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Why trying to be happy harms perinatal mental health

happy face showing that why trying to be happy causes depression in pregnancy and new parents

“Enjoy your holiday, you deserve it”

“I worked hard at the gym so I deserve a cake”

“He got what he deserved in the end…”

The movies tell us that people “get what they deserve”. Most of us live life accepting this as fact. But these things that we all believe can cause damage to our mental health in pregnancy and when we become new parents (perinatal mental health). When I work with people struggling with depression, or post traumatic stress disorder thoughts about what they do or don't "deserve" almost always play a part in fuelling the symptoms.

Why is this bad for perinatal mental health?

We have all been trained to believe that what we put in to something directly relates to what we get out. I have said all of the statements above many times. A few years a go I read a book that completely changed my perspective. “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris makes the unapologetically hard to hear point that WE NEVER get what we deserve.

Think about it, do the people of Ukraine deserve to live in war torn terror? No.

Do people who get sick and suffer horribly deserve their pain? No.

So how can I seriously think that I deserve my relatively cushy life in the UK? Or that Richard Branson deserves his millions? (Sorry Richard it isn’t personal…)

What you put in to stuff does not always relate to what you get out.

Yes of course hard work can improve your life but really at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how hard you work if you were born into a life with very few advantages.

How is this depressing message helping perinatal mental health?

Well, you may be very caught up in thinking that you “deserve” to be happy during your pregnancy or in the early days with your newborn. This thought may end up torturing you as you become more and more aware that you're are not as happy as you deserve to be. You might notice that when you think about this you feel angry, sad or something else painful.

Now of course I wish you as much happiness as is possible during your pregnancy and the early days of parenthood but unfortunately mental health, like life, doesn't work the way we would like it to. Recognising that we don’t get what we deserve in this life can help to liberate you from this cycle of thinking. Once we have stopped dwelling on how unfair it is that we aren’t happy, we also have the opportunity to be a bit more realistic.

Have you ever been 100% happy? Why would pregnancy or parenthood be different?

For everyone I have ever known I think the answer to this question is no. We are humans. We are complicated. We are always feeling several things at once. As I write this blog post I am feeling cold, hungry, slightly tired but also fulfilled by my work, excited to share the message and a little nervous about how it will be received. In the back of my mind there are also feelings of love for my children who were extra cute this morning and worry about my son who didn't eat his breakfast before school.

So am I happy? I am feeling some nice things like love, excitement and fulfilment so yes maybe… But I can’t be 100% happy if I’m also hungry, cold, tired and worried…

This is how we are designed as human beings.

And yet every social media account, book and conversation with older adults leads us to believe that we should treasure every moment of pregnancy and looking after babies. Comments such as "the days are long but the years are short" often lead us to feel ashamed or like we are doing it "wrong" if we don't enjoy every moment. In reality, there are some moments of every day that are very difficult to enjoy. I did not enjoy the majority of moments during my pregnancies that were ridden with hyperemesis. Nor did I enjoy the 4am inexplicable screaming bouts from my youngest which went on for an unbearable year. However, mindfulness did help me to find and feel the moments of pleasure in amongst the challenges and that got me through, mental health intact.

Mindfulness supports perinatal mental health

When we practice mindfulness we make peace with the fact there will always be multiple emotions and some of those will always be painful. That is why we focus so much on allowing feelings, even the hard ones like anger. If we don’t we just get caught up in a struggle that we can’t win.

If you are feeling stuck in the struggle now might be a good time to consider booking in for some psychological therapy. It can help you to move forward as the person you want to be, even when you don't feel at your best.

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