Wise Words on Parental Mental Health Through the Ages

In 30 years as the director of the Lauren & Mark Rubin Visiting Moms program through Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Debbie Whitehill has seen parenting trends come and go. For many years, Whitehill has run a support group for women struggling with post-perinatal mood disorders called “This Isn’t What I Expected.” She has also helped to launch a similar program in Ukraine, Dnipro’s Mentor Moms.

Over the years, with the proliferation of social media, a pandemic and, now, war in Ukraine, the stakes feel even higher—and she’s also been witness to the consistent rhythm of generations of parents just trying to do their best. I chatted with her about what’s changed (and stayed the same) over the years, especially with respect to parental mental health.

How is parenting different now from when you started?

I feel like the pressures we’ve noticed on new moms have only increased as we’ve come into the internet age. There were always pressures to be a good mom—“the good enough mom” has been written about [for] many years. It actually started before that, when there were many, many people writing many, many different books, telling parents the way it would work well, the way to have a calm baby, the way to feed your baby. There were always new thoughts. We were seeing a proliferation of books.

Then the internet came along, and now there’s not only the experts who have a public forum, but so does everyone else. Practically anyone who wants to say anything can say it somewhere online. So, when parents ask a question, and they might ask it in their sleep-deprived state in the middle of the night, they may get answers: “This is what worked for me; this is how to do it.” The notion that you can find an answer to your question is what many of our newer moms are dealing with. The assumption that you could actually be a perfect mom or be a perfect parent has only grown, if you only could find the right response, if you look hard enough, if you ask enough people.

How does this searching make parents feel?

I have watched how this has caused much more anxiety and sometimes depression, or both, in new parents who imagine they will be able to do this well, if not perfectly, that they will be able to calm their crying baby. Somehow they will do that, or they will find the right doctor who will say the right thing, or they’ll find the right blogger online who will tell them, “This is the piece of equipment you need!”

How would you advise a parent who’s relying on this echo chamber for answers? What’s the way forward?

In our program, we talk about this: We don’t actually believe there are necessarily “answers.” If there were one answer, it’d be one book, and all the experts would agree. So, if the experts don’t all agree, then why should we think that any one of us or any one pediatrician or any one nurse practitioner or any one guru is going to work for everybody? They are not.

Gather information, of course. Don’t hesitate to talk to people you trust who can give you responses that don’t make you feel worse, who can give you responses without making you feel criticized and who you can explore things with. Read, if that helps. Go online, if that helps. It doesn’t help everybody, but it does help some.

But then, realize that your situation with your infant is unique. There are so many aspects that influence how we parent and influence why we parent the way we do at whatever given time that we need to be able to look inside ourselves. It’s easy to say “trust yourself,” and that’s very hard for a new parent to do. I couldn’t have done it when I was a new parent 42 years ago. If someone had said “trust yourself,” I would say, “Well, I can’t tell the difference between his cry for this or cry for that.” Some people can say they can tell the baby’s cries. I didn’t know the difference. I just suffered in silence, thinking, “That’s one more way I’m not a good enough mom.”

What are other common pressures? What questions do you tend to get?

Right now, the pressures are on women to breastfeed. This is nothing new. The pressures on women to breastfeed can make women feel like an absolute and total failure. There are so many reasons why it’s hard, and it doesn’t work for everybody. I just visited a mother who said she’s got oversupply, causing her baby to eat too much, choke too much and be too gassy. I mean, you just can’t win. Some people would kill for too much milk supply.

I will say that, because we run so many support groups, the two topics that come up the most frequently are feeding and sleeping. There’s lactation support, and there’s sleep consultations. But, of course, that’s only for people who can afford to do that. Our approach when we’re working with people is to talk to them and hear what they think the issue is, how they’re defining the problem, what they’ve tried, what they’re thinking about and to recommend some resources. Sometimes people just want unrealistic things from babies who are not quite developmentally ready. There’s a four-month sleep regression, and it’s common—little bits of information like that can be supportive and helpful.

Everyone’s suffering is valid, but, clearly, there are some truly atrocious things going on elsewhere in the world. On that note, I want to hear a little bit about the partnership with the moms program in Ukraine.

I went to Ukraine three times; the last visit was November 2019. The program has been in existence at least five years. We’ve helped them with training. We’ve helped them by being supportive. We’ve had Zoom calls with their volunteers. I brought some of our visiting moms to Ukraine. In 2019, there were three visiting moms with me, one of whom has stayed in such incredible contact with the people there. She’s currently making packages and sending them to Ukraine.

How is their mental health?

I think the program in Ukraine has more of a bent than ours did toward serving people who are more vulnerable, in that they may be more at risk for depression, anxiety, child abuse or neglect, challenges within marriage, financial stressors. We have seen a lot of those people too. But we also see a wide swath of other people—we see people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year but are still dealing with newborn parenthood. I think they are not seeing that range.

The war is indescribable and unimaginable: to bring a baby into the world in the midst of fearing for your life and having people tell you, “You need to leave and go to a safe place,” and you may not be able to. You may not have a safe place. You may not have the money or the means to be able to pick yourself up and get there. You may be overwhelmed with your life. God forbid you have a premature baby, you have a C-section, you have anything that you didn’t expect. Just imagine that in the backdrop of, “When will Dnipro get bombed?” So to add that anxiety of bringing a baby into a post-COVID world, and then a world of war where you don’t even know if your country is going to be in existence, or who among you is going to be alive.

When you have a lot of stress, it affects everything in your body: your ability to produce milk, your ability to respond to your baby and hear your baby’s cries in the same way. It may affect your ability to even sleep when the baby’s sleeping, and we’re all sleep-deprived enough with a new baby. But if you can’t sleep because you’re having to go into your basement? I don’t think I can put myself in that person’s head.

What would you like people to know, especially at a time when people might feel like we’ve already been through so much with COVID and the rest of the world might be moving on? You can’t move on easily with an unvaccinated baby.

I would like people to know that having extra concerns, feeling either anxious or sad, is not unusual at all. Many of us feel this way even in the best of times, even in times we’re not dealing with a pandemic and issues of vaccination and spread. It is much more common than people think and nothing to be ashamed about, although there is still a stigma attached to it. And there is help. I run a group that is free and you don’t have to sign up; just show up.

We’re living in a time like none other. We’ve not been through this. And when you have anxiety, it takes up emotional energy. Don’t beat yourself up for how you’re feeling; find people you can talk to about it. We are happy to offer services as much as we can. The saddest thing is to think that people are suffering silently at home and not talking about it.

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