Sometimes new mothers don't feel the way they expect to. Maybe they don't feel as joyful and contecned as they expected. Is that OK?Read More
Bonding is now seen as such a big issue - but does it matter if you don't bond immediately? And what can you do if you don't?Read More
What if you can't always be 'on'? What if you need some time to yourself? Does that make you a bad mum?Read More
Does the idea of 'me time' make you want to punch someone? Or cry? Because it feels so unattainable?Read More
I’ve spoken with a few mothers recently about how they didn’t acknowledge their sense of fear during their pregnancy. How they took pride in their ability to carry on without making many allowances for the new person inside them. Not that they didn’t go to antenatal classes or enjoy preparing for their baby practically, but that they didn’t start developing their relationship with the person inside them, because for some reason they were scared to.
This fear can often be rationalised as being about protecting yourself in case something happens to the baby. However what if it is actually about something deeper than that. What if you don’t want to connect with your unborn child because actually you’re scared of what they will MEAN. What will they do to your life? How will they affect you? What will they make you give up?
Many of us work very hard as we grow up to develop a sense of independence and autonomy, and babies are a very real threat to that. At the beginning especially, our autonomy and independence are very much lost. Donald Winnicott, the paediatrician and psychanalyst talks about how the mother and baby are so interconnected, especially at the beginning, that a baby will struggle to exist without a mother. And perhaps subconsciously we recognise this, and so during our pregnancy it is almost easier to deny that the baby is really there than face the fear of what that responsibility might be like for us.
Rachel Cusk, the author, wrote that a woman might feel anger for her baby “because she has lost the power of autonomy and free will in her own life. From the first moment of her pregnancy, a woman finds herself subject to forces over which she has no control, not least those of the body itself. This subjection applies equally to the unknown and the known : she is her body’s subject, her doctor’s subject, her baby’s subject, and in this biological work she has undertaken she becomes society’s and history’s subject too. But where she feels the subjection most is in the territories,whatever they are that in her pre-maternal life she made her own. The threat to what made her herself to what made her an individual : this is what the mother finds hardest to live down. Having been told all her life to value her individuality and pursue its aims, she encounters an outright contradiction, a betrayal – even among the very gatekeepers of her identity, her husband or colleagues or friends – in the requirement that she surrender it.”
But research shows that mothers who spend more time developing their relationship with their baby before they give birth are more likely to enjoy the early days of meeting their baby outside the womb, and are more likely to enjoy learning more about who this person is right from the start. They are continuing a relationship that they have already started.
Mothers who have difficult pregnancies can sometimes be forced into losing their sense of independence and autonomy much sooner, and so the grieving process starts earlier. This can bring its own struggles, as this can either help the mother accept the changes that having a baby will bring in her own emotional landscape, or else it can make it even harder to accept as the mother can feel resentful of the baby for having caused this loss, which may cause her to unconsciously want to reject her baby.
I don’t say these things to make you worry about whether you are thinking about your unborn child enough. I say them because I believe (and research bears out my belief) that mothers who take time to reflect on and develop their relationship with their babies BEFORE they are born, can have more enjoyment of their babies sooner after birth. And this enjoyment can help mitigate all the other parts of being a mother that are really hard!
If you find that you are really struggling to connect with your baby in utero, I would encourage you to think about why that might be. There maybe many reasons for it, and some of those might be painful and you might want some support to explore them. But, like any relationship you are developing, the more you invest in it the more rewarding it becomes.
I never wanted to be the person who had ‘mental health issues’ or even worse still, ‘post-natal depression’. In fact, I am to this day convinced that I did not have either. I did however need to give my emotional wellbeing some extra TLC in the 12 months after giving birth. Call it what you will… the role of ‘mother’ did not measure up to my expectations… and I came to realise that I needed support to find my way.
I always wanted to be a mother, I had a lovely easy pregnancy and a fairly straightforward birth. I am in a very secure relationship with a wonderful husband, and am surrounded by friends and family all willing to offer practical help and support on the arrival of our first child. What on earth could I possibly have to feel down about?
That’s precisely it. I couldn’t then, and I can’t really now, put a definition on ‘what was going on with me’. But I knew very clearly that the old me was lost. And this new (temporary!) me was uncomfortable, unfamiliar (frightening even) and upsetting. I desperately wanted to learn how to be the old me but in this new way of living.
I resisted seeking help for a few months because of all the things I’ve mentioned above… I was not going to be that person. I had so much to be grateful for. I fought the feeling of ‘getting something wrong’. Thanks to a very supportive husband coupled with a dark moment of realisation within myself, I rang Sarah at ‘Birth and Beyond’ and began counselling sessions.
Sarah quickly identified some key areas for us to talk about and for me to think through for myself. During our sessions we covered an enormous range of emotions, relationships and scenarios… surprisingly few actually involved my daughter… but each time Sarah got to the nub of what was going on in a very positive and solution focused manner. She helped me to figure out where the old me had gone, and why I was feeling that way. And then work out some ways for me to learn how to incorporate the real me into my new role as a mother.
