You’ve read all the books. You feel you’re prepared for bringing home your new baby. And, of course, you’ve heard about postpartum depression, although you may or may not see yourself as particularly at risk. The commonly known risk factors for postpartum depression (and other perinatal mood and anxiety issues) include:
- A previous bout of depression or anxiety (especially if during pregnancy)
- A recent loss or other major stressors, including financial or health problems
- Lack of social support, including relationship problems with a partner or family
- A medically complicated pregnancy or birth, or breastfeeding difficulties
Many of the clients I work with have several risk factors, so having one or two of these may not even be enough to cause postpartum emotional difficulties. But there’s another factor that is harder to quantify, and it has nothing to do with things that have happened to you and everything to do with the kind of person you are.
Studies have shown that perfectionism and related personality traits can be significant risk factors for depression. Specifically, moms who have the greatest difficulty coping with making mistakes are four times more likely than their more laid-back peers to get laid low by postpartum emotional difficulties . Also at risk are moms who are by nature orderly, conscientious, and dislike ambiguity . This isn’t hard to make sense of, really. Imagine how much harder it is to be a new (read: beginner) mom, with all the responsibilities that entails, on very little sleep, if you’re a perfectionist, versus someone who takes missteps, chaos, and unpredictability in stride.
In my practice, many of the moms with the greatest difficulties not only try to be perfect, but also take responsibility for the feelings and needs of others to a greater extent than most people. Without children, you may be able to do a decent job of making everybody happy, but put a baby in that equation and the job expands a hundredfold. Babies cry. No matter how good a mom you are, your baby will cry sometimes. And the more you try to be a perfect mom, the more neglected your partner may feel. It’s a recipe for … depression. And high anxiety.
So start learning to let go of perfection in your daily life. Let the dishes wait a couple of hours, and run out of clean socks every once in a while. Burn the rice because you got caught up in that wonderful online article. Try to focus on what is going right rather than what could be improved. Enjoy the sunshine in your half-landscaped backyard. And get used to people being displeased with you every once in a while. Don’t all those people disappoint you from time to time? Practicing just being good enough is probably the best preparation for parenthood, and for life itself.
And if you just can’t leave a dish in the sink or bear the thought of not always doing your best at everything, consider mindfulness classes or CDs. Mindfulness techniques can help you allow yourself to accept what is, rather than having to fix everything. And consider getting some therapy with a compassionate therapist (preferably one with a moderately messy desk!) to help you learn to let go of some of that pressure that you’ve gotten used to burdening yourself with. It’s an investment in your well-being and the quality of life for yourself and your family.
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