When I became pregnant by accident at the age of 40, it was a colossal shock, and turned my comfortable, independent life upside down. My life had centered around my career, my love of fitness and my group of wonderful friends, and I was enjoying a blossoming relationship with a new partner. I was happy and I didn’t feel the need to have a child to complete me.
I am not one of the 1 in 5 women who are diagnosed with a mental health condition during pregnancy or within the early postnatal years, but my personal experiences from this incredible life-altering change (much of them coinciding neatly with the C-19 lockdown and pandemic) have given me many insights into why women are suffering and reluctant to seek help.
In our flagship mental health training for workplaces, Mental Health First Response ™, we encourage people to ask “Are you OK?” to promote an honest and open conversation with others. We encourage people to say “I’m not OK” as a significant first step towards seeking help. This open dialogue is essential – we have to normalize the struggle of motherhood if we want to reduce the stigma of perinatal mental illness and encourage more women to ask for help when they need it.
As more women return to the workplace after maternity leave, dealing with new challenges, responsibilities and priorities in the postpartum period, employers must be ready to remove the barriers to asking for help and be able to signpost and offer support to those who are struggling.
From the start of my journey of motherhood, I felt that I became public property, which had the result of creating a sense of disconnection between my own instincts and the advice or commands of others. As a 40 year old so-called “geriatric mother”, I was given alarmist statistics and specific directives relating to my pregnancy and birth. After pursuing my own learning, I discovered that these were not mandatory requirements but rather choices I could make. I had control over my body, mind and decisions, something which helped me enormously during this time.
I recall straight after the birth, a midwife hovered over me, advising that she wouldn’t “let me” go home until I’d got the hang of breastfeeding….funnily enough, it was only in a quiet, relaxed moment when myself and my daughter were alone and not under pressure, some days later, that everything clicked and I got the hang of it.
When the Health Visitor came by the house in the coming months, I was given a mental health questionnaire, and advised to answer honestly. So I did – perhaps a little too honestly.
Yes, I feel like I’m struggling on a daily basis.
Yes, there are things I used to enjoy which are not enjoyable any more.
Yes, I often feel overwhelmed.
I was ok with this – I had anticipated that I would struggle, that there were things I would need to give up and that I would be exhausted a lot of the time. But the reaction I received made me shut down and I found myself saying “Oh, I must just be having a bad day, it’s fine!”. From that point on, I softened and obscured my answers so as not to attract any further interrogation or suggestion of taking the conversation further. It’s no surprise to me that in the UK, 70% of women will hide or underplay their illness.
Even among the wider community of new mums, I saw the impossible standard we are held to and the myth of the Perfect Mother played out in church halls, parks and cafes across the city. If you weren’t finding every moment with bubba joyful and fulfilling, then there was something wrong with you. As women, we are taught that true maternal love is shown via self-sacrifice, so any time we take for ourselves is considered to be selfish – yet we dearly need this to support our own mental wellbeing. During the lockdown, when even outdoor playparks were closed and I was literally trapped indoors with just me and my daughter for days (months!) on end, the expectation was that a good mother would not only survive but thrive in these circumstances. I would leave the house for my one permitted walk per day and bump into another local mum – “Oh it’s hellish isn’t it!” I would exclaim, hoping for some kind of connection and shared understanding. The responses I received only served to perpetuate the myth:
“But we are so fortunate to have this alone time!”
“We’ve bonded more than we ever could have!”
“It just takes a bit more creativity to plan the day!”
Yes, those things were true for me too – but so was the daily grind, endless repetition and the lack of connection with others, for both me and my child. Why is it so frowned upon to say we are struggling, to say that there are aspects of motherhood which are really difficult? Why are we judged for wanting to retain some piece of our previous independence, interests and indulgences?
To promote good maternal health and wellbeing, we need to be much more open about the challenges of motherhood and balancing work, life and parenting. Ultimately, we must honour the powerful connection a perinatal woman has to her own body, mind and psychological self.
As wellbeing specialists we deliver a range of mental health subjects from our extensive training catalogue. Click here to see a sample of the courses we offer and click here to get in touch with us about delivering value driven, engaging training with proven results