Maternal Mental health week this year is themed around ‘Journeys to Recovery’, symbolic to the unique navigations women and families have needed to tread in becoming parents across the course of the Pandemic. I have written on this topic earlier in 2020- see article here – outlining some of the risks themed in becoming a mum and highlighting some practical steps and supports available. At the start of a new maternal mental health week, I wanted to focus further on what some of the challenges faced by women have been, myself included, with three myths I have regularly encountered professionally and personally – Sameness/ Knowing all, Doing all and Fixing all; and how life may be helped a little if we look at some alternates to each. In a sense, this article is taking recovery from the origin routes of society and blocks with beliefs/ thoughts, actions and feelings, and setting some practical approaches to assist.
- The myth of Sameness and knowing-‘All Journeys are the Same’ and ‘I can understand what you’re going through’
There can be a great role in knowing the stages of pregnancy and birth so that one can be observant and have a little less uncertainty to the steps approaching. This is the role for informing, NCT classes and pre-birth reading. However, within every labour and new arrival there is a unique set of crossover experiences and interpretation of the experience. Taking birth – it could be early, on time, delayed; timing of labour can be vastly different; the degree of pain and pain management options may vary significantly; complications to delivery and type of delivery -vaginal, assisted, caesarean, combination of all three can range; location to birth- home/ hospital/ birth centre and who is present -birthing partner, one midwife to a team of professionals may all alter…the list of factors is endless. We can forget sometimes that while the factors – a delivery, location, pain, people supporting - may all be themes, the differences can be dramatic in events, and our experiences of events. The same applies to parenthood- there are themes- practical tasks, emotional bonding, social and identity changes, impact on couple and family dynamics- but the unique blend to any parent remains unique to them. Great difficulty can emerge when we think we know- as we inevitably may not.
While my other article emphasises the focus on awareness of shifts and changes in wellbeing the other side to support comes in not knowing too early. Systemic family therapy emphasises the value of not knowing and not being expert- to acknowledge a family system and the knowledge that resides within it. In simple terms it is a reminder here of the importance when knowing steps of a path, not to believe one knows what another experience’s too early– but to be curious with them.
Countless times I have had therapy clients note the gap between what someone else felt their experience was to their own reality. While we are reminded that trauma is subjective to experience- that two women may objectively have the same events occur in labour, but one will have PTSD and the other will not,- the same applies throughout parenthood. I am quite passionate of the caution carried by those supporting the bereaved in not sharing self-disclosure of own bereavement in the caution that it could silence someone else’s description of their unique experience and personal connection to grief. This really applies to birth and parenthood- which together with joys brings plenty of losses too for previous ways of being. Of course, informed sharing may help- the role of community connection to the same themes of change -but it is important to notice and be curious, and hold that curiosity, as is comfortable, for longer.
An alternate approach for this area is to appreciate BOTH the similar AND the different- reviewing themes and acknowledging what specific unique triggers may feel difficult. Recognise what is different in your own experience, or the experience of someone you are supporting and how that may be a specific and ongoing concern for them. Rather than saying you understand to another – or to yourself- paraphrase back to clarify / reflect further with oneself and be curious of other angles to the picture. This comes too with a caution of considered curiosity- sometimes it may be sufficient to appreciate one does not know all, one may never be able to collect all facts and the specifics perhaps do not matter – but appreciating being alongside yourself or another, rather than guiding knowns as ‘all known’, is important to not feel fixed.
- The myth of doing it all / ‘You can have/be everything’
Society has carried forward the halo of ‘you can have everything’ far too long. Behind it can lurk the reality of ‘you will feel you need to do everything’- a very different experience. Power and privilege varies dramatically – and at the outset I better get my own outrage on the table for the discrepancies in maternity and paternity arrangements. It is very difficult for any couple to have everything when the system supports only one wage earner – and the system doesn’t support that wage earner often as needed. And then not everyone is part of a couple- and not everyone has enough income at all. Women’s experience can also feel multi-layered- as a gendered expectation to be a caretaker and a generational expectation to be a paid employee come head-to-head. Compassion fatigue, the experience of exhaustion through caring too intently for too long is known to contribute to depression and anxiety- and we can see the environmental stew here for this toxic mix. I could even coin in ‘toxic femininity’. While reframing thoughts and getting support through mental health are so very important if low mood or anxiety take over- arguably a journey to recovery starts proactively in acknowledging at the outset- it is all too much.
