Your body is constantly processing information, gathering it from all five senses and sending it to our limbic systems, where our brain stores memories, to be interpreted. Everyone has their own “brain template” the place where your previous experiences help to form reactions. This template will process this new information based on your previous experiences and engender emotion. Your emotions are actually part of the process as sensory information moves through your pre-frontal lobe, aiding in your decision-making process. We use our emotions as a tool to better understand ourselves, but our past experiences also create the meaning for those emotions.
The hormonal and physical changes in new mothers can set in motion an incredibly vulnerable period of time where you have all the feels. Preconceived ideas about parenthood, what your partner should be doing and feeling, cultural expectations, societal expectations like worrying about balancing parenthood with a career, how you saw your own parents’ relationship, all these experiences are in our brain template resulting in how we experience these intense emotions. Neuroscience tells us a physical reaction caused by these emotions is not at all uncommon while your mind is still processing. We can sweat or find our heart racing or that we’re “choking up. ” Even though these are all perfectly normal responses it can signal that we may want to understand deeper where those emotions are coming from.
What can you do to help manage those emotions? Learn to reset your expectations and check in with yourself. Change the question to adjust your response or take a minute to understand your response. Be mindful in the moment. If you feel guilty about not spending enough time with your child vs. fulfilling your child’s needs, what is it that is making you feel that way? Is it your expectations or societal expectations you think you need to meet?
Use this opportunity to get to know yourself better. Parenthood is a journey. It is not a straight line to a destination (see Welcome to Holland). Rather than meeting the goals you’ve been told to expect, use the ability to adjust to meet goals you can manage. No emotions are either good or bad however intense. Let's learn to see emotions as information only, and it's a window to get to know yourself better. With the new experience of motherhood, it's a special time to look into that window and ask yourself what you see.
Dana Wang, MD, is a practicing outpatient psychiatrist in New York City. Dr. Wang is devoted to delivering the best care for her patients and advocating for emotional wellness as preventative care. She believes in a holistic approach to emotional wellness: listening to each patient and creating a partnership to maintain and improve lifelong health. She aims to deliver the best evidence-based treatment available in her clinical practice.
Dr. Wang graduated on the Dean’s Honors List from the University of California, Berkeley, earning her B.A. Degree with a double major in Molecular Cell Biology and Fine Art. She then pursued an M.D. at Ben Gurion University, affiliated with Columbia Medical Center, where she was elected class representative and received the Dean’s List Honor-Distinguished Service Award for her contribution to the community and to her medical class.
Afterward, Dr. Wang completed her psychiatry residency training at Harvard Medical School, during which she also completed a fellowship in psychodynamic psychotherapy at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. She has presented her work at local, national, and international conferences, and co-authored book chapters and peer-reviewed articles. She is a passionate advocate for addressing stigma and mental health service disparities in Asian Americans. She is currently affiliated with the cross-cultural student emotional wellness center as an executive committee member at Massachusetts General Hospital.