A study conducted by PLUS ON in April this year, found that women in motherhood, in the form of pregnant and postpartum women, experience elevated levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress as the pandemic rages on.

Close to 7 000 women from 64 countries participated in the survey which took demographics, COVID-19 exposure and worries, prevention behaviours and mental health symptoms into account.

At least 86% reported being somewhat anxious about COVID-19 and a substantial proportion of women scored at or above the cut-offs for elevated post-traumatic stress, anxiety and loneliness.

Their greatest concerns were related to pregnancy and delivery, including family not being able to visit after delivery (59%), the baby contracting COVID-19 (59%) and the lack of a support person during delivery (55%).

With such overwhelming responses, the study recommends that public health campaigns and medical care systems need to explicitly address the impact of COVID-19 related stressors on mental health in perinatal women.

What is postpartum depression? 

Educational Psychologist, Saneliswe Cele, says postpartum depression can happen within the first year of giving birth and sometimes longer. These mothers – who often experience severe mood swings, exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness, are said to be at a greater risk of developing clinical depression later on in life.

“Postnatal depression is among the least diagnosed of all mental disorders. This is shocking considering how prevalent it is. Research studies have shown that 1 in 10 women who experience childbirth have postnatal depression. Unfortunately, our communities are not psycho-educated about this type of depression. Women suffer in silence because they fear that they will be labelled “unfit or bad mothers” if they begin to share their feelings and their experiences of motherhood,” said Cele.

The Durban-based lecturer explained how childbirth can bring about numerous changes to a mother including physical, hormonal, financial and psychological.

“With a lack of support, these can set any mother into depression. Mothers are under a lot of pressure. They are expected to perform multiple roles when they themselves need to be catered for,” she added.

Cele said stigmatisation within a community can have devastating effects on a new mom.

“Mothers who struggle to connect with their infants can be labelled as either cold, lacking compassion or bitter. This can lead mothers to self-loathing and feeling like they are less of a mother.”

COVID-19 wearing already tired mothers down

Speaking to Health-e News, Cele says even under normal circumstances, motherhood is already challenging with moms having to juggle busy work schedules and parenting. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has made this even more difficult.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has a major effect on our lives. A lot of people are stressed and overwhelmed, making us vulnerable to mental disorders like depression and anxiety,” noted Cele.

Burning issues like poverty and unemployment are rife in South Africa which also perpetuates the current surge of mental disorders. South Africans are also faced uncertainty about the future, poor living conditions and the lack of quality of life meaning millions are feeling overwhelmed.

Motherhood: Three warrior moms share their stories

Sthandwa Shabalala (32)

Shabalala is a mom to three beautiful girls aged one, six and 11. The strain is evident since adapting to the new COVID-19 world in which home schooling, running a business and juggling home chores are par for the course on a daily basis.

“For me, motherhood has been and continues to be a rollercoaster of emotions, some good and some not so good. It’s been a journey of loving, learning and being humbled every single day,” explained Shabalala.

“I’ve also had to endure some very dark days of postpartum depression. It’s been messy, complicated and real in a world that loves to look at life through a filter of perfection.”

She was forced to seek help so that she can be a better mother.

“I did experience postnatal depression and as a result I took the step, went for counselling for a month which definitely helped,” said Shabalala.

Her children are her no 1 priority and she tries her best to never miss out on big life events or milestones. To make this possible, she takes their schedules into account when making travel plans for work.

“I’ve learnt that the key to being a successful mother and business woman simultaneously is to accept that you have to make sacrifices and compromises. I understand and accept that sometimes I have to put my personal life on pause until my kids are older and on their own. For now, I focus my time and energy on being a mom and a leader at work,” said Shabala, who also mentions her support system who are worth their weight in gold. 

Amanda Ndlangisa (31)

Ndlangisa says she is ready to get vaccinated so she can get back to the office.

For her, everything about motherhood is overwhelming.

“Motherhood in itself is overwhelming but the most overwhelming part for me is dealing with a teenager and a toddler on a fulltime basis. They’re both at a demanding age and it’s hard,” says the mom of a 13-year-old and 15-month toddler.

Not having support makes it hard for her to juggle the different hats she has to wear.

“My teenager is learning from home so I need to help her with her studies for up to two hours a day. The toddler doesn’t care what time it is and demands my attention all the time. Luckily, I don’t have a demanding job so I’m able to make sure everyone’s needs are taken care off but there are tough days when the little one just cries or throws a tantrum,” said Ndlangisa.

She described how before the pandemic, she could have a bit of time away from the kids. But during the pandemic, they in her face 24/7.

“Moms don’t get a break. You deal with work, take care of the kids, yourself, cook and clean. As much as I have enjoyed watching my kids grow, I’m ready to get vaccinated so I can go back to the office and lead a ‘normal life’ again,” she added.

Like Shabalala, Ndlangisa also suffered from postnatal depression and said taking care of two kids on her own was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do. As a result, she’s decided to move back home for emotional support.

Her best snippet of advice for other moms is that it’s sometimes okay to not always have it together.

“It’s okay to break down and take time for yourself. You are a woman first before you are anyone’s mother. Remember to always put yourself first.”

Nonhlanhla Mkhize (31)

Mkhize, a mom of two and newly married, gave birth in 2020 and often felt completely overwhelmed having to take care of her husband, teenage daughter and newborn baby.

“I definitely thought I had postpartum depression at some stage. I lost a lot of weight and got very agitated when my daughter woke up or would just cry when all I wanted to do was sleep,” said Mkhize.

With all three loved ones demanding her love and attention, including a teenager with raging hormones, the 31-year-old often feels like she is losing her mind trying to cope with her studies and a side hustle.

“Imagine doing all these things while your six-month old baby is constantly crying and wants to be held all the time. Sometimes I want to cry because I don’t have time for myself.”

Mkhize says her husband is supportive though and she appreciates his help since a lot of moms have absent fathers. To help lighten the burden, she often completes her assignments when everyone is asleep.

Coping with the baby blues

What are the symptoms and how can mothers get help?

  • Mood swings
  • Constant feelings of sadness
  • Loss or increase of appetite
  • Intense irritability
  • Difficulty bonding with infant
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of libido or lack of interest in sexual intimacy

Mothers should seek help should they experience any of the above symptoms. They can do this by:

  • Seeking psychotherapy
  • Speaking to loved ones and asking for support
  • Avoiding isolation and withdrawal
  • Self-help and care 

Giving moms a helping hand during COVID-19 

Working-from-home mothers need all the support they can possibly get. The following support is recommended: 

Support at home – Family members/partners can assist the new mother with chores around the house.

Support with the newborn – Family members/partners can assist by feeding, bathing and soothing the infant.

Support from work – Organisations/companies can support new mothers by allowing them to rest for the first few months post-delivery. Employers should offer mental health support to mothers and parents working from home.

Psychological support – Mothers feeling overwhelmed can seek psychotherapeutic support. They could also reach out to family members and friends to speak about these negative feelings.

“Mothers receiving the above-mentioned support can begin to have time for themselves. Self-care is of paramount importance and can alleviate symptoms of depression,” said Cele. – Health-e News