Online pressure: When social media pushes new mothers close to the edge

Online pressure: When social media pushes new mothers close to the edge

baby mother
Social media acts as a trigger for postnatal depression, as mothers compare themselves to their peers and feel inadequate, experts say.  (Photo: AP images)

SINGAPORE: Everything Ms Malini Pravin Saivi read on social media painted a rosy picture of the pure, unconditional love a mother has for her newborn. So when she gave birth three years ago to a baby girl, she waited for that feeling.

It did not come.

“I’ve seen mothers posting (on Facebook) an hour after giving birth about how all the pain was worth it, with photos of them looking lovingly at their baby. But I didn’t feel that that the pain was worth it,” said the 33-year-old Singaporean, who is currently living in Chennai, India.

What she read online made her feel like a bad mother, but she was too embarrassed to share those feelings with anyone, she told Channel NewsAsia.

“New mothers usually share so much of their joy online and they don’t share the downsides. Everyone wants to post a pretty picture,” she said, adding that she believed she would have been subjected to online abuse if she had shared her emotions about not feeling love for her baby.

The lack of emotional connection with her new daughter, coupled with pain from lacerations from delivery and an oversupply of milk that led to engorgement, resulted in Ms Malini starting to feel extremely low. A death in her family the day she delivered also took a toll on her.

She started to imagine hurting her daughter, and the thoughts became more violent.

However, she did not succumb to them, and things took a turn for the better when she had a routine check-up at the six-week mark at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. She opened up about her feelings, and was referred to a psychologist, who in turn referred her to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with post-natal depression. With the right medicines, and support from her family, Ms Malini was able to recover, she said.

While social media shaped an idealistic image of what kind of a mother she should be, she also found comfort in other groups on Facebook where she could ask questions and immediately receive a flood of answers from concerned fellow mothers.

Psychologists and counsellors said that while social media and online support groups may be a source of help for new mothers, they can often also make mothers insecure about themselves.


Counsellor Silvia Wetherell, who specialises in maternal mental health, said that one of the biggest perils of social media for new mothers is comparison. “They are comparing themselves at their worst to a filtered snapshot of a person at their best, when they feel like sharing,” she said.

Photos of mothers who look like they have it all together can make those who are already struggling feel inadequate, giving them a sense of isolation and that they are the only ones not coping, she said. In reality, these well-adjusted mothers may just be very good at hiding their emotions, she said.

And the Internet can provide other unrealistic comparison points for emotionally vulnerable mums.

“Now, they don’t only compare themselves to their peers, but to celebrities, who are in bikinis a week after giving birth, going on dates, making it look like motherhood is not a big deal,” she said. They feel like they are failures, and terrible mothers, she added.

Ms Wetherell, who every week sees around 20 mothers going through postnatal depression or anxiety, said that pressure to breastfeed is a “huge” contributing factor. “Research shows breastfeeding is very good for the baby, and there is a lot of pressure to breastfeed. Sometimes when it doesn’t work despite the mother's best efforts, it can trigger postnatal depression.”

She added that when there is anxiety and pain surrounding breastfeeding attempts, it could hinder a mother’s attachment to her baby.

One mother, a 30-year-old civil servant who did not want to be named, knows the pitfalls of using social media all too well. The worst thing for her, she said, was the pressure to breastfeed. She was in several groups with others who gave birth at around the same time as her, and she would see photos of the amount of milk they were able to express.

“I didn’t have as much supply, so I would think: ‘Am I an incompetent mother who is not feeding her child enough?‘” she said. These led to feelings of insecurity, and combined with a lack of sleep, leaving her job and her loss of independence, she would cry for hours at a time.

In these support groups, some would also post photos of their text exchanges with their husbands showing how appreciative they were of the new mother breastfeeding. Up alone at night while feeding her baby, she would feel frustrated that her husband would be sound asleep beside her. She also found herself drawn to pictures of attractive mothers on Instagram, loathing herself for being a “blob of fat” months after giving birth.

It was also social media and support sites that led her to create an “idealistic” birth plan which did not go well when it came to the actual delivery. She did not want to take any pain-relief drugs and she wanted delayed cord clamping, which she had read was good for the baby. But these did not happen, and she felt despair at her perceived inability to live up to the ideal birthing and motherhood experience that she had seen online.

Six months after giving birth, she sought counselling help from a family service centre near her, in order to make sense of her constant anger against everyone, and it helped her.


However, postnatal depression, if unchecked, can lead to suicide - as it did in the case of 29-year-old Koh Suan Ping, who jumped to her death from a block of flats in Bukit Panjang with her two-month-old daughter in her arms.

Five days before, she had searched online for “what to do when there is no way out”. Her husband and colleagues said she was upset she could not produce enough breast milk to feed her daughter, stressed at having to find a replacement domestic helper, and concerned that her company, where she was a sales manager, was not doing well.

While seeking help, whether online or in person, is encouraged, centre manager of Care Counselling Centre Jonathan Siew said that even positive, empowering information may have a negative effect on mothers who are already struggling. 

"At the centre, we usually have mothers coming in a year or two after giving birth, finally deciding to seek help. Social media is a new thing mothers grapple with and it has a great impact on mental wellbeing," he said.

Ms Wetherell agreed, saying that mothers may have too much information, some of which could be conflicting. “Instead of trying to get to know their baby, they are trying to get information online on the average child, she said.

She added that she has had her clients go through a digital detox, with access to their social media accounts only on a computer, instead of on their mobile phones, and her clients found that they felt much better after they did that. 

"Social media can help, but mothers should set boundaries. For example, 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon, and 20 minutes at night. One of the things I teach is to be present and mindful, because social media is distracting," she said. 

While the 30-year-old mother that Channel NewsAsia spoke to does not have such boundaries, she recognised that the unrealistic standards social media set for her were not helping her. She did a "wipe-out" of her social contacts on both Facebook and Instagram. 

"I deleted toxic friends, and unfollowed the hot mums on Instagram. Even when I see mums flaunting photos online now, I take them with a pinch of salt," she said.

Source: CNA/ja