As I sat in my psychotherapy office with the mother of a 3-month-old girl, she expressed concern over her feelings of boredom while caring for her daughter. Her quiet days of feeding, diapering, dressing and entertaining her baby left her disinterested, and she longed to return to her fast-paced life as a litigation attorney.
I empathized with her and her bored and uncomfortable feelings, and told her that mothering, as with other work, inevitably involves moments of boredom. However, if a woman's principal feeling toward her child is disinterest, it may be a sign of postpartum depression.
One in nine women will experience depression before, during or after pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because these statistics rely on women self-reporting, and many women don't come forward because they are uncomfortable discussing these issues, it's likely that the actual incidence of pregnancy-related depression is even higher. It is imperative for children and mothers alike that those suffering know how to identify lesser-known symptoms and receive the help they need.
Like many new mothers, my client was unaware that unshakable boredom might be a sign of PPD. Unfortunately, boredom is sometimes dismissed, and women are told that they are simply spending too much time with their child and that the answer is to focus on outside activities such as work and socializing. This is the parenting equivalent to sweeping clutter under the rug and does not address the root of a deeply troubling issue.
Working with these mothers requires understanding their feelings without being judgmental, and reflecting with them about past experiences that might be affecting their relationship with their baby. My client was always drawn to a life filled with high-energy activities and multitasking. We discovered during our sessions that her inclination to retreat into busyness served as a distraction from any serious confrontation with feelings of depression and sadness she feared would otherwise overwhelm her.
The pace of living while caring for a small baby is often slow, quiet and mindful. This can be a welcome break for some, but for individuals like my client, the adjustment can prevent them from using high-energy diversions to tune out an underlying sadness.
In my sessions with this mother, we also discovered that she still felt strong emotions about her own childhood. Her mother, although physically present, was bored and disinterested, rarely played with her daughter, and often complained of resenting her obligation to care for a baby. Research has shown that those who were neglected by, or not bonded to, their own mothers may struggle to nurture a baby because interest in mothering can be inherited or learned.
Beyond genetics, there are a number of reasons mothers may experience PPD. Pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood are hormonal roller coasters, as estrogen and progesterone levels shift wildly. These quick hormonal changes can cause, even in otherwise healthy mothers, "baby blues," which for some linger for a long time.
But how can a new mom tell whether her boredom is a sign of a more serious condition? Pervasive feelings of disconnection and disengagement are telltale symptoms of PPD. I've had patients express this in terms such as a loss of pleasure in doing daily tasks related to their baby, fatigue or listlessness while engaging with their baby, resentment toward the baby, or restlessness and a constant desire to escape to "more interesting" activities.
Postpartum depression is not something any mother should try to take on alone, and professional help from a pediatrician, lactation specialist, psychotherapist or doula can be critical to a mother's recovery.
For boredom, in particular, mothers can benefit from finding interesting activities to engage in alongside their babies. If a bored mother begins to involve her baby in her interests — be it running, yoga, going to museums or cooking — the relationship can begin to take on a new sense of shared enjoyment and connection, which can help with attachment issues and disinterest.
Bored mothers often tell me that "nothing important ever happens with my baby." For this complaint, I've had success in recommending books on child and infant brain development. This generally inspires a newfound sense of wonder and a realization that there is indeed a lot happening with babies. It helps mothers watch and relate to their child in a new and interesting way. Some of my favorites include John Bowlby's "A Secure Base," Selma Fraiberg's "The Magic Years" and Donald Winnicott's "The Child, the Family, and the Outside World."
Boredom can also suggest lowered levels of oxytocin, a hormone that is produced in healthy mothers' brains when they give birth, breastfeed or nurture their children. It makes mothers sensitive and empathetic nurturers and helps foster interest in the baby. Bored mothers should be encouraged to make frequent skin-to-skin and eye contact with their babies, as these behaviors have been suggested to promote the release of oxytocin.
The pain of postpartum depression may be alleviated, but not before symptoms are recognized and dealt with appropriately. It's easy and tempting to dismiss boredom as normal, especially given the stigma of mental illness. For the good of both mothers and children, though, we must learn to discuss the issue as openly and honestly as possible.
Erica Komisar, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst, a parent guidance expert and author of "Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters."