Motherhood and Mental Health

When I was a teenager I suffered from depression, contributed to by a number of difficult situations I won’t go into here, the older I got the happier I got and the more successfully I managed issues which had plagued me.  When I became pregnant I was a little concerned about post-natal depression.  Not extremely so as I felt so much happier and more emotionally resilient, but it was always at the back of my mind. 

However, since having Little M I think having a baby has been had a positive effect on my mental health for the following reasons:

  • I used to spend a huge amount of time thinking about myself, how I could achieve a more satisfying career, travel more, and look better.   I spent a lot of time analysing my relationships with family, partners and friends.  I have always been a person who looks to the future in a rather discontented and restless way.  I definitely became more laid back and less obsessive as I got older, however these kind of thoughts still occupied my mind a lot.  Now I have Little M I have to live a lot more in the present, she takes up so much of my attention.   I currently live in a very much more physical than cerebral way and I think that has been good for me.
  • I have also stopped procrastinating as much.  Now when I have some free time as D is looking after Little M or she is sleeping I have to get on and do something I have wanted to do else the opportunity is gone and I won’t get it back. 

 

  • I always used to find the possibility of death comforting.  Ever since I was a teenager I have thought that if ever my life became too much to bear, too painful then I do not have to continue and taking my own life is an option.  This is not as dramatic an idea as it might sound and has really helped me get through painful times, although I have never got to the stage of taking any action as I have never completely run out of hope.  Again as I have got older I have come back to this idea less and less.  However, on deciding to become a mother I have had to relinquish this idea all together because I have a little person I need to help to adulthood, do my very best to protect and help grow to be happily herself.

The flip side of this is that I have become rather obsessive about my health, something that has never worried me before, as I need to make sure I keep myself alive to look after my little daughter.   I keep imagining little things that are not quite right are signs of something much more sinister.

But on the whole I feel having a child has made me a little bit mentally lighter and live much more in the present.


Giving Birth

I listen a lot to Radio 4 and when I was pregnant I only heard one positive piece on giving birth.  It was an interview with Emma Thompson who said how primal and life affirming she had found the experience.  Otherwise it was about postnatal psychosis, depression, still births and so on. 

I found the same thing when talking to women who had children, they always stressed how terrible the pain was, when the heads out you still have to get the shoulders out and they are much wider etc.   If you look at Mumsnet post birth sex threads you would think one, you will never have sex again and two, your vagina will be irrevocably altered for the worse.  At the other end of the spectrum are women, not that I have met any, I’ve only read about them, who think the whole thing is a wonderful spiritual experience.  Both these positions seem a bit extreme to me.

Of course I can only speak for myself and I know many women do not have positive birth experiences (of 8 women in my NCT group, only one other felt she had a good birth), yet I can’t imagine I am the only women to have found giving birth one of the best and most life affirming experiences of my life.  It would have been great if while I was pregnant I could have heard some more positive stories about giving birth.

 It was very hard work and tiring, that’s why it’s called labour, but I did not think the pain was unbearable and I knew it would end and when it did I would meet my baby.  I was very lucky in that I gave birth in a small birthing unit which only takes two women at a time.  It was like a little community of women supporting women.  I had a midwife with me pretty much all the way through the birth and spent labour from the time I arrived at the unit until I gave birth in a birthing pool, which I found fantastic.   I had gas and air during the last hours and did swear a lot.  Little M arrived at 10pm and by 2.30am we were on our way home, I really liked that, I just wanted to sleep in my own bed. 

Midwives visited me every day for the first 10 days, the first couple of days they spent an hour and a half or so with me helping me with breast feeding.  The help I got as soon as Little M was born and this subsequent support meant I never had any problems with breastfeeding.

It was tiring because my hind waters broke on the Monday (I had not realised there were two lots of waters before this), my due date, but Little M did not arrive until 10pm on Thursday.  I was not in labour the whole time, it started and stopped, but I was anxious because if she had not arrived by Friday morning I would have had to be induced – something I really did not want as I did not want to go to hospital and did not want lots of medical intervention and multiple different people helping me during labour.  Also having very low blood pressure normally it had gone up somewhat in the last week of pregnancy, this came down in the birthing pool, but if it had not I would have had to be transferred to hospital. 

I felt it was a joint effort between my baby and me.  In the early hours of Thursday morning I felt her really kicking strongly and then the contractions started and stayed regular.  In the birthing unit things were slowing  and I was going to have to get out the water, then she really started moving strongly again and my waters broke, once that happened everything really sped up and my second stage was incredibly fast, or so it felt.  When the midwife said there is your baby’s head, I thought, what already, and then with the next push there she was. 

While not particularly fit, I do enjoy climbing the odd hill/mountain and it’s the same kind of exhilaration, only magnified, that you get on reaching the top after a really good climb and suddenly seeing great views.  You feel so proud of your body and so in the moment.   If you are a head person, it is a wonderful thing, because you are so taken up with what your body is doing you have no time to think, you are just in the present and in your body.  It is a very animalistic, instinctive thing and quite wonderful.


On becoming a parent

One thing people with children tend to say to you when you don’t have a child is that you can’t imagine what it is like to be a mother until you are one.  On considering becoming a mother, I felt this was rather patronising to women without
children and on becoming a mother I know feel it is not true.

If you are in any way a thoughtful person, with a modicum of self-knowledge and have ever been in love you should have quite a good idea of what having a child feels like. 

