May is mental health awareness month, and I’m excited announce a series of guest posts from marriage experts. Each week will feature a new guest post on a certain subject of mental health in marriage.
I’m kicking off the campaign by talking about the importance of talking about mental health–specifically when it comes to child rearing. I’m using a great TED talk lecture given by Babble.com co-founders Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman.
Americans are strong, independent, creative and adventurous. At the same time, we’re not very good when it comes to talking about our feelings, our challenges, and our struggles. Child rearing is one of those areas. As any parent knows, raising kids is hard. It takes its tole on our bodies and our minds. Yet when it comes to talking about our mental health challenges as parents, there are still taboos that hold us back. This lack of communication makes us doubt our ourselves…if it seems so easy for everyone else, why is it so hard for me? What’s wrong with me? Am I a bad parent? Am I a bad person? These doubts and anxieties whirl around inside us, growing on themselves and eating away at our self esteem and happiness.
It takes a lot of guts to get up and talk about your own difficulties with child rearing. Luckily, we’re seeing more and more of this as mental health taboos are broken and the “strong and silent” expectations of our culture shift towards one of sharing and mutual support. Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman are two brave pioneers. In December 2010, the couple gave a TED talk about the parenting-discussion taboos they’ve faced versus the realities of child rearing. They break the silence and tell us why it is so important to talk about these things with each other.
Taboo #1: You can’t say you didn’t fall in love with your baby the moment you saw him.
While this may be true for some parents, it should not be the expectation. Rufus points out he felt deep affection and awe for the little newborn in his arms, but not deep, enduring love like the love he felt for his wife at that moment. Love is what has grown over time and is the way he feels about his son now. The problem, Rufus says, is that we tend to think about love in binary: we are either in love or not in love. The truth is, love is a process; it grows and fluctuates constantly. This is as true for your spouse as for your children. You are not going to feel blissful, all-encompassing love at all times.
Taboo #2: You can’t talk about how lonely having a baby can be.
Alisa loved being pregnant. During this time, she notes, women are doted over with visits and wishes and love. Same for the moments in the hospital and right after the birth of the new baby. Then, all of a sudden, it’s just you and the infant. No one had mentioned that she would feel isolated and lonely. Why didn’t her sister–who had three children of her own–warn her? “I’ll never forget this–she said: ‘It’s just not something you want to say to a woman who’s having a baby for the first time.’” Postpartum depression and general loneliness is a huge and common burden for new moms. And it’s not “weakness”: it’s because what you are going through is hard! Knowing this can help mothers prepare and safeguard their mental health. After all, the baby is important, and so are you.
Taboo #3: You can’t talk about your miscarriage.
Having a miscarriage can be a devastating experience. During the talk, Alisa bravely shares the story of her miscarriage. Miscarriage is an invisible loss, she observes, there’s not much community support or closure that comes from any other kind of death. In addition to depression, she felt shame and embarrassment at “failing to do what she was genetically engineered to do,” and worried about the future of her marriage. After talking a bit with other women, she found that miscarriages were amazingly common in her community. Stories from friends and co-workers came out of the woodwork. In reality, miscarriage is not uncommon at all: 15-20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Tragically, 74% of women believe that the miscarriage was “partly their fault.” This silent suffering and sense of shame prevents women from reaching out and receiving the mental health support they need.
Taboo #4: You can’t say your “average happiness” has declined since having a child.
Child rearing is amazing and magical and every bit of it is an utter joy. My children are my greatest joy. They are bundles of joy. Yet studies interviewing parents show that average happiness does indeed plummet with the birth of a child. Somehow, it’s not OK for us to admit that. Alisa and Rufus give a possible compromise explanation: before having children–in our late 20s–we settle into a nice, comfortable way of life with little that jars us our of our routine. At this point our average happiness is mellow and steady. After children, it runs up and down like a roller coaster. Yes, child rearing brings some of the most difficult and challenging times of your life–at moments, you will certainly be less happy that you were without children. And it’s OK to admit that! At the same time, parenting also rockets you into amazing moments of pure bliss and joy that you also wouldn’t have experienced without children. It’s just…different than pre-baby. It’s up and down and all over the place. It’s life.
As they conclude “Candor and brutal honesty is important for making us all better parents.” Sharing your difficulties as well as joys is key to airing out and addressing problems before they take a toll on your mental health (and marriage). This week, I challenge you to share a secret about your child rearing experience with a friend–something you feel you are alone in or slightly ashamed of as a parent. You might be surprised to hear that he/she feels the exact same way…