“We know that the transition to Parenthood a critical window of change and adaptation. Our hormones, brains, behaviors, sleep and social interactions are changing. And there’s increasing evidence, that those changes are happening for men as well as women. Because it’s not only pregnancy that creates these changes,” said Dr. Darby Saxbe, Psychologist, Professor and Researcher.
Darby has spent the past seven years studying the transition to parenthood. And what she has learned, about the best conditions for new parents, can illuminate the scaffolding we need at all stages of the journey.
Although the pandemic has complicated caregiving, it’s also forcing improvements. So, how can we learn from this time of transformation and put the kind of supports in place that reduce stress and improve our health?
Parenting Expands Your Brain. Literally
Darby said, “When I established my own lab, I wanted to hone in on this idea of new parenthood being a window for neuroplasticity. So, we recruit couples that are expecting their first child. And we explicitly went with cohabiting couples, because we wanted to look at Fathers’ experiences, along with Mothers. Including their brains, stress hormones and the way they interact with each other.” She studies the positive effects of neuroplasticity, the brain expansion and development, that comes with parenthood. And this exponential change, brings both pain and opportunity. Because we’re more vulnerable during this shift.
And You Need the Right Support for a Positive Experience
So, it’s important to increase the support you have. Especially during pregnancy and your child’s infancy. The downside, to this time of cognitive growth, is that we’re also more impressionable to trauma. Like in a pandemic. Darby explained that previous studies from natural disasters, showed long term consequences for child development, in addition to the toll taken on Mothers. So, we know that chronic stress is bad for our short- and long-term health. And for our kids. But figuring out how to avoid it, with the demands of modern life, is like trying to grow an exotic plant. How can we get the soil, light, and water just right, to thrive emotionally? The good news, is that there are many ways to adapt. Start by unapologetically asking for help.
Stress, Anxiety & Depression Have Reached Alarming Highs
Darby conducted a survey during the height of social distancing for expecting parents. “The level of distress and anxiety was striking and saddening. When we asked people to self-report their symptoms, we saw clinically significant depression in half the Moms that responded, versus the typical 15 to 20%. And very similar trends for anxiety.” The big picture pandemic-challenges, like job loss and financial pressure, were a factor. But they were also suffering from the loss of community.
She added, “We have so much sociocultural scaffolding around becoming a parent. Which emphasizes how high needs this time is for social contact and connection. Because it takes a village to raise a child and during pregnancy, is when the village starts to come together.” Despite the pandemic challenges, you can make meaningful changes.
So, Seek Those Social Connections
Friendships, especially with people at a similar parenting stage, help. Darby said, “We know that isolation is bad for both mental and physical health. So, at the most basic level, seek opportunities to connect and build community. There are so many neighborhood groups and resources online! And I encourage Moms to seek support whether online or through pods, friends, or immediate family.” Yes!
She added, “Sometimes, those social contacts can feel draining. But seek them out, because they’re healthy. Just like taking your vitamins. We also know there’s a therapy approach called IPT (interpersonal therapy) that’s been well validated with postpartum mood disorders. It focuses on social support, social networks and how your social role has changed by becoming a parent. And then you do a lot of role playing, workshopping and problem solving with the therapist, to try to shore up your sense of social connection.” Brilliant!
And Professional Support
Darby said, “It’s okay to ask for help. My dream is that someday, when you go see your OBGYN for a routine checkup, you can get a referral to the support group that’s meeting right down the hall.” Although the mind and body are intertwined, the healthcare system doesn’t treat it that way. And Mothers are at greater risk for anxiety and depression, at all stages of our lives. Darby said, “We can push for mental and physical health care integration. And there’s a lot of evidence that talk therapy has been well supported for the treatment of perinatal mood disorders. A study from the US task force on prevention, suggests therapy during pregnancy can prevent, not just reduce, postpartum mood disorders!” Bravo. She explained, “And we looked at a couple of specific group programs, mostly to help Moms get ready for the baby. And the women who participated in those programs, showed less risk of developing clinically significant postpartum mood disorders.”
Therapy Can Help with Treatment AND Prevention
Darby explained, “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another well supported approach. We have great science on mental health treatment and know there are approaches that work really well. A lot of new moms are reluctant to take medication, because of pregnancy or breastfeeding. But there’s evidence that medication can be safe and sometimes that’s what women need.” This is often a major concern. Darby adds. “And they will benefit from it. But there are also a lot of non-medication alternatives. We just need to work at improving access and getting the message out there.” Amen.
And if You’re Partnered, Start There
Darby said, “My work takes a family systems approach to new parenthood. So, we’re not just looking at Mothers’ experiences but also Fathers and the couple’s relationship. In our pandemic study, couples expecting a child, reported less contact with friends, coworkers, extended family, and community members. But they were reporting more contact with their partner. Which makes perfect sense as we’re all locked down at home. So, couples are an interesting target for prevention and intervention.” She learned what many have experienced, that having partner support directly benefits mental health for Moms.
Have Your Partner Take Parental Leave If You’re Expecting
She said, “We’re in California, where Fathers can take disability after the birth of a child. So, in one study, we looked at whether they had access to paid paternity leave. And found that when Fathers took paid leave, Mothers showed healthier trajectories of stress and depression across the transition to parenthood. They were buffered from increases in postpartum depression.” Wow! Sadly, partner leave is still rare. She added, “So part of what a good picture looks like, is making sure that both the Mother and Father are supported by policies that reduce stress. And protect that perinatal time together.” Darby’s studies show partner support as another resilience factor we can draw upon.
And Support Family-Friendly Policies for Everyone
Darby said, “In the US we treat family leave kind of like a luxury item. If you’re lucky, you can take 5 or 6 weeks and if you’re unlucky, you might get two weeks or nothing at all.” Sigh. The US ranks at the bottom of peer countries for parental support or other basic forms of worker protection, like paid sick leave. Darby explained, “The more I do this work, the more passionate I get about policy. Because there are ways we can reduce stress over the transition to parenthood. Other countries often have really generous leaves. The first year, postpartum, is protected from outside stress and obligation. And that dramatically shapes what that first year looks like.”
It’s a big deal. Darby explained, “One of the few long-term investments we can make in the health of our society is to increase support and reduce stress during this critical window.” Exactly. And we’re closer in the US, to having a national paid family and sick leave program. Right now, we have a rare opportunity to take action as the plan is being reviewed by legislators.
Remember, it’s Okay to Adjust Your Expectations
Darby suggests, “So, lowering expectations is a good strategy for mental health. Treat this like a fixed period of time, where we’re not necessarily going to flourish and we just need to survive.” So wise. It’s been a long pandemic. But vaccines are reaching more people and many communities are beginning to reopen. She added, “Let’s get through it. And focus on how we’re going to rebuild after this period of stress is in the rearview mirror.”
Share your pandemic experiences! How are the latest changes affecting your life? It’s quick and the results from this study are used to advocate better support for parents.
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Many thanks to the talented Dr. Darby Saxbe!
Darby Saxbe is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern California, where she directs the USC Center for the Changing Family, an interdisciplinary hub for family studies research across the university. Her research, currently funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on the neurobiological underpinnings of the transition to parenthood. She received her B.A. from Yale University and her Ph.D from UCLA.