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  • Rosie

The Mother of all Problems; Highlighting the traumas experienced in early motherhood.

Why am I writing this?


As a counsellor I listen to peoples stories and help them to write the narrative they wish to moving forward. I work primarily with millennial clients (born 1981-1996), there is one story theme that I've become more interested in understanding- parenthood. I started working on this blog post back in October 2021 and I had planned to have it written by the end of the year.... Yeah that didn't happen... If I'm honest, I've been avoiding writing it. I wanted to make sure I handled the topic well and felt a bit of pressure to "get it right". But you know what, we don't a lot of the time and actually isn't that the whole point- as Winnicott would say strive to be "the good enough mother". It's interesting I choose to sit down and finally write this as week before Mothers day....


In order to write this I interviewed a number of amazing mothers, all in their late 20s/ early 30s, none of which are past or current clients. I will be sharing parts of their stories but I will keep their identities anonymous. I feel privileged that these women felt comfortable to be completely honest with me about their own journeys into motherhood. My interviews focused on birth and the first few months with their newborn babies. I wanted to focus on the early stages as I feel there is a lot out there about birth traumas but I wondered about the emotional trauma felt in the first few months with a newborn baby?



Birth


The women I spoke to had a variety of difference experiences with birth, planned C section, emergency C section, vaginal birth with and without pain killers and for some of them their babies had to go to NICU straight after birth.

A common theme with C section births is the women tried to feel positive about it, they knew that it is was the right thing to do in the circumstances but there was often this creeping sense of failure. That they hadn't "properly" given birth. I was pleased to hear that in a few different counties the NHS provided an after birth reflections service where a specialist midwife rang the mother and went through their notes and allowed them the space to reflect on everything that happened and how it affected them.


For some women, they gave birth in the pandemic. All their appointments during pregnancy were on their own, any time they had reduced movements they had to go on their own. The start of labour was on their own. They knew this was the right thing to do in a pandemic, but it was scary.

I won't share specific details of the women's birth stories but I was moved by all of them, especially the stories of babies being taken to NICU straight away. I feel a lot of the time traumatic birth stories have become normalised, its common for birth to feel traumatic that I don't think we really stop and feel what that must be like for those going through that. For your baby to be unresponsive, taken away or for the mother's health to suddenly take a dive and be wheeled off away from the partner who’s left holding the baby. Then add on pandemic and some of the restrictions on visitors. Some were allowed partners to visit afterwards during visiting hours only, some weren't allowed any visits.



After birth

The women shared a variety of physical problems people don't talk about. More is being shared and spoken about in the public domain but its not until you go through that thing (physically) that you really realise how bad it is. For example you're told during your pregnancy its really important to do your pelvic floor exercises but not really why, not what can happen if you don't. Then its too late...


There can be a lot of pressure and another assumption that your body will just "bounce back". It can be difficult when other friends bodies do but yours doesn't. One woman shared how she felt she took for granted how fit and active she was prior to having children. Prior to having children you tend to have a lot more time (sometimes not) in order to exercise and keep active. A common theme I found in my interviews was not only the lack of time but often the only time mothers have to exercise was at the end of the day when they are not only physically but also emotionally shattered.


One woman shared how people may say "you look really well" as in have "bounced back" physically but she didn't connect with those words. She said the way we look at ourselves in the mirror is different from the way others look at us. A lot of mothers share on social media how proud they are of their bodies, their scars etc that show they created a life. Sometimes I wonder if there can be pressure to have this mindset but actually it can be really hard to feel that. This is not the body you are used to having, your body has changed and maybe its ok to hold some space to grieve that.

"Having to be in 'mum mode' constantly then makes it that much harder at the end of the day when you look in the mirror and don't see your self anymore."

A few spoke about a lost sense of self and the importance of holding some space to grieve that.



