Why we should be reaching out to mothers and birthing people when we talk about mental health
“It’s more important than ever that we speak about the mental health problems birthing people face at all stages of pregnancy and to end the stigma that keeps these issues perpetually swept under the rug.”
By Francisca Quádrio
Five new parents meet for tea, dying to know about each other’s first weeks of parenthood. Some of them are delighted that their children sleep like angels, others complain about their partners. Yet, one of them has a secret, something they are reluctant to share with the others. They’re suffering from the symptoms of postnatal depression, and for various reasons many are too scared to ask for help.
Although this particular situation is fictional, its reality is not. In the UK, one in five people develop a mental health problem during pregnancy or in the first year after giving birth, and many are afraid to speak up about it. We have all heard comments such as, “They’re just sensitive” or “It’s just their hormones” when responding to an emotional new or pregnant parent, but low or antagonistic moods during the perinatal stage should not be taken lightly. Pregnant people and new parents are at a much higher risk of experiencing mental disorders and now more than ever during this time of isolation and lesser resources, it is so important to raise awareness of this issue and check in on the wellbeing of new and expecting parents.
While many people are familiar with the concept of postnatal depression, fewer are aware of the depression experience at other stages of pregnancy (see above). Furthermore, people are rarely in the know of other mental health conditions that pregnant people can also experience. These can include severe depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder and postpartum psychosis. These are realities that tend to be evaded rather than addressed.
“I feel that society gives us a message that we must be perfect mothers so many of us struggle in silence,” admits Catherine Mousley, a mother who fiercely advocates awareness of perinatal mental health through her social media, ‘Maternal Mental Health Project.’
“We often feel like our own issues in motherhood are not normal because they feel different from what others convey. We don’t think it’s normal because nobody speaks about them for fear of being labelled not normal. We fear judgement and we fear finding out that we might be isolated in those feelings, when in fact, it’s almost always entirely the opposite.” She adds.
ONLY THE BABY MATTERS
As Catherine mentions, a reason why parents may play down their own mental health issues is not only because of the stigma that surrounds mental health but also because of the pressure that is put on parents to be “perfect”.
“People are scared to reach out to talk to someone like me, a GP or their midwife,” Jodi Pawluski, neuroscientist, therapist and mother of two tells us. “They don’t want you to think they are not doing well mentally because there is such a stigma.”
“This has set the bar for the level of perfectionism we’ve been told we must reach and anything less isn’t good enough rendering us feeling thoroughly inadequate.” Adds Catherine.
A lot of people find childbirth very traumatic, but they are not given an opportunity to explore their feelings or to talk about their experience because “a healthy baby is all that matters”.
“But what about the mum?” asks Jodi. “Mums are there too, they are not just incubator ovens. They are not just producers of babies, they are human beings.”
How are we as a society still expecting people to raise children, new human beings, if they are not given adequate support to do so? There may be no better person to listen to about the complexity of the issue, than a mother who has been there through pregnancy several times before.
“Maternal Mental Health is a family concern,” says Sarah Lajeunesse, mother of three. “And if it was discussed more as a family issue, it would certainly get more attention.”
“We spend a lot of time looking at how mums’ moods and their depression affect their babies but we don’t spend enough time really focused on mums,” comments Jodi. “I always believe that if we can actually prevent maternal mental illness or if we can effectively treat the mum then everyone is going to be healthier.” She adds. According to the RCOG’s Maternal Mental Health – Women’s Voices report across almost half of the UK pregnant people and new parents have no access to such care.
BREAKING THE STIGMA
It is important for society to start accepting that mental health is physical health and that’s why discussing this subject is extremely important. “Wider conversation means breaking the silence and it helps to end the stigma. It supports a change in attitudes, promotes self-awareness and results in a greater sense of self-acceptance.” Catherine says.
Talking about these issues will hopefully make it easier for parents around the world to open up about their own experiences and struggles. And with the current pandemic situation the world is facing, it feels, now more than ever, important to check in on new parents and on how they are doing.
ISOLATION AND PANDEMIC
“One of the struggles that many mums deal with is feeling isolated,” admits Sarah. “Now we have taken mums in this vulnerable situation, having a newborn baby and told them they have to stay home.”
Beyond the already potentially stressful hospital experience, this pandemic increases feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and even loneliness. “A lot of mothers are feeling very anxious about giving birth… potentially alone so that in itself is huge,” comments Catherine. “Appointments being cancelled or rescheduled can really make a big difference to someone who is very worried about the health of their baby.”
This pandemic makes it so much harder for pregnant people and new parents now that their stress-management techniques like support groups, enjoying the outdoors and having time to decompress alone are all gone. Many of the things that bring them peace and happiness have been taken away from them and as for now, without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the situation looks quite dark.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
“Yet, it’s important for mums to understand that there is a range of emotions at this time and that’s okay,” advises Jodi. “What’s not okay is if they are prolonged and you feel like you are overwhelmed and you can’t cope. Then you should speak to a health professional about it.”
It’s always a struggle to feel like you are doing a good job as a parent when you lack assurance and are constantly putting yourself down, aiming for perfection. All the amazing mums I have spoken to have shown us how there is no such thing as a perfect parent, but a strong one who is not afraid to speak up. “Be confident when everyone wants to tell you what you should be doing,” advises Catherine. “This is YOUR motherhood. Own it.”
The Other Box: Parenthood: A Facebook group for parents who feel like their parenting/carer story is left out of the mainstream narrative. For parents who identify as “Other” in any way.
Preparing for Pregnancy as a Non-Binary Person: Preparing for pregnancy as a non-binary person will involve a few extra steps to ensure your mental and physical health is supported throughout the process.
Mind Helplines: Provides information and support by phone, email and text.
The Association for Post Natal Illness: Provides support for women experiencing postnatal depression. Call 020 7386 0868 or head to their website.
Birth Trauma Association: Provides support for anyone affected by birth trauma, including partners.
Pink Parents: Information for gay and lesbian parents.
Featured Artwork by Julia Hutt – IG @joolsannie