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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.