May is National Mental Health Awareness Month.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following are remarks delivered by Dr. H. Steven Moffic during a recent broadcast of Talk Ten Tuesdays.
To begin May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, May 5 was World Maternal Mental Health Day. Following that was Mother’s Day last Sunday, probably the most emotionally powerful special day on the calendar – beloved by some mothers and families, but painful for others due to family conflicts or losses, complicated this year by the pandemic.
As more women have entered the psychiatric field, much new hard-data research about mothering has been collected over the past decade. Here are some summary points:
- Due to prior and current psychological factors, as well as hormonal changes, about 20 percent of women worldwide experience some type of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, including the very concerning postpartum depression, and pregnancy-associated suicide kills more women than either hemorrhage or preeclampsia – all of which indicates the need for careful monitoring by the OB-GYN and pediatric teams.
- Recognized perinatal mental illness (and much is not recognized) comes with anguishing decisions about the risks versus the benefits of psychiatric medication.
- After other hormonal changes during pregnancy, an infusion of the “love hormone” oxytocin during labor and delivery primes and sensitizes mothering instincts, making the child the top priority, although at times those can be compromised by other cognitive and environmental factors.
- Caregivers other than the biological mother can develop such love and caring, meaning men and other women, and even a small group, but that seems to take at least a month or two of intense bonding experiences with the baby.
- That means that it is important for the biological mother to be psychologically healthy, and able to intensely bond with the baby for at least the first month or two, when basic trust is developing.
- Supplemental caregiving and loving from others during that time provides extra nursing benefits.
- The secret ingredient is the potential role of the maternal grandmother, with a long historical track record of improving the child’s physical viability and psychological well-being, as long as there is a good relationship with the mother – and if so, being closer geographically is better.
Here are some recent illustrative responses from a New York Times reader survey:
“My mother showed us the idea of unconditional love before it was a fashionable term, with the simple expression, ‘I’m on my way.’”
“I gave birth to my first child one month ago, and honestly feel my mom has been the most important person in my son’s life.”
“I’m so glad I was able to raise my family apart from the ravages of intergenerational abuse.”
“In one of life’s greatest blessings, I was essentially rescued by a slightly older dear friend whose children were grown.”
“I’m Chinese-American, so my mother did the traditional monthlong sit-in after each of my pregnancies. It took us a while to find our balance”.
It seems to me that the emerging research is telling us, as well as the workplace, more clearly how to get a new baby off to a good start with adequate unconditional, intense love. Now, which of these models best fits our current research understanding of best mothering? It is the traditional Chinese-American one – although, as we can also see, there are ways to develop alternatives so our children can get a good start in life and prevent some mental illness in children (which, along with adults, has been rising over the last decade or two.)