People who have a history of depression or anxiety often fear that those problems might recur or worsen if they have a child. This fear may hold them back from becoming parents. While perinatal and postpartum depression and anxiety are real issues, this is not a one-way street. It's possible that becoming a mother or father may decrease your anxiety. Here are five ways this can happen.
I have a 20-month-old and sometimes I think to myself "I can't believe I'm really doing this." I had lots of fears about whether I was up to being a parent. For instance, "What if I don't bond with her? What if she cries and I don't want to attend to her, change her diaper etc? What if I ignore her when she needs me? What if she doesn't bond with me/love me?"
After getting through pregnancy, labor, nursing, and the newborn stage filled with anxiety about SIDS, I've gained a lot of confidence. None of my fears eventuated. I have normal levels of remaining parenting guilt and anxiety, but they're tolerable.
2. Having a child helps put other anxieties in perspective.
I have a tendency to be excessively cautious. For example, UPS left me a notice this week about a missed delivery. I could either sign the notice allowing them to leave the package the next day or go pick up the item from the UPS depot. Pre-child, I would always have gone to pick it up, just in case it got stolen off my porch. However, the difficulty level of doing that is raised when it involves getting a toddler in and out of a car seat and potentially waiting in line etc. At most, the package would likely be on my porch for an hour, and besides, it was only a $50 package. On balance, it seemed worth the risk of allowing them to leave it.
What's the point of this story? Having a child has made me busy to the point I can't do some of the overcautious and over-checking behavior I used to do. I'm forced to prioritize my most important fears! Also, little things that go wrong don't seem as important as they used to, and I worry less about what other people think of me.
3. Having a child can reduce avoidance.
It can be difficult to put your own best interests ahead of your anxiety. However, it's much easier to put your child's best interests ahead of your anxieties and insecurities. Here's an example:
Like a lot of anxiety-prone people, I don't love having my photo taken. However, I want my child to have lots of photos and videos of us together and happy. Therefore I'm much more enthusiastic about having photos taken.
Additionally, I know it's important for my kid to socialize so I do more social activities with other families than I did previously.
Oxytocin is a hormone that helps people feel secure and relaxed. When you're getting lots of cuddles from your child, you're getting bathed in Oxytocin. If you're nursing, you'll get even more of an Oxytocin boost.
5. You'll see your child experiencing fear and uncertainty constantly, and overcoming it through exposure.
Little kids are initially uncertain about many things from slides to new foods to animals to new people. However, you'll see them become more confident through practice and familiarity.
This is a great reminder that anxiety works this way for adults too. If you don't try things you'll remain fearful. However, if you try something a few times, you'll typically become reasonably comfortable with it.
Nothing in this article is meant to suggest pregnancy as a treatment for anxiety, or minimize the experiences of people who do suffer postnatal depression and such. My point is that other scenarios are possible.
If you fear that parenting will exacerbate your anxiety or that you'll get postnatal depression, bear in mind that you may have the opposite experience! A mixed experience is also possible, such as a period of postnatal depression but an overall decrease in anxiety and improvement in mood when you get treatment for that.
If you're anxious and it's holding you back from having the child you want, think beyond the worse case scenario to the full spectrum of possibilities, including the potential for parenting to help your anxiety or mood.