5 Ways to Help a New Parent Living in Isolation
I recently caught up with a friend who gave birth to a baby girl at the end of April amidst the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Boston. She told me about the lactation specialist she's been connecting with via telemedicine. She told me she also had to cancel her mother's trip to stay with her and her husband after their daughter's arrival.
A lot has changed since I gave birth to my daughter just 11 months ago when my husband and I gladly accepted the help of a constant cycle of friends and family rotating in and out of the hospital and then our home. We found solace in stroller walks to Starbucks. If we needed something at the store, we went to get it.
Being a new parent is challenging. But the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the normal stressors that come along with bringing a new baby into the world making things even more challenging, explains Kate Ryder, CEO, and founder of Maven, a telehealth service for women.
Women are reporting that they've been receiving less postpartum care at the hospital as hospitals try to discharge patients quickly and many staff are pulled to support units treating COVID-19 patients. Social distancing, stay-at-home rules, and canceled family visits are leaving big gaps in care structures, too, forcing parents to physically care for a child without the support they may have expected.
The effects are profound. "Parenting is not something that can be done in isolation," says Samantha Meltzer-Brody, M.D., M.P.H., director of the UNC Center for Women's Mood Disorders in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Mental Health Concerns
On top of that, while some uncertainty naturally accompanies new parenthood, in the setting of a pandemic there are unprecedented levels of it, says Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, founding director and chief external relations officer of The Motherhood Center of New York. "There are a lot of questions that are unanswered and unanswerable, which sets the stage for an introduction to anxiety," she says.
The statistics surrounding maternal mental health are already staggering. Around 20 to 25 percent of women experience a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (PMAD), but half go untreated—and experts worry the numbers are growing. "Existing risk factors for new and expecting moms to develop a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder—isolation, not having access to a support network, and managing high levels of stress and anxiety—are now the new normal," says Bellenbaum.
Catherine Birndorf, M.D., CEO, and medical director of The Motherhood Center, adds that this, coupled with a background setting of increased anxiety, will impact new moms. "We believe the incidence of PMADs to likely increase," she says.
Ryder notes an initial 300 percent spike in mental health appointments at Maven when the pandemic started—an increased demand that has continued over the past few months.
One thing is clear: "All parents need support," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody. Fortunately, there's been an explosion of virtual ways to find it. Here are ways new moms can start.
Lean Into Telemedicine
Teletherapy—where you meet with a mental health professional by phone or video conferencing—is the new norm. "New parents can access mental health care much more readily and insurance is covering these costs," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody. Taking advantage of teletherapy appointments is vitally important, too, since identifying a PMAD is the first step toward treatment, notes Dr. Meltzer-Brody, whose research study Mom Genes Fight PPD analyzes women's genetic code to explain why some women get PPD and others don't. (You can even join the study remotely by requesting a kit and mailing it back in.)
Being able to talk with a practitioner from the comfort of your couch could also break down some of the barriers around seeking treatment, which often includes feelings of stigma, guilt, and shame. "Now is the time to ask for help," says Bellenbaum. "Don't stay at home and suffer."
Outside of mental health, the pandemic has forced many other health care professionals—including specialists like pelvic floor therapists and lactation consultants—to pivot their businesses online.
"Through a virtual visit, lactation consultants can provide helpful guidance on milk supply, latching issues, pain, mastitis, or other issues," says Ryder. "In-person lactation support is more hands-on, but a lot of the care needed can be delivered virtually through general education and troubleshooting issues with women."
Through telemedicine, physical therapists can watch movement, guide exercise, and discuss any new symptoms or pain with issues like diastasis recti, she says. "A lot of physical therapists say that patient adherence is a real barrier to long-term recovery and for many women, it's much easier and saves time to connect with a therapist during a child's nap time, in between meetings, or without the commitment of going into an office for a visit."
Pop Into a Webinar, Podcast, or an Instagram Live
Looking for some good info in a group setting without leaving the house? Therapists with podcasts, celebrities, and other companies in the new parenthood space (like the lactation pod company Mamava, for example) have been hosting online webinars, Instagram Live sessions, and podcast episodes surrounding different topics relevant to the postpartum period right now.
Maven, for one, has been sharing content across its social media channels with insights from providers about the challenges that are currently on top of new moms' minds—from keeping your mental health in check to sessions on pediatrics. The Motherhood Center also regularly hosts webinars (often they're free) about parenting during the pandemic and issues that new mothers are facing.
