes that come with motherhood can be related to hormonal shifts, but they may also be related to relationships – with your baby, your partner, and yourself. People will ask if you have an ‘easy’ baby – and it makes the transition to motherhood more emotionally fulfilling if your baby has a pleasant temperament. In one study (Hickey et al 2019), a third of new parents reported stress with their new role, especially with integrating baby care into their lives. For almost 20 percent of these parents, the stress was moderate. And the same proportion had worries about their baby’s behaviors. So, you’re not alone if you’re having trouble adjusting to motherhood.
Your relationship with your partner will change – not just related to childcare but related to intimacy and family dynamics. You’re not just a couple anymore, but a family of three (or more if you have multiples). Your postpartum hormonal shifts affect your libido, too. Intimacy may not be at the top of your priority list and this can create some relationship tension. More than that, your division of responsibility may have shifted, and you may not like the divide. The way you perceive the fairness of who is doing what – from household chores to childcare – determines how you feel about your partner (Chong and Mickelson, 2016). And this can be subjective and changeable, leading to dissatisfaction from both sides. Learning to communicate your needs, and listen to your partner's needs, will help.
New motherhood may come easily to you – as if it’s what you’re meant to do – or it might be a true challenge to your self-identity. The way you adapt to your role change is multi-faceted. It will depend on your relationships, your sense of self-worth, your body image, your exposure to babies before the birth of your own, your adaptability, and so much more. There’s no one character trait that can prepare you for the transition to motherhood.
What we know is that women do best when they have support. Some women will choose to blog or join online forums with other mothers, finding community in a largely anonymous community of like-minded individuals online. As we’ve seen above, a supportive partner makes a huge difference, especially if you’re breastfeeding. Your healthcare provider can also be a resource. They were there throughout your pregnancy and know your childbearing history. They can help you find resources in your own area to connect you with the help you need – whether it’s just a playgroup or a therapist.
If you’re feeling truly unhappy and cannot find any joy in parenting, reach out. Postpartum depression is real and it’s treatable. It doesn’t necessarily mean taking medications – interpersonal therapy is a great option for most women. But breastfeeding-compatible medications can also be added to help you get through this difficult time. One of the best resources for postpartum mood disorders is Postpartum Support International.
The emotional upheaval of new motherhood can run the gamut from joy and exuberance to depression and anxiety – sometimes even on the same day. Finding balance as you learn the art of mothering is your mission. It’s not always simple, and you won’t be the same person you were before. You will be enriched by the experience of parenting this little bundle, your emotions expanded and your worldview changed.
Brenning, K., Soenens, B., Mabbe, E., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2019). Ups and downs in the joy of motherhood: Maternal well-being as a function of psychological needs, personality, and infant temperament. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(1), 229-250.
Chong, A., & Mickelson, K. D. (2016). Perceived fairness and relationship satisfaction during the transition to parenthood: The mediating role of spousal support. Journal of Family Issues, 37(1), 3-28.
Hickey, G., McGilloway, S., Leckey, Y., Furlong, M., Leavy, S., Stokes, A., … & Donnelly, M. (2019). Mothers’ well‐being, parenting attitudes, and home environment: Cumulative risk and parity in early motherhood. Child: care, health and development, 45(4), 523-530.
Riordan, J., & Wambach, K. (Eds.). (2010). Breastfeeding and human lactation. Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Wills, L., & Petrakis, M. (2019). The self in motherhood: a systematized review of relational self-construal and wellbeing in mothers. Advances in Mental Health, 17(1), 72-84.