It Takes a Village to Make a Parent: What the Pandemic Revealed About Maternal Mental Health

The Colorado Health Institute team experienced somewhat of a baby boom in 2020. In just four months, four little ones joined our team. (Things haven’t slowed down since — the babies kept coming in 2021, 2022, and 2023.)

A woman in a pink hospital gown and face mask sitting down holding a newborn

Any new parent will tell you that little bundles of joy come with big challenges. And it’s true that COVID-19 brought new ones — laboring with a mask, ultrasounds that your partner can’t join. But other things, such as the isolation some people experience during this time, weren’t COVID-19 inventions. While rates of poor mental health grew for most Coloradans during the pandemic, anxiety and depression among new mothers barely budged. Both before and during the pandemic more than one in 10 new birthing parents suffered postpartum depression, while about three in 10 experienced postpartum anxiety.

My son was born in November 2020. The first time my parents laid eyes on him was masked and through a door. It broke my heart, and also I just wanted someone to help. Someone to hold him so I could shower. Someone to help us wash the diapers or show me how to burp a baby.

I share this experience with thousands of people who had children during the pandemic. So why didn’t rates of perinatal mood disorders skyrocket when the world shut down?

It could be that rates of postpartum depression and anxiety were already perilously high, leaving little room for things to get worse. But another reason may be that the sudden erosion of social support we all experienced during the pandemic was, unfortunately, a shift many new families began experiencing long ago. For millennia, parenting was a job shared by multiple generations, cousins, neighbors, and friends.(1)  When communal parenting is practiced more widely, rates of postpartum depression decrease.(2) “It takes a village to raise a child,” the oft-cited African proverb goes. But in the United States today, the role of that village has now been distilled to one or two parents. 

Discussions around perinatal mental often focus on screening, care connections, and workforce. To be sure, treatment is a key piece of the puzzle, and we must continue to seek ways to shore up these supports. But health policies focused only on access to care may be missing a larger part of the picture — the role of community. And while it may feel strange to think about policy creating community, it can support its development. Zoning laws can allow for multigenerational housing options, and neighborhood coalitions can help us connect with the people in our communities.

To address struggles related to perinatal mental health in Colorado, we must look at this full spectrum. I may wish some things had gone differently in November 2020, but the protective factors in place for me and my family carried us through. I was lucky in the most important ways — my child was healthy, and I was healthy. I also had a stable home. I had an employer that paid my leave. I had colleagues and friends that, while they couldn’t hold the boy, walked my dog and dropped off food and books and other little things to brighten our days.

At the height of our isolation during COVID-19, I was surrounded. I wish the same for every new parent. But wishing will not take us far enough — we must work to advance policies that enable those supports for all new parents.

End Notes

1. Lancy, D. F. (2008) The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University Press.  
2. Kendall-Tackett, K. A. (2016) Depression in New Mothers. Third Edition. Routledge.