Sarah managed to get me to figure things out for myself and come up with my own advice and solutions without actually suggesting them herself. Herein lies the success of working with Sarah in my opinion… being given advice, or listening to someone tell you how to fix something which is going on in your life, or even listening to people tell you that you are not alone has no lasting benefit. But the way in which Sarah got me to come to my own ‘making sense’ and ‘way forward’ was key to how I engaged with the sessions.
Having come through this experience I now want to shout from the roof tops to all new, or expectant, first time mums. You know yourself better than any health visitor, any GP, or any midwife… dare I say it, better than your partner and better than your own sisters or mothers!!! LISTEN to your gut. If you have even the tiniest inkling that something is not quite right, feels too heavy to carry or isn’t slotting into place as you’d wish then please, PLEASE seek support. It will be the strongest and bravest thing you ever do and the best gift you ever give yourself. And the sooner you do it the better!
For me, looking after my emotional wellbeing is how I look back on the past few months. If I can help just one other mum feel more ‘normal’ and emotionally safe by writing this then my experience has been put to good use.
I was recently at an event for parents-to-be and it got me thinking about what might be helpful for them to hear at this stage. Some of the things I found useful were having some of the myths of motherhood debunked, so I thought I would share a few here.
1. There is no such thing as maternal instinct.
Now I realise that is a pretty controversial statement, and I am going to temper it by saying that I am not talking about the sense of protectiveness and responsibility that mothers feel for their baby. A mother's brain changes during pregnancy and can stay altered for up to two years in order to help her be protective of her child.
However, mothers are NOT born with an innate knowledge of how to look after a baby. We learn this. And it has been shown that it actually doesn’t matter what your gender is – you take the same amount of time to learn how to look after a baby whether you are male or female.
It is like a job – you learn by watching other people, hanging out with people doing similar things, reading books or searching the internet, being given advice by people who have been there already or ‘industry experts’.
However, there is no induction, an incredible amount of responsibility early on, poor working hours and an ever changing set of goalposts. Most of us will never ever learn quite so much quite so quickly, from how to manage different drops of kerbs with different buggies, to how your baby likes to be held at different times, to what kinds of groups there are going on around you. It’s a massive learning curve, and most of us know very little about it until we have a child ourselves.
Thinking of it means like that means you can rid yourself of the idea that you ‘should’ know what your baby wants. So when other people expect you to interpret your baby’s cries on day two, you don’t need to feel as though somehow you’re a failure because you don’t know. You just haven’t learnt that part yet…
2. You are not a ‘bad mother’ if you don’t fall in love with your baby at first sight.
We are led to believe than we’re meant to be bowled over by an oxytocin-induced juggernaut of love for our baby the second we lay eyes on them, but that is not the case for everyone (or even the same person with different babies). Research by the NCT suggests that at least 1/3 of new mums do NOT feel an immediate bond with their baby. And there are many things that can affect our ability to bond with our babies as soon as we see them.
Think about it - how many of us fall in love at first sight?
For many people, falling in love is a bit of a slower burn, and bonding takes a bit of time, but the good thing is that there are lots of things you can do to enable bonding. Skin to skin is crucial, and massage, bathing with and cuddling your baby are all brilliant for this. Slings are useful for bonding too. And activities such a Video Interaction Guidance and Newborn Observations are great tools for learning more about your baby and who they are.
The thing about bonding is that it helps you enjoy being a parent more, so it’s worth pursuing even if it isn’t there right at the beginning.
3. It is normal to feel a range of emotions as a parent – being filled with joy all the time is not a prerequisite for being a ‘good’ parent
Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, out of control, frustrated and resentful are all normal parts of being a new parent. Yes, you might be lucky enough to find the process of becoming a parent incredibly joyful and affirming too, but the reality is often less fun than it looks from the outside. Not loving parenthood does not mean you are ‘getting in wrong’, and when people say ‘treasure ever moment’, remind yourself that it’s easy to say that when you’ve got a lot of distance on the situation. You don’t need to feel guilty about occasionally wondering if you’ve made a mistake by becoming a mother.
However if these feelings don’t go away with reassurance or else you start finding yourself anxious about them for any reason, then you need to check them out. Here is a good guide to what feelings are worth speaking to someone about.
One of the things that many new mothers find hard is the lack of time for themselves. There is a great part in the movie ‘Date Night’ where Tina Fey talks about how all she wants to do is sit by herself in a darkened room, with a can of diet sprite. Being a mother can feel relentless at times, and if we’re not careful it can easily lead to feelings of resentment: “This isn’t what I signed up for!”
Resentment is really destructive to relationships, as it means that we become less able to keep ‘giving’ to the other person. When you resent your husband, it makes it harder to stay connected and communicate. And when you resent your baby, you can feel guilty for feeling that way, or angry with them for needing you.
However, it can be hard not to feel resentful when you aren’t able to have your needs met the way you used to. If you find it hard to relax or switch off when you can’t do many of the things you used to enjoy, it can really rock your sense of identity.
So how can you keep in touch with your sense of identity?
