One of the most challenging seasons for women is motherhood. Becoming a mother deeply impacts your body – the physical process of birth and a massive disruption to your sleep cycle. It also has a huge impact on your emotions, being a season of extreme change in your daily life and relationships. And, with both these things comes the challenge to your mental health.
This isn’t a thing that can be fixed once and for all. It’s situational. At times when life is easy, we feel great. But then, circumstances bring us to the limits of our resilience… and we grow, developing the resources and strength we need to thrive in difficult seasons.
When the pandemic hit, *Holly was in her second trimester. She and her husband began shielding straight away following government guidance, and prepared for the birth of their son.
Trying to take ever-changing restrictions into account when writing a birth plan was tricky. Holly ended out with plans A, B, C, D and E! But when it came to *Amos being born, nothing went to plan. Instead of plan A (a water birth at home), Holly had to go to hospital as soon as labour started and eventually gave birth in theatre. Amos got an infection after the birth, which meant Holly staying in with him on her own for 5 days.
Finally, they were reunited with Holly’s husband at home and began to settle in as a family.
A cathartic process
3 months after she gave birth, Holly met an acquaintance, and found herself telling her birth story in great detail. It was a “cathartic process” for her – she realised she had not expressed the trauma and emotion of Amos’s birth and early days until that moment.
In fact, when we go through any traumatic experience, it really helps to talk it through again and again. To retell the events and the emotions we felt. Without connection to a ready-made community of mums, Holly didn’t have opportunities for this informal therapy.
Realising the value of revisiting her experiences, Holly took advantage of the Birth Stories Service at her hospital. This gave her the opportunity to sit with a consultant midwife and go through everything that had happened. She could ask questions to understand why things happened the way they did. The midwife was able to explain the decision-making process of the medical staff. And Holly was listened to as she shared her concerns about the care she received.
Holly found there was tremendous value in being heard. It enabled her to put to rest the trauma of her birthing experience; to reconcile the events against what she had hoped for. She was able to face and acknowledge the sadness she felt and recognise the things she could treasure.
The price of sleep deprivation
Birth isn’t the only challenge new mums face. When Amos was a few months old, he went through a season of struggling to sleep. Holly walked miles with him in the pram or sling, in all weathers. She had weeks of holding him with barely half an hours’ break. And night after night, she was up for hours comforting and feeding her son.
We all recognise the cost of sleep deprivation on our mental health. And the price was far higher for Holly because family and friends were unable to support her in the ways she most needed. She spoke to her doctor about how low she was feeling – and the doctor told her to get more sleep. Impossible when no-one else can be in your house, and no-one else can hold your baby!
Creative thinking brought some relief to Holly through local friends. One of them would show up on the doorstep at naptime, and take Amos for a walk in the pram. Amos would get his sleep, and Holly got precious time to herself. This became an opportunity for rest, not just physically but mentally and emotionally too.
Holly also began to make regular video calls to family on long afternoons. As well as capturing Amos’ interest, it relieved the repetitiveness and loneliness of life stuck at home. It was an opportunity to connect with someone else and enter their world for a while.
Neither of these things were the solution for Holly’s struggle. But they were a part of her journey to better mental wellbeing – they drew her back from the brink.
Trust in yourself
Another big learning curve for Holly was self-trust. Many mums do lots of reading and research to help them be good parents. Holly was no different! It felt even more significant when so many informal sources of information were hard to reach. But, like *Abbie, she found the books and the social influencers she followed reduced her confidence as a mum. Each one presented their vision of perfect parenting; each had their own theory of how to do it. But which were right? Which were actually achievable for real-life mums?
In reality, there is no right way for most things and very few wrong ways. There’s just you and your child, and what works for you both. So Holly stopped reading books that were making her anxious. She stepped back from social media. And she made a choice to trust her instincts. Even as a first-time mum, no-one knows Amos like she does. She can trust herself to be exactly the mother Amos needs – and seek guidance when she decides she needs it.
A beautiful story
Holly’s journey into parenting has only just begun. Yet, already, she is developing strength and resilience that wasn’t there before.
She has discovered a number of things that are true for all of us for our mental health:
- Telling your story matters. Whether it’s about having a baby or about something else entirely, sharing your journey through a trauma is in itself a cleansing experience. Seek out people you can share your story with – whether specialists like counsellors at Relate, or close friends and family.
- Be creative to get what you need. Sometimes, we might recognise what we need – for Holly it was rest and space – but it seems impossible to find. Yet, with a bit of creative thinking, Holly could carve out a small amount of space to get her through a tough season. It was enough to clear her thinking and give her fresh strength for the rest of the day. If you know what you need, but aren’t sure how to get there, start thinking creatively with your friends & family.
- Notice what undermines your self-confidence and find ways to cut it short. It might mean self-discipline around social media, or perhaps pulling back from some destructive relationships.
Most of all, you don’t have to tackle seasons of mental and emotional pressure alone. Relate’s expert counsellors are ready to hear your story. They can help you make sense of what’s happening in your internal world. And they can work out with you where you want to be, and how to get there. Don’t struggle on alone – find out about individual counselling to draw on our expertise.
If you’re interested the Birth Stories Service in Northamptonshire, visit Bump and Baby Talk.
This is a true story, told during an interview with three mums for Maternal Mental Health week. *Names changed to protect their identity.