Being more interested in the emotional and psychological aspects of life these are what I spend the most time considering before having a baby, how I would feel, how my baby would feel and think.  So of course there were some things to do with the physical aspects of caring for and having a baby that were surprising – either because I had not thought or read about them or because my experience did not seem to fit with what I commonly heard from other mothers or in the media (especially when it came to giving birth – somthing I write about later).  Aspects of motherhood I worried about and considered carefully included: whether it would feel right for me; whether I would feel trapped by motherhood; whether I would like and love my baby; and whether I should mess with a very happy relationship by bringing a complete stranger into our family.   Luckily my worries proved unfounded and having a child – so far – is very much as I hoped it to be. 

I’m a tired person who likes to spend a lot of time on my own, so I knew the lack of sleep and time on my own would be hard.  I definitely miss my sleep, although strangely I still manage to function.  However loving Little M so passionately means I have minded less than I thought being constantly with her and responsible for her most of the time.  However, now she is a little over a year old I long for some quiet time and time to do other things, including more intellectual and cultural things.

The thing that surprised me most on becoming a parent was how other people feel free to comment on your parenting even if you barely know them and they would not dream of commenting on any other aspects of your life.  Breastfeeding and sleeping are the two things many people, even those who don’t have children, seem to feel free to pass judgement on. 

When Little M was first born it was breastfeeding.  Despite having five children I could not believe how ignorant my mum was about breastfeeding.  She had an obsession with whether I had enough milk and every cry of Little M’s was interpreted as one of starvation.  Feeding on demand was a concept that was met with scepticism.  Also she kept suggesting I should get Little M on a bottle so as to avoid the embarrassment of feeding in public, only I wasn’t the one who was embarrassed.  I have also met mothers who have stopped breast feeding because their new baby wanted to feed every hour or two and they thought this meant they didn’t have enough milk, rather than that this being normal for a new baby.  People don’t really talk about the reality of having a new baby and being a milk machine for the first few months does come as a bit of a surprise if you have not been around babies a lot.

Also having Little M come into our bed in the middle of every night is met with disapproval and something I would have disapproved of before I became a parent– however when you have a tiny little baby who just wants to be loved and cuddled it seems the most natural thing in the world.   I still have not really been able to work out why people object to it so strongly.  Both my husband and I really quite like it.   I have come to realise that my expectations Little M would sleep through the night by the time she was six months old were unrealistic, although health workers and books tell you at six months a baby is physiologically capable of sleeping through the night, they seem to dismiss the emotional and psychological needs of a little baby.

These kinds of attitudes to sleep and feeding make me think western culture sets up unrealistic expectations of what a small baby needs and what can be expected from a tiny new person.  I think this is tied up with our cultural obsession with independence and making our children independent as soon as possible.  This seems both ridiculous and undesirable once you have a baby – how can you expect this new little life who has been part of your body to suddenly be separate from you physically and begin becoming independant immediately.


Why value paid work so much more than child care?

Economic power and the freedom that brings are undoubtedly to be valued by women.  But here I want to talk about the intrinsic value of commercial work vs. that of child care.

In Rebecca Asher’s article some months ago promoting her book in the Guardian , she describes how she felt having a baby pushed her back to the 1950s and that she was the one in the relationship who had to make all the sacrifices:

Abruptly, the severe challenges of new motherhood were brought home to me: the loss of autonomy and the self-abnegation were instant and absolute. The independence, sense of recognition and daily purpose that I’d been used to gave way to gruelling, unacknowledged servitude

My criticism of her position is that she has bought into a patriarchal view of what gives us value i.e. a job with a title which has status and a certain level of salary.  In my experience a lot of time in a corporate environment is spent digging and filling virtual holes.  Most time and effort is taken up politicking, and carrying out pointless tasks that will progress someone else’s career, just to have them canned when someone new takes over.  40% of effort is in taking the business forward and 60% in managing careers and stroking the ego of those in charge.  Effort seems proportionally greater in actually working for the good of the business the father you get away from the power and money. 

Looking after your child does involve a certain amount of monotony and not always being able to do what you want,  however contraception has made child bearing our choice, so maybe Rebecca Asher should have dedicated more time to actually imagining life with a child, surely something not beyond an educated woman, before deciding to have one.  Since having a child, I feel looking after my little girl is an important and worthwhile job –more so than any other I have had because it will actually have a real impact on someone’s life – hers – and hopefully I can help her become a thinking, questioning, and empathetic member of society.  The way every parent of our generation chooses to bring up their child will contribute towards what sort of society we create for our children’s generation.

Rebecca Asher sees the fact women are the only ones physically able to give birth as a negative differentiating factor:

Yet giving birth and breastfeeding permanently define a woman’s life, and differentiate it from a man’s.

Why is this?  I found giving birth one of the best and most life affirming experiences of my life.  I was so proud of my body and on a high like no other for about a week afterwards. It is one of the few new experiences you can have which is like no other you have ever had; it keeps your mind completely in the present and experiencing every moment.  You feel completely of your body.   As for breastfeeding, that was the one thing only I could do and cemented my and daughters unique relationship.  It was something that excluded my husband, however much he would have loved to be more involved at that stage. 

 She also says:

By the time my child was 12 months old, we were all more than ready for me to return to work. I saw that my son was keen to branch out into new environments and widen his circle of friends

Her son is clearly unlike and much more advanced than any other one year old I have met.   I know going to nursery is a necessity for many women, and something I may have to make use in the future – and mothers make the best choices for their children that their circumstances allow.  My problem with this comment is what I find a number of women do; say their decisions are for the benefit of their child rather than themselves.  Why can’t they just honestly acknowledge their position – they find they don’t enjoy staying home with their child and should argue that if they are happy their child is likely to be happier, something I would agree with.  Instead they move the responsibility onto their babies saying they need to be socialised.   I have yet to find any research which supports this idea for young babies.


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