Naomi Law is a Psychology researcher and mum of 2 boys. She is passionate about women knowing they are not alone, and aren’t failing, when they struggle with difficult thoughts about motherhood. After publishing peer reviewed research about negative thoughts in new mums, she wanted to share her affirming and shame-reducing insights with us!
What is ‘normal’ for new mums to think and feel?
There is a popular ideal of motherhood which appears in thousands of subtle ways in the images and advice targeted at new mums. It’s an ideal that says becoming a mother is effortlessly natural, fulfilling and joyful.
This may be your experience of motherhood, but what if it’s not? If your life doesn’t match the ideal? Are you failing?
All mothers — especially those in the early months — need regular reminders that this motherhood ideal is just that: it’s an ideal, not a reality.
Together with two co-authors, I recently published a scientific study exploring some of the realities of new motherhood.
Our research involved nearly 400 new mums, all with babies under 1 year old. By filling in questionnaires, they told us how often they had experienced negative thoughts about motherhood, as well as any feelings of guilt and shame.
Our study found that it is very common for new mothers to have negative thoughts about motherhood, including about their baby. The findings also suggested that women struggle to share these thoughts and that the more negative thoughts they experience, the more guilt and shame they feel.
The good news, though, is that understanding that these thoughts are common — and not a sign of failure — may reduce mums’ feelings of guilt and shame and improve their mental well-being.
If you’re a new mum and you’re having negative thoughts, we want you to know you’re not alone.
Here are 5 reassuring tips from our research:
- It’s very common for new mums to have negative thoughts about motherhoodAs much as anything is ‘normal’ about having a new baby, we can say that having difficult thoughts about motherhood is ‘normal’, because it is so common.These are just some of the thoughts we asked about in our study:
- The majority (about 60%) of the mums taking part said they thought being with their baby was boring, at least sometimes.
- Over one-third said that they sometimes thought they were trapped or that there was something wrong with them.
- Nearly two-thirds said they thought they were a ‘bad mother’ at least some of the time
- One in five mothers reported thinking they shouldn’t have considered having a baby.Overall, more than 90% of the mums in the study said they experienced negative thoughts about motherhood at least some of the time.
- Other new mothers may be having similar negative thoughts as you, even if they don’t say it out loudIt can be hard to share negative thoughts about motherhood.We gave the mothers in our study a list of negative thoughts and asked them how easy they would find it to share each one. Many said it would be ‘difficult’ or ‘extremely difficult’ to tell someone else.It may feel hard to say when you’re having negative thoughts about becoming a mother because everyone else looks like they’re ‘fine’ or ‘coping’. But given that we know negative thoughts are extremely common, what may actually be happening is that someone who seems to be ‘fine’ on the outside is experiencing their difficult thoughts in silence.If you are having distressing thoughts about motherhood, you are not the only one.It may help to share some of these thoughts with someone you trust. Sharing difficult thoughts can ‘normalise’ them and it may help them lose some of their power.
- Having negative thoughts does not mean that there is something wrong with youBecause we tend to talk about early motherhood as a time of joy and fulfilment, it can feel like you’re ‘getting it wrong’ if you don’t always feel joyful.One of my co-authors for this study, Dr Pauline Hall, is a clinical psychologist working with new mums. She regularly sees how women can become caught in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts.When an intrusive thought about motherhood appears, the temptation can be to interpret it negatively (e.g. “there must be something wrong with me for having that thought”). This can make you feel distressed, guilty or ashamed, which leads to more negative thoughts, and the whole cycle begins again.Pauline’s reminder is that “A thought is just a thought”. Instead of engaging with it, or ruminating on it, you can try to ‘let the thought go’. You will likely find it becomes less powerful.
- New mums can have upsetting or distressing thoughts even when they’re not depressed
In our society, there’s a tendency to approach new mums as if their mental wellbeing falls into two camps: some mothers are diagnosed with depression, anxiety or another mental illness (which hopefully helps them access the support they need), whilst everyone else is considered to be ‘fine’. Our study helps to show that the reality is more complex than this simple division.The mums in our study were not, to the best of our knowledge, experiencing postnatal depression, but negative thoughts about being a mother were still common. The more negative thoughts mothers reported, the higher their levels of distress, guilt and shame.As a new parent, your thoughts and emotions may be complex, and you may need reassurance, regardless of whether or not you are experiencing mental illness.
- But…if you are finding your negative thoughts are distressing, there are people who can help
Having said that it is very common to have negative thoughts about motherhood, we also know that having repeated, uncontrollable, negative thoughts is one of the symptoms of depression.Whilst having some negative thoughts is absolutely normal, these thoughts lie on a spectrum, with some new mums experiencing more than others.If you find that your negative thoughts are distressing, are interfering with your ability to function or happen over a prolonged period of time, then we would encourage you to talk to someone who can help.Approximately 10 percent of mothers experience postnatal depression, and this figure may be even higher since the start of the COVID pandemic.You don’t need to continue to suffer from the impact of negative thoughts. Many effective treatments are available, which don’t necessarily include medication.There are suggestions below of where to find help.
Sources of support for negative or distressing thoughts about motherhood:
- Talk to someone you know and trust
- Contact a professional such as your GP or health visitor
- The Maternal Mental Health Alliance has a list of charities and support organisations, including helplines https://maternalmentalhealthalliance.org/resources/mums-and-families/
- The book ‘Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts’ by Karen Kleiman is full of reassuring words, guidance and simple exercises to help you feel less alone.
If you’re interested, you can read the full report of our research here: rdcu.be/cl9nh
We are holding a free webinar supporting new mums with negative thoughts. The session will include open, reassuring discussion and practical tips about handling difficult thoughts when they arise. There will also be a chance to discuss what could be done better to support new parents with negative thoughts. If you’d like to join the seminar, there are details here. Hope to see you there!
Date: Wednesday 24th November, 10am.