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Reclaiming the ‘Good Enough’ Mother: Art Therapy as an Intervention for Postpartum Depression

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Every woman experiences childbirth differently and many factors can influence one's experience, before, during and after a pregnancy. Some feel an immediate rush of love and happiness, while others may feel overwhelmed, exhausted, depleted and isolated. For some women, these feelings don’t resolve themselves without additional support and attention; they may even get worse over time. It is said that 1 in 7 women will experience postpartum depression after childbirth. Postpartum depression, or PPD, is classified as a mood disorder and can occur any time within the first year after giving birth.

Postpartum depression can be a frightening and isolating experience for new mothers. It can cause a range of symptoms, varying in intensity from mild to severe, such as mood swings, excessive crying or increased tearfulness, fluctuations in sleep patterns, increased anxiety or sense of panic, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, decreased appetite, and difficulty bonding with your baby. Postpartum depression can also lead to thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or your child and it is important to understand when further support is needed. The most severe symptoms usually occur during the first few weeks after delivery, but can last for a few weeks or up to a year.

Speaking from my own experience after having my son at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember experiencing a flood of worry, guilt, shame and doubt when faced with the, at the time, seemingly life-altering choices regarding my son’s care in balance with figuring out how to take care of myself. I remember the stress of having expectations about how life with a newborn would go, including a seamless transition to breastfeeding, nap times and bedtime routines along with this naive belief that my life would continue in the same way, just with a baby in the mix. What I personally experienced was frenzied google-searches and distress from thoughts that I was not producing enough breast milk, being in pain from the birthing process, not understanding why my son was crying when I had just changed his diaper and fed him, and not overall being a ‘good enough’ mom to meet my child’s needs. I found myself becoming more irritable, sad that I may not be bonding well enough with my son and filled with worry, believing that each decision would have such a significant impact on my son’s development. Not to mention the sensory overload coupled with sleep deprivation.

During the first few months of my child’s life, I did attend weekly psychotherapy sessions to help process these new changes and address the emotions that were surfacing. I also found myself gravitating back towards artmaking as I found myself awake late into the night or early in the morning after feeding my son. At times, I would even hold my son in the baby carrier attached to my chest and let him sleep on me while making art. I deeply enjoyed my alone time, especially at night when the environment was relatively calm and I could focus my attention on the goal: to just paint. In the process of painting, I was able to ease my mind by giving my attention to the smooth, slow motions of my hand with the brush. I enjoyed the back and forth motions of dipping my brush into the paint and then the water and onto the paper, repeating this rhythmic cycle. During the times I was holding my son while painting, I could hear him breathing softly and appreciate the moments with him that were less chaotic and more peaceful.

There is power in art to both provide a process towards regulating our bodies and minds while also allowing us to express emotions in a healthy and cathartic way. I both needed to bring myself into the moment, ground in the present. In doing so, I was able to slowly process my grief about missing the life I once had (one with copious amounts of sleep and the freedom to decide how I would spend my time) and appreciate the beauty in the unique moments of the now. The painting process allowed me to slow down, to find joy and to reassure myself that there is space for me, for my emotions and for my needs. What felt like so many sacrifices at the time to my own well-being, this time each night that I engaged in the painting process aided in my transition to adding this new role of ‘mother’ without losing myself as a whole.

In an art therapy session, a person can explore their feelings, express them in an alternative way and gain an understanding of their needs in the moment. By committing to sessions, one is also securing time and space for oneself to feel what you need to feel, express what you need to express and acknowledge what may be difficult to acknowledge in a supportive and non-judgmental way. When caring for another human being who is completely dependent on us for survival, it can bring up intense feelings in ourselves and often we are in need of relief. It is so difficult to be ‘on’ all of the time and to even be faced with this dilemma of giving all that you can and it may not take away your child’s discomfort, pain, boredom, sadness, or fear. And that does not mean that you are not a ‘good enough’ mother. The best thing that you can do for your child is take care of yourself first and art can help you navigate and understand your needs so that you can begin to regulate and increase a sense of connection.

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