Join an Online Support Group
Sometimes simply having someone listen and someone else who's in your shoes say that you're not the only one who's feeling a certain way can be helpful. To this extent, virtual support groups play a much-needed role in new parenthood. A few solid places to find some:
- Postpartum Support International (PSI) has been hosting free support groups for parents throughout the pandemic, but recently—thanks to a partnership with Baby Dove—it has doubled the amount that it's hosting.
- The Motherhood Center of New York hosts virtual support groups, including groups for partners and dads, working moms, sleep support groups, and ones for women experiencing PMADs.
- The Postpartum Stress Center has online support groups as well, including one for "no-longer new moms."
Lighten Your Load
When you're sleep-deprived, healing, and taking care of a new baby, simple tasks (like making a meal) become hard. In the midst of a pandemic? They can seem impossible. "Finding ways to help lighten the load is a great way to help new parents," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody.
Certain things, such as cleaning help, a night nurse, or postpartum doula, may not be possible during the pandemic. But food delivery services, for example, might be worth the splurge. And if you have a partner, it's a good idea to split child care duties. Do what you can to take time for yourself. "This is challenging, but even being able to take a bath while the baby is sleeping can be much needed self-care," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody.
Accept "Good Enough" Parenting
You've likely heard that lowering your expectations as a new parent can help you better accept a sometimes challenging reality. But in the face of a pandemic, you likely need to reevaluate even more. "It's unrealistic to think we're going to do it all—parent, teach, work, take care of ourselves—without stumbling," says Ryder. If you feel your current reality contrasts with what your hopes of the time period would be, try to embrace "good enough" parenting. It's a concept that comes from pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, suggesting parents aim for "good enough" and not "perfect" in order to find a balance between caregiving and space for yourself.
Give Spaces Purpose
Finding structure when you're working/parenting/cleaning/exercising all in the same space can be difficult. Bellenbaum suggests designating specific areas in your house for certain tasks. Maybe you work in your dining room, workout in your basement, and just sleep in your bedroom. "We don't have the luxury of having time in between one space and the next, but we can try to designate areas for that," she says.
Rituals can help, too. Doing some work on your computer and hear the baby cry? Even doing something as simple as turning around twice before you walk over and get the baby can help create a "transition" from one space of your life to another, which will help you feel like you're not doing everything at once (even if you are).
See Friends and Family Virtually
"It takes creative thinking to find ways to ensure there is adequate social support in place to fill these major gaps," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody. But virtual gatherings of family and friends on Zoom or FaceTime are important, she says. Be open to the experience, even if you've never done it before.
Focusing on the things that you can control (seeing your family in some capacity) and accepting the things that you can't (knowing when you'll be able to see them in person again) is a concept called radical acceptance—and it can help you find comfort in uncertainty, she says.
How to Support New Mom Friends
On that note, new moms will certainly benefit from connection even if it's not in person. If you know someone who is a new mom, here are a few ways to show her your care and help her through life as a new mother amidst a pandemic.
Ask Her How She's Doing
That might sound simple, but all too often when a baby is born the mother is overlooked, says Bellenbaum. Genuinely asking how she is doing and if she needs anything shows you care and gives her an (often much needed) outlet to talk about what she's going through. If she says she's struggling? "Offer to help her find some new mom support groups or treatment options to help her feel better," suggests Bellenbaum.
Validate Her Feelings
Another important way to help if your friend is having a hard time? "Let her know that she is not alone. It's really hard," says Bellenbaum. "If you struggled, tell her it was hard for you too. Be honest and real and remind her that all the perfect posts she sees on Facebook and Instagram are most likely what people want her to see, not what is really happening behind the scenes."
Text Her a Daily or Weekly Mantra
"You've got this; you are doing a great job mama; you are so incredibly strong; I'm here for you if you need a shoulder." Even simple texts of encouragement like these can go a long way in boosting a new mom's confidence and remind her that she's doing a good job.
Give Her a Better Gift
Send her some meditations designed for new and expecting moms. (Expectful is a great option.) Or buy her a book that talks about the real motherhood experience, like What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood.
Set Up a Virtual Gathering
Invite her closest friends and ask her what time works best for her and check in on the new mama in your life. Keep the conversation focused around supporting her and her needs. It can make all the difference.
Cassie Shortsleeve is a freelance writer and founder of the new online motherhood platform Dear Sunday.