The early days


The most common phrase among the mothers I interviewed "nothing prepares you for those early days". People often joke about not getting any sleep once you have a baby but its so much more than that. Its difficult to describe in words the emotional effect of sleep deprivation. The women described sleep deprivation as overwhelming, being grouchy and then hating themselves for it and low tolerance.

" A rollercoaster of emotions all in the space of 5 mins."

Add on top of this, some of the mothers I spoke to had their babies during lockdown/ Covid restrictions. So there were no baby classes when they were pregnant to prepare them (some online but not the same), no baby classes when they had their baby and then they had limited access to social support. We all know the phrase "It takes a village to raise a child", prior to Covid I feel our "villages" were getting smaller anyway, lockdown exacerbated this. A lot of the mothers did not feel prepared for their babies constant crying and the emotions that trigger within them. I'm not sure whether there is actually a solution to this and a way to prepare yourself for that? I believe the answer is in our "villages", social support is so vital. I don't just mean support where someone else can look after the baby for a while but also providing space to really listen to the mother and validate their experiences. Sometimes just saying "I know, its shit right now" is all you need to hear.



Instant Love?


I wondered whether each mother felt "instant love", I feel there is a pressure for this to be a thing. A lot of people share their birth news announcements on social media with this sort of sentiment. Not everyone felt instant love, I found this refreshing to hear. One shared a feeling of "I cant believe you are here" like they knew this day was coming and then it finally did. I guess a feeling of joy in that moment, something you've been looking forward to finally happening rather than instant love connection.

One woman said she didn't feel instant love, she was petrified of how small her baby was, scared of the first nappy etc. The first feeling was of overwhelming anxiety, scared going to mess up and hurt her baby.


Day 2 crying. That's a thing. Thanks to all the stupid hormones, a lot of women just found themselves crying and feeling like a massive failure on day 2. Great.



Pressure to be able to cope


There's this great pressure that mums feel they "should" be able to do this, to be on top of everything, to know everything. I also found that in situations where the mother was on maternity leave and the other partner was out at work, the one on leave felt they had to take on more of the housework jobs etc to alleviate pressure for the other half, but sometimes at a detriment to themselves. Another mother on reflection felt she may have had post natal depression. At the time their baby appeared to show signs of colic. They described the first few months as really rough. They (like a few others shared) felt scared to leave the house and emotionally ate food for comfort. They became scared of their baby but love grew,

"As the fear subsided it made room for that relationship to then grow and allowed myself to love them".

I asked "when did you first feel like a Mum?", pretty much all did not feel like a mum straight away and some know they are now "mum" but still don't always identify in this way. "I feel like I am acting like a mum but I'm not a proper mum" one told me. I wonder how many others feel this way?



Breastfeeding

I feel there is a lack of information out there about the difficulties with breastfeeding. I've seen some celebrities recently share on social media their difficulties. I think there is an understanding that it can be difficult in the sense that women's breasts hurt or their nipples crack etc. But what about babies that don't latch for whatever reason. Sadly one woman shared with me how their baby had tongue tie but this was missed by the NHS midwives and health visitors until it was too late to establish breastfeeding. A few women spoke about how prior to having a baby they thought people either decided to breastfeed or bottle feed. They didn't think that actually things could occur (such as tongue tie) that would take this choice away from them. For the women who desperately wanted to breastfeed but couldn't, they had a horrendous sense of guilt and failure

"It took a long time for more to stop punishing myself"

There was also a lot of jealousy towards women who were able to breastfeed. On a positive note, one said that the whole process has taught them that they will never judge any parent "getting through it is the main thing" not the method you choose.


Final thoughts


So what do I want the take home message to be from all of this? Becoming a mother (or parent) is transformative. People say having a child changes your life but I wonder how much we really think about this when we say it? How much do we think about the trauma parents go through in those early days? The change of identity, the grief and loss felt that birth, breastfeeding, parenthood is not what they fantasised it would be like. I guess my take home message is we need to really support families, we need our "villages" back because doing it on your own and not having any space to process everything that's happened/ happening is really tough.



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