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Do ideal images of motherhood impact postpartum depression?

Many of us feel the pressure of perfection when it comes to motherhood. We may not be bogged down by it 24/7, but its presence is usually on the periphery. It doesn’t help that we live in a social media fueled world, where Pinterest perfection is staring us back in the face at every turn. For the most part, many of us are able to push through these idealized representations of “perfect” motherhood, but for others the inundation of these types of images can have a more drastic and damaging effect.

The period of time immediately after having a baby — especially if he or she is your first — can be an incredibly fragile one. Hormones are all over the place, you’re running on little to no sleep and you have this squirmy little person depending on you for survival. It can be a lot to take on, especially in a country that truly lacks in most types of postpartum or maternal support. It can be even more challenging when faced with images of “ideal” motherhood everywhere you turn. From Facebook pictures and statuses that only show happy, smiling faces, well-dressed kids and beautiful meals and table-scapes, to blogs extolling the beauty and perfection of parenting without shining some light on the actual day-to-day, it can feel overwhelming for any postpartum woman.

Many new moms may experience some form of the “baby blues” — a time of unpredictable mood swings — but an estimated 9 to 16 percent of women in the U.S. will find themselves facing postpartum depression (PPD). The causes of PPD vary, and range from intense changes in hormone levels, previous history of depression and fatigue to emotional and lifestyle factors. So where do idealized representations of maternal perfection fit in with all of this?

While the media we consume isn’t a cause of PPD per se, it can certainly exacerbate underlying issues. Dr. Jessica Zucker, a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health explains the impact that these idealized notions of motherhood can have on the mental health of new mothers. “Cultural ideals surrounding motherhood serve to stimulate shame and secrecy when it comes to postpartum challenges,” Dr. Zucker told me. “As a result of media’s portrayal of idyllic early motherhood, women who don’t fit perfectly into this ubiquitous image often report feeling like “failures” and take their troubles underground.”

The notion of stigma surrounding PPD is nothing new and has only been emphasized by what we see — and don’t see — of motherhood in the media. Dr. Walker Karraa, author of Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth and founder of Stigmama, a site dedicated to supporting women writing about the stigma of mental illness and motherhood, talked to me about the lack of nuance seen in the representation of motherhood, and that it’s not just about the “perfect” side. “As mothers, we absorb the negative constructs more than the positive,” Dr. Karraa noted. While many women may feel burdened to live up to stereotypical and unrealistic ideals, others may fear being lumped into the “bad” category just as much, if not more. This can then deter getting properly diagnosed or treated.

One way to help combat this range of detrimental representation is to provide safe spaces for mothers to talk without judgment. That’s part of what goes on at MotherWoman, a nonprofit that provides postpartum support as well as works toward policy change that support mothers and families. Annette Cycon, licensed clinical social worker and founder of MotherWoman, explained MotherWoman’s support groups further: “It is revolutionary because we teach women about the oppressions that they may not even be aware of… awareness leads to choice which allows a mother to define herself, to decide what is best for her, to value herself for her own choices no matter how different she may be from the dominant culture. So much of mothers’ oppression comes from being defined by others expectations for us.”

Another solution is to provide a much more varied and diverse picture of what motherhood truly is about. “We don’t need to necessarily get rid of Pinterest,” says Dr. Karraa. “But we need to allow ourselves to have a different Pinterest. To be real and live out loud.” Dr. Zucker agrees, suggesting that, “Maternal images that include the full spectrum of lived experiences would better serve women and their burgeoning families.” She sums up this issue, and parenting in particular, in one pointed sentence: “Perfection shouldn’t be an aspiration, in motherhood or otherwise.”

More on motherhood and mental health

Meet mental health pioneer Katherine Stone
I couldn’t hide my postpartum depression from my older child
The sad truth about prenatal depression

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