The Birth of a Mother – Reflections on a Recent New York Times Article

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By Donna Elmendorf, PhD, and Claudia Gold, MD

Donna Elmendorf, PhD is the director of the Therapeutic Community Program at the Austen Riggs Center.According to Dr. Donna Elmendorf, "The recent New York Times article ‘The Birth of a Mother,’ by Dr. Alexandra Sacks paints an evocative and desperately needed picture of the complicated process of the transition to motherhood. Sacks' effort is toward dispelling the myth that the birth of a baby is only a time of joy and wonder. Instead, she underscores the complex psychological, familial, and biological strains central to this shift in identity. New mothers can feel even more alone or unsure of themselves when the prevailing belief is that significant stress is only a sign of postpartum depression or other psychiatric illness rather than a marker of an important developmental process. Given what we know about the crucial contribution of mutual engagement between mothers and infants in the first months of life for the robust development of both the baby and the mother, interventions that support mothers, their partners, and babies together should be an essential element of routine care. Through the Human Development Strategic Initiative at Austen Riggs we are working in partnership with our local hospital and pediatricians on the Discovering Your Baby Project aimed at supporting new families from the very start.”

Claudia Gold, MDDr. Claudia Gold explains, “The importance of bringing this issue to a broad audience cannot be underestimated. Recognizing the complexity of the transition to parenthood, for both mothers and fathers, should lead us to not only normalize and de-stigmatize the struggles inherent in this developmental period, but also to devote sufficient resources to supporting new parents. The Discovering Your Baby project aims to protect time to listen to parents, bringing the baby into the conversation from the very beginning, supporting parents’ efforts to get to know their new baby and how his or her unique qualities impact upon this transition. Listening to parents promotes listening to the baby, in turn promoting healthy development for the whole family.” 

In addition, Dr. Gold’s most recent book, The Developmental Science of Early Childhood, in the chapter entitled "Reframing Postpartum Depression,” states,

"We need to recognize and address the normal massive psychological shifts of motherhood, the role of the baby, and the relational nature of the issue, as well as the normal ambivalence that accompanies this developmental phase, which may be distorted in the setting of social isolation, severe sleep deprivation, and unrealistic expectations of quick return to pre-pregnancy function. The shifting dynamics in relationships between parents, the role of the father or partner, and changes for both parents in relationships with their family of origin all have a significant impact on the emotional experience of the transition to parenthood. An infant mental health approach recognizes the importance of tapping into the healthy personal resources for the patients in resolving their own difficulties rather than considering them entirely incapacitated by a medical disease."

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