Motherhood and mental health

Me, chilling with my daughter

The moment a woman become pregnant, a new world of expectations opens up for her. Everybody will ask the future mother how she feels, if she is fine, what is she expecting from the pregnancy and all kind of (un)welcomed advices.

The future mother reads tons of books and blogs on how to be “the perfect mother”, how and how long must she breastfeeding, how to raise happy children, how to balance family and professional life.

After delivery, women feel a mixture of sensations, from extreme happiness to sadness. Sadness after birth is called “baby blues” and usually reaches its peak around the 5th day of delivery and fades out in a few days. Post-partum depression is a debilitating mental illness that affect around 10% of new mothers. It usually begins in the first month of the newborn’s life. Symptoms include hopelessness, being unable to sleep, concentrate and cope. Risk factors are, among others, lack of social support, history of depression, temperament of the child, nature of mother-child relationship, sleep deprivation and difficult pregnancy or delivery.

Studies show that making progress through post-partum depression is facilitated by support from spouse, family members and others that help the mother to view herself as a good mother.

A woman’s resilience during the postpartum period is highly related to her social support.

Most depressed women report having negative experiences about being a mother that are not congruent with the construction of what a mother should do and feel in their culture, the so-called “good mothering ideology”. Women, even the ones not suffering from post-partum depression, often report a sense of guilt and shame for not matching an idealized self-image of mother. The good mothering ideology is child-centered and time-consuming, represents an all-giving mother, a woman whose only identity is being a mother.

The good mothering ideology has three important characteristics:

  1. Motherhood completes a woman. This has negative effects both on women who don’t want (or can) have children and on women with children.
  2. Mothers are children’s best caretakers. Women feel the pressure of being responsible for education and well-being of the children.
  3. Mothers must devote themselves to their children. Leading often to women who give up their careers and ambitions.

In a recent study, Henderson and coworkers interviewed 238 U.S. mothers about mothering ideologies and mental health. Results suggest that even women who do not “believe” in these ideologies, experience stress, anxiety, guilt and a lower self-efficacy.

In 2004 Nomaguchi published a paper investigating the psychological well-being of adults after having children. Results show that the effects of becoming a parent vary by gender and marital status. Married mothers, for example, reported more housework and more marital conflict. On the contrary, parental status had little impact on the lives of married men. Indicating, again, how women gain a heavier baggage with motherhood.

In the same year, Jackson published a paper regarding mother blaming from the perspectives of experienced mothers. Women reported that even when they were able to ask for help to health professionals, these people contribute to the perpetuation of mother blaming.

Newly mothers NEED help. First of all the one of their partners. It is not only “motherhood”, but “parenthood”. Relatives, neighbors, friends: go and check how the newly mothers and fathers are doing.

Mothers, ask for help. Don’t be ashamed. There is no such thing as “the perfect mother”. Laundry is not important, cleaning windows is not important. Your well-being is. Your mental health is.


Jackson et al., “Giving voice to the burden of blame: A feminist study of mothers’ experiences of mother blaming”, (2004),

Henderson et al., “The Price Mothers Pay, Even When They Are Not Buying It: Mental Health Consequences of Idealized Motherhood”, (2016),

Knudson-Martin, “Couples, Gender and Power: Creating Change in Intimate Relationships”

Nomaguchi et al., “Costs and Rewards of Children: The Effects of Becoming a Parent on Adults’ Lives”, (2004),

Sutherland, “Mothering, Guilt and Shame”, (2010),

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