Therapist Ruth Dines on motherhood and why it’s healthy to admit to anxiety, depression, and other feelings such as “not being good enough.” Plus some tips from Ruth on how to cope with and address mental ill health, which affects one in five Mums.
I was barely out of the delivery ward before I received my “NHS baby box” packed with freebies from private companies eager to educate me about Spiderman embossed nappies, latex dummies, organic washing powder, recyclable wipes, and first taste baby food.
Friends and relatives followed up with cards, flowers, chocolates, in a deluge of congratulations, along with promises to visit “when things had quietened down.”
It was lovely and my mother moved down from her beloved North to feed, reassure, and basically soothe me as much as her first grandson.
Then one day I felt as though a cold hand had reached down and gripped my heart as my weary Mum announced that “I was ready” and that it was time for her to go home. Suddenly, there was no close female companion who had been through what I had been through to help guide me.
Yes, my other half was getting out of work as early as he could to help out, neighbours had assured me they were ready and willing to get groceries if I didn’t have the energy, and all our friends had insisted they were only a phone call away.
But in that moment, having no one next to me was the loneliest feeling in the world. I was anxious, very sad, and had to remind myself to breathe. And then my new born let out a howl and I didn’t have time to think, just act.
And as I write this blog I imagine only those of us who have carried a baby for approximately 40 weeks and have then given birth can really, truly, deeply comprehend how mentally demanding pregnancy and childbirth is.
Unlike the aforementioned private companies who bombard us with consumer products little consideration has traditionally been given to the mental well-being of the mother – extraordinary when you consider how becoming one dramatically changes our bodies and our minds too.
And if you have ever read any of the varied, often confusing and contradictory books, articles and blogs on raising children, you will have also entered motherhood knowing the one thing they all agree on, is that your behaviour directly affects your baby too.
D. W. Winnicott was the psychoanalyst who carried out an exhaustive study of babies and newborns’ in the crowded children’s wards of east London’s wartime hospitals, from which he produced his theory about the “Good Enough” Mother.
Better psychotherapists than I have written about what Winnicott meant when he said this, but for me the part of his theory which resonated was the idea that the “good enough mother” made her offspring feel like they were the centre of the universe, until they developed and slowly began to realise there is an external reality apart from just their mother. A necessary shift both the mother and baby need to make because, as a mother, that period of total and utter devotion to your newborn baby, putting their needs before your own, can only last so long!
Quite some responsibility huh!
The psychological side isn’t very different from the physical one, in the sense that one woman’s experience of pregnancy and birth isn’t always going to be the same as another’s. And according to NHS statistics as many as one in five new Mums experience mental ill health during pregnancy – yes one in five, or 20 per cent.
This will include anxiety, mild to severe depression, and in some thankfully rare instances, postpartum psychosis – in which the mother can experience mania, depression, severe confusion, loss of inhibition, paranoia, and hallucinations in the first two weeks after giving birth.
What doesn’t help our mental health at this time is the society around us, which at best looks down upon and at worst shames anyone who dares to speak about motherhood in all but the most glowing terms.
However, I want to tell you that the most healthy part of this is not to give in to, and collude with, the negative view that we should just ‘get on with it’ but rather take the pressure off yourself and speak out about what is actually, really going on for you. Because hiding all those true feelings are likely going to have a negative impact not just on you but also your baby and other close people in your life. Having feelings is not the difficult bit, its hiding them that is so hard. So in psychotherapy we call this ownership, so in this sense you are owning your feelings and not supressing them. Simply saying you feel low/anxious/depressed as a first step is honestly going to help. For a start it will feel like you have let something out which is building up inside you, and said to the right people (family and friends predominantly) means you are allowing the potential for support which doesn’t come from hiding it. And if you don’t feel you can talk to family members or friends then think about your Doctor, Health Visitor, or Religious leader/Spiritual guide.
I think that now as a mother of teenagers, as well as having been a wife, daughter, sister and friend, what I value most importantly in my relationships, and what I want my kids to understand the importance of, is being honest, being truthful about one’s needs and desires. To be human is to be in relation, and in my view what underpins the best relationships is honesty and authenticity.
And if I’m feeling anxious about things such as what will happen to my career while I’m caring for a baby why not own this and talk about it too? My partner won’t, for example, know that they might have to alter their own working patterns in the future if I pretend that all I want to be from herein is a mother, or vice versa.
Also, if I’m feeling anxiety about my body or my baby’s health what good will it do to suppress these thoughts and keep them to myself?
Exploring what is going on for us, talking about how anxious and or depressed we might feel, also enables us to seek help beyond ourselves too. Professional therapists like myself, for example, aren’t included in the NHS goody bags, we need you to reach out too.
You are suddenly taking responsibility for another human being and it’s vitally important that you do the same for yourself!
And next time you are worried or anxious about how you are doing as a mother, and the guilt and self-doubt starts to creep in then just take time to breathe, reflect and take solace from what Winnicott so wonderfully said, you don’t have to be a perfect mother, just good enough!
Ruth Dines MBACP, Partner, Square Mile Coaching and Counselling (www.squaremilecc.com).
Square Mile Coaching and Counselling Limited is a psychotherapy and counselling practice which operates in the City of London, Muswell Hill, and Barnet.