There are many times in a woman’s life when she needs extra support, but seldom as urgently as when she is pregnant and during the first year after giving birth. In many traditional cultures, the vulnerability of a mother is well known. The pregnant mother is fussed over and pampered, her cravings are satisfied and the extended family surrounds her with love and support.
In the traditional healthcare system of India, and in many homes in modern India today, by the time the mother gives birth, she has been relieved of her responsibilities by her family members.
After giving birth, she is given a massage on a daily basis, fed special foods and herbs to help her recover her strength and mental balance, and surrounded with love and support the first six weeks so she can establish a strong bond with her baby, recover her strength and mental and physical balance.
Our modern American mother tends to face a different world. Increasingly, mothers work until the last month of pregnancy, and when they leave the hospital they have little support, facing the challenge of feeling mentally and physically exhausted yet also responsible for the needs of a newborn. And with over 50 percent of birth mothers now also single mothers, the challenges are even greater without a partner to help.
No wonder maternal mental illness is on the rise. According to the two-part series in the NY Times, “A Mother’s Mind,” the range and duration of maternal mental illness is more extensive than previously thought, causing heart-breaking mood swings in some mothers that directly impacts the child’s safety and development.
Research now shows that post-partum depression can start earlier (during pregnancy) or later (after the baby is 4 months old—any time during the first year). It can be associated with a wide range of mental disorders, including anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, bi-polar disorder, and intrusive thoughts of doing harm to the baby.
The causes are complex. Some women are genetically wired to react more to the dramatic hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, when hormonal activity increases by more than 100 times and then plummets to zero after giving birth, a phenomenon that Dr. Margaret Spinelli, the director of the Women’s Program in Columbia University’s psychiatric department calls “A roller-coaster ride that disrupts brain chemistry.”
Other women succumb to the stresses of financial insecurity, family dysfunction, exhaustion from childbirth and parenting itself, causing scientists to refer to maternal mental illness as “a complex interplay of genes, stress and hormones.”
While maternal mental illness is not new—reports exist in the literature since the time of Hippocrates—the added stress and isolation of the modern mother can’t be helping.
Yet there are mothers who are finding needed rest and stress relief by practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique. “Particularly in the postpartum period, the woman’s first act of being a mother—and all subsequent acts—will be to give,” says Rebecca Douglas, M.D., a board-certified obstetrician. “As mothers we can only give from what we have. And if what we have is exhaustion, then we’ll have less of a basis from which to give. If, on the other hand, we have a methodology to rest and rejuvenate and give rest to ourselves, then we’ll have that much more to give.”
Dr. Kumuda Reddy, M.D., writes in the book For a Blissful Baby, which describes natural ways to help mothers regain their mental and physical balance after childbirth, “Practicing the Transcendental Meditation program is the most important recommendation to help both husband and wife reduce mental, emotional and physical stress. This simple technique helps develop the healthiest and happiest state of mind and emotions.
Also, if the mother is practicing the TM technique, she has an opportunity to recover much more quickly from the stress of childbirth. Research on TM also reports faster recovery from depression, anxiety, emotional numbness and insomnia after stressful experiences.
“People who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique experience less depression, because they are able to gain deep rest (both during meditation and at night) and release stress,” says Dr. Reddy. “Many of my patients report that the deep rest experienced during the TM technique helps them recover more quickly from the extreme fatigue after giving birth, and replaces it with more bliss and balance.”
Somehow as a society we need to think of how we can give more support to new mothers. In reading the 504 comments that readers posted after reading the NY Times two-part Mother’s Mind series, I was struck by how many mothers cited social isolation as a major cause of maternal depression. As one mother wrote, “It is so, so important for people to check in on new moms, to let them talk about their feelings, to not judge them and to help them with cooking, cleaning, and with the babies. That help will never be forgotten.”
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.