- Rather than feeling bad about what you can’t do now (e.g. Friday night drinks after work) try to figure out what aspects of that activity you really enjoyed (e.g. relaxing on a Friday night, feeling as though it’s different to other evenings).
- Try to figure out a new activity that might incorporate some of those aspects (your partner cooking a meal for you both, or ordering a takeout, or giving you space to cook yourself on a Friday night)
- Figure out the steps to make that activity happen (e.g. chat to your partner about what you both need to do, get in some takeout menus, or do an online shop the weekend before)
This is just one example, and there are many more.
But what if I can’t manage to organise something like this?
If this feels too much for you there are also smaller ways you can hang on to your sense of self when the world around you appears to be shifting regularly. One way can be to figure out one non-negotiable and to do it every day. Examples of this include:
- Having a shower every day.
- Going for a 20-minute walk, with or without the baby. Research shows that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild or moderate depression, as well as all the other health benefits that regular exercise provides.
- Going outside every day, even if that’s just to go to the shops. Getting outside, especially in green spaces, has been proven to have a range of health benefits, including lowering your risk of depression and boosting your immune system.
- Spending 2 minutes just breathing.
- Having a cup of tea to yourself, even if the chores are beckoning.
- Connecting with someone, even if that’s just a 5 minute phone call or a conversation via text or messenger.
Do this one thing every day, whatever else happens, and at least you will know that you are prioritising yourself in that one thing.
If you would like to chat through any of this, I provide counselling to pregnant and new parents. Becoming a parent is a time of massive change and equally big emotions, and everyone can find it useful to talk things through from time to time.
So what does Christmas mean to you?
Does it mean socialising and enjoying getting a bit glammed up? And maybe a fair amount of alcohol and eating loads of interesting food? And thinking about people who you don’t see so much and want to connect with and nostalgia for your childhood and trying to find presents that show people how much they mean to you because you’ve found the ‘perfect’ thing? And lights and baubles, holly decorations, wreaths and candles? And carols, and nativities and possibly a church service? And time off work (possibly to sleep) and time with loved ones?
Are you forgetting the work deadlines and the exhaustion of midwinter and the lack of exercise and the desire to hibernate and the lack of daylight and the fact that most of your fruit tastes like it’s come from a million miles away and it’s rather cold outside and somehow you’ve got to navigate the perils of your family dynamics?
The thing is, before you have kids, it’s easier to ignore the difficult parts of the Christmas season because there are so many wonderful distractions. It’s not for nothing that so many different cultures celebrate midwinter in some way – it’s a hard time of year and we need lightness and a sense of hope to keep us going.
So what if you’re a new parent?
Well, the bad news is that your ability to do all the things that make winter more bearable are reduced (rest and socialising being big ones). Christmas is often NOT restful with a baby. And, if you’ve got the energy for it, your socialising is probably more of the daytime kind.
The biggest blow can be that we DON’T REALISE THIS. So Christmas becomes upsetting and disappointing. Without realising it, we’re hoping for a break and some fun and we struggle to get either.
Since it can be hard to know what’s going on (especially when sleep deprived), quite often we find ourselves feeling some pretty upsetting emotions. You might find yourself getting angry with the people around you, at your partner, family and friends, especially if they don’t understand the sense of loss and disappointment that you’re experiencing.
Or you might find yourself feeling low, anxious, overwhelmed or all of these, as you get angry and upset with yourself for not being able to enjoy Christmas.
Awareness is key. It can’t turn Christmas back to being the way it was before you became a parent, but it can help you get through this without becoming really low. Here are the stages I would suggest:
- When you feel yourself feeling upset/ low/ angry – be compassionate to yourself and see if you can figure out if there is something that is disappointing you/ some sense of loss. What did you want from this situation? What did you want from Christmas?
- Once you have identified what is causing that feeling (or even if you can’t) – reassure yourself that the way you are feeling is a natural response to loss/ disappointment. Look at any 2 or 3 year old if you want confirmation of that. Seriously – our emotions don’t ‘grow up’ – it’s just our responses to them.
- Check out whether you can change whatever is causing that sense of disappointment or loss. For example, it could be that you’re looking forward to more sleep – if that is the case then you can see if you can recruit someone to allow you more rest? Or is it the case that you want a break from the sense of responsibility (after all, until now maybe YOU have always been the ‘child’ at Christmas) – in which case, I’m sorry, that loss cannot be changed, only grieved.
- Once you have figured out what is causing you the pain or distress, then you can either make changes or grieve the losses. And if you’re grieving then give yourself space to grieve. Seriously. Don’t just expect yourself to ‘get over it’ or ‘grow up’. It’s painful and upsetting to lose something. Don’t just pretend everything is fine. You ARE okay, AND you feel rubbish. The two are not mutually exclusive.
I don’t know if this post will bring you glad tidings of comfort and joy, but hopefully it might help reassure you that however you are feeling at Christmas is probably a normal response to whatever is going on in your life.
If you’d like some help to figure out what is going on for you, then counselling is a really useful way of doing this. I’d be happy to chat about whether this would suit you and how it would work.
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