At any given moment on any given day I am worrying about something. Is my toddler eating enough vegetables? Did I remember to pay the electric bill? Do my coworkers notice I'm struggling to make it through my newborn's sleep regression? Is my sleeping baby still breathing? And, usually, when I voice my concerns to trusted friends, my mom, or my partner, I'm told not to worry. Things have a way of working themselves out. Everything happens for a reason. My postpartum hormones are getting the better of me. Relax. But telling moms not to worry isn't helpful, it does nothing to assuage our fears, it certainly doesn't make us feel seen or heard, and it dismisses the very real experience of postpartum anxiety — an experience millions of moms are enduring at this very moment.
A reported 10 percent of postpartum women will develop anxiety, according to Postpartum Support International, with symptoms that can include racing thoughts, inability to sit still, dizziness, hot flashes, nausea, and constant worry. And since American moms live in the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid family leave, a soaring maternal mortality rate, are paid 71 cents for every dollar dads make, and are raising their children in a country where childcare costs more than the average cost of college, there's plenty to worry about. Telling me "not to worry" doesn't make me feel better about sending my son to school; not when one in three students are bullied. Telling me "not to worry" doesn't keep me from staring at my 4-month-old's chest as he sleeps; not when American babies are less likely to reach their first birthday than babies born in other rich countries. Telling me "not to worry" don't keep me from being overprotective when my son asks to play at a friend's house; not when the United States leads the world in child gun deaths.
The only thing that's accomplished when someone tells me, or any other mom, "not to worry" is to remind me of how society fails to adequately support mothers. We need help, not perfunctory lip service. We need understanding, not flippant responses to our valid concerns. And we need time to adjust to the overwhelming responsibilities of new motherhood, not pressure to "go back to normal" as soon as humanly possible.
Anxiety is a feature, not a bug. Our evolutionary heritage programs moms to be on the lookout for danger.
"Society needs to adjust to the reality that the transition from being an 'inside' baby to an 'outside' baby takes longer than a delivery," Kathleen Smith, a licensed therapist in Washington, D.C. and author of the upcoming book Everything Isn't Terrible, to be released in January 2020, tells Romper. "We can support this transition in all families by advocating for more paid leave for both parents. There’s so much focus on attachment between mom and baby, but everyone involved is learning how to adjust to a different and bigger family. The more we support all those relationships, the better people will function in all areas of life, including their work." A reported one in four new moms return to work a mere two weeks after giving birth, and a 2014 study published in the Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics found that women who had less than eight weeks of paid leave were more likely to experience depression and poor health. Adequately supporting moms with paid family leave, and facilitating the transition from pregnancy to parenthood, would better the mental health of new mothers. In other words, we'd all worry less if society would simply give us more time to adjust.
Worrying is also a normal part of motherhood, according to Smith. So telling a mom not to worry is essentially asking her to rewire her brain and defy centuries of evolution. "I don’t think any human can just force themselves to stop worrying," she says. "Anxiety is a feature, not a bug. Our evolutionary heritage programs moms to be on the lookout for danger." Some moms do have a bit more trouble assessing what's a real threat and what's an imaginary one, though, and Smith believes that trouble is the brain "recalibrating until it can find the right settings." This process of mental recalibration, according to Smith, takes "more time than moms allow themselves," and that society allows or facilitates, which is why the help of therapy, medication, and other support systems should be made available to new moms struggling with anxiety and feelings of intense overwhelm and worry.
So don't tell us moms to "stop worrying." Instead, do something that can help assuage our fears as we mentally adjust to motherhood and all that it entails. "I think normalizing the anxiety is a big help. If you have a story about your own postpartum anxiety, share it with a new mom," Smith says. "Also, we should be telling new moms that they’re doing a great job. A not-yet-smiling newborn is giving them little feedback, unless they’re unhappy. Help them turn their focus back onto how much they’ve learned in such a short period of time, so that they can take a break from worrying about the challenges yet to come. People should also avoid giving advice unless they’re asked for it. Empathy, encouragement, and food are always better than advice!"
And then do the work necessary to help ensure us all that the world is a safer place for our children. I know that I would worry far less if our schools were safer for our children; if we took the mental health needs of our children more seriously; if we passed common sense gun laws; if we took the very real threat of climate change seriously; if the country faced the rising rates of maternal mortality, especially among black women and women of color. Standing idly by as very real threats to the safety of American families fester, then telling moms "not to worry," does nothing but almost guarantee that us moms will continue to worry ourselves into oblivion.
If it truly does take a village to raise a baby, then the worried moms of the world need their villages to act. Now.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.