For this section I will give an informed place of self disclosure, as I believe it may act as a personal example, and my recognition of my own mistaken alignment to this ‘ability to do all’. Over the course of my maternity, I was headhunted for a role that would act as a promotion and significantly impact my career development. It felt an opportunity I could not miss- and I cast aside that of course this may come forward at the exact same time as parenthood, as well that it fit with age and timings. If I could just juggle for a little bit the reward would come later. Cue not also wanting to leave a previous role- juggling two positions plus baby and umpteen health concerns for baby and in the family that I could never have anticipated. I recently resigned that other role. My settlement to myself was a proof I could do it- but a recognition I did not want to do it anymore in a way that meant I was no longer present with myself. If I could go back to myself and ‘not know’ I may have asked myself more questions on ‘why now’ and conclude a part fear in needing to be everything.
Presence comes only with prioritising to anything. I love the quote ‘You can have anything- but not everything’. My story is a privileged one still, some people may not be able to leave roles too, there may be a need to make ends meet with work and childcare simultaneously. The truth of not expecting more of yourself is important- realities are mums remain one person, adding a baby is a full-time role and time does not shift that you now have double the energy and resources- your options after efficiency are boundaries- and giving yourself as a parent a break. Alternatives here to doing all is choosing priorities, holding dreams under flexible time frames and a heavy dose of recognition of all done daily as a mum to harness the understanding and self-recognition around accomplishment.
- The myth of fixing all / ‘ Once I know x I will never make a mistake again’
After convincing ourselves we believe we know the journey, we have all the information and we can do all the tasks the last -and perhaps hardest- myth that I wanted to reflect on is our belief that we/ or the person we are supporting won’t make mistakes, or if we/they do, we/they will never make the same mistake again. The judgement this carries is of aiming for perfect and a ‘fixed mindset’. The challenges this further leads to is reduced creativity, learned helplessness and self-critique.
In much child psychology two core reflections I retain are the idea of rupture and repair and Winnicott’s ‘the good enough’ mum. As a parent mistakes to cues occur more often than getting it right, but getting it right is not the important bit- it’s how you make it up afterwards. Similarly, Winnicott noted through good enough that there is no role for perfect. Take the example of attending always to every need of a child immediately- in the longer term the child may no longer learn the skills they need when life will put forward other people that are not as immediately attentive.
The want to fix and be right is understandably strong, it is evolutional to want it to survive. I think this myth falls on two key underpinnings, our fear of the unknown and our need to be thought of as good by others and ourselves. For the first I attended a great set of talks on uncertainty – which is the undoubted one element of parenthood shared by all mums and parents. The task considered repeatedly was not to remove uncertainty, but to live alongside- not knowing, not expecting (as the other myths) and not judging ourselves- which links to the second part of the problem.
An antidote for this myth is ongoing compassion and acceptance. Distancing oneself from an event and considering how this could happen with ongoing positive regard for yourself or the person you are supporting and an acceptance to growth mindset in making more and more informed mistakes/ but understanding that good enough is the best one can achieve anyway.
It is interesting to me to reflect on the journey of parenthood in pandemic somewhat differently two years on- and yet the same. Reflecting on my two articles together I believe in the unity of the first linking the facts and reflections and this article prioritising further into core reflections and process. I think a key caveat between is the step beyond the fear-pandemic parenthood is uncertainty amplified. In the calm of a moment between coming back to pragmatics, the twists of this journey can only be assisted by reflection, prioritisation, recognition and compassion. I have attached also a sheet with a few key questions to link into this. Please use this alongside wider support as prompted in my first article and know I wish you and those you support all the best on onward steps to toddles.
How it Challenges
Suggested Reflections/Tasks to approach
Sameness and Knowing
‘All Journeys are the Same’
‘I can understand what you’re going through’
Stops another/ one’s own expression/connection to one’s own story
Curiosity, (attentive listening) and Reflection
Revisit any expected journeys- how was becoming a parent different to what was expected? How did that challenge you? How may it continue to challenge?
How is your experience of parenthood like other family and friends?
…how is it different?
>clarify understanding especially triggers
‘You can have/ be everything’
Exhaustion/ Anxiety circuit
Compassion Fatigue and Burnout
Prioritisation and boundaries
What can be let go of or delegated? e.g., cleaning
How can timeframes be adapted?
Recording and validating what doing daily/weekly/monthly as a parent
>Increased presence and appreciation
‘Once I know X I will never make a mistake again’
Learning and Limits
What are my strengths? What are my challenges? What can be learned from mistakes to date?
What is a balance to how I provide care? How may a friend provide care differently?
Notice repair moments as much as rupture
>Acknowledgement of strengths, learning mindset and increased compassion
Article author - Dr. Camila Fadel