Here’s something we all know – parenthood is tough work.
These days, there are so many factors making it tougher for families and the way we raise our children.
It’s not the way we were originally designed to bring up a family, and it seems the strains of modern family life are growing.
The soaring rates of postnatal depression, anxiety, low self esteem, divorce and other issues do not surprise me at all, given we are working against biological programming and the basic needs of new mothers, fathers and their babies.
Going back to 2002 when my daughter was almost 5 months old (and I was 22 years old and feeling completely lost), I came to the realisation that things weren’t as they should be. Thanks to the government's mental health promotion messages at the time, I knew that if you needed help, you should speak up. So I thought about it for a while, and then I did exactly that.
I finally summoned up the courage to speak to my local doctor. I told him I wasn't coping and I am getting no sleep. He simply told me I was just tired, and we all get that. So, that was that.
Despite feeling deflated and idiotic, I managed to squeak out, “I don't think I'm really coping,” to my maternal and child health nurse. She either didn't understand that I was asking for her help, or didn't hear me. Nothing further was said. I had no more courage left to say “I'm not coping” again, to anyone.
I had never felt so alone. Anxiety began to overwhelm me.
I came to the conclusion that maybe I was just high maintenance, and should shut up and cope with what being a mother was all about. Because babies cry and don’t like to sleep, and that’s what everyone is going through, right?
I couldn't believe my eyes when I fit back into the jeans I used to wear as a teenager. I barely ate, with no extra hands around the house during the week. Those in my mothers group commented on how skinny I looked. Yeah, I was on a diet of anxiety and stress.
Until one day, something big happened. I was chatting away with those in my online pregnancy due group, and I heard another mother talk of how fabulous a mother and baby sleep unit was. Instantly, I wanted to be there too. She seduced me with the words she spoke; of having a snooze in the sunshine while her son (who was now in a predictable routine) slept. Wholesome foods were being prepared for her, and she had great support from the nurses and psychologists at the centre.
It sounded amazing – certainly a much better alternative than being an emotional mess stuck at home. I was at breaking point and I needed help.
But unlike the other mother, it didn’t turn out all sunshine and rainbows for my daughter and I. In fact, it was one of my biggest parenting regrets, because it fought so hard against every inch and instinct of what I knew as a mother. I wanted to comfort my baby, as I had been doing all along, not leaving her to cry for a second. I didn't want my baby to experience the con of controlled crying. I didn’t want to be forced to have sleeping tablets, only to be woken at night and my baby brought to me. It wasn't what I expected, and it did my head in. But it was also the beginning of who I am now, and shaped the beliefs I now hold. It was a strong driving force behind the creation of the BellyBelly website.
One of the activities that the mother and baby sleep unit's psychologist gave us was to write out everything on paper, how we felt.
So, here’s what I wrote at the time, while my daughter was temporarily asleep in one of their baby rooms. I just let the words fall out of my mind and onto the paper, as they came.
Writings From a Mother & Baby Unit
I love my daughter so much. I hate doing this to her but I know it's important for her to learn how to sleep. I’m sick of crying and my head wont stop hurting. I’m tired but I can’t sleep. I feel like I am coping less everyday but I want to be able to manage everything better. I know my husband is learning too, but I wish he could help me more. I feel bad asking him because he gets tired and works long hours. I wish I had some support. I wish I had time to sit down and eat uninterrupted. I always feel hungry but it’s too hard to make myself something. I am sick of snacky junk foods, it makes me feel worse. I wish I was a stronger person. I wish I could enjoy hot showers again. I wish I could make my daughter happy.
I wish I was better able to give my husband more attention. I hate it how little things get to me. I hate bottling up all my feelings then exploding at my poor husband. I hope he feels more confident with our daughter soon. I wonder how I will cope if everyone tries to grab and pass my baby around all day at our wedding coming up soon. I hope I don’t get upset and ruin the day for myself. I wish I could go out with my daughter and she was settled. I am sick of being stuck in the house for four months. Writing this is giving me a headache.
I have to get my daughter’s vaccinations done and I don’t want to see her cry. I feel guilty wishing that someone else could take her because I feel like I am the one who should be there for her, holding her while she is upset. I wish I could cuddle her now. I wish I had time to give more attention to our pets. I can’t wait to take my daughter to baby swimming lessons. I want to be a good mum for my daughter and I want us to have the best relationship we can have. Everyone thinks I am crazy to want a brother or sister for my daughter which will be close in age, I think close is better. I feel like everyone judges everything I say and do, so I would rather say nothing sometimes. I feel lonely during the day.
I love being a mum. No matter how bad things have gotten or will get, I will always know that I am so very lucky and happy to have my daughter. I hate thinking about bad things that might happen, all the time, if one of us was to get hurt, sick or as bad as it sounds, if we were to die. I don’t know what I would do without my husband or my daughter. I think I would go absolutely mental. I am tired and I feel nauseous. I am so sick of feeling sick.
So, Where To?
I didn't know it at the time, but I didn't need a baby sleep school. I needed truly good advice from a wise woman.
But when you're a first time parent — let alone a younger one — with no support, you really do wing it and hope you'll survive. With so much conflicting advice online and the pro-controlled crying movement at the time, I felt even more lost when I left.
When you're feeling like this, the hardest thing to do is to ask for help – or even recognise that there could be a problem. I ended up in the mother and baby unit for two long and stressful weeks, when it was designed to be a three night program. I burst into tears on day three when I was told it was time to go home, because I knew I was going back home to more of the same, with no tools or effective ways to cope. So they kept me in and I was put on medication to manage my emotions. I almost died of shock when a psychiatrist was sent in to do an assessment. But this was only because they are the professionals who prescribe the medication. But boy did I feel like a real fruit loop at the time – it didn’t really help my confidence at all!
The mother and baby unit wasn’t the help I thought it was going to be, as there was nothing else they could do to help me. Nothing was working on the sleep side of things, and my daughter fought it just as hard as when we’d arrived. Only I eventually experienced a panic attack, the first ever in my life. My daughter vomited massive amounts (she barely used to spit up, let alone vomit). She lost weight, was almost put on formula, and didn’t smile anywhere near as much as she used to, for a long time. It was like she was miserable and depressed. But I was put on medication, so off I go.
There was no aftercare or help. I rang for help one night when she was crying non-stop — they told me to call back tomorrow as they were too busy. So in desperation I called the government's maternal health help line, who told me it was okay for her to cry in her cot for up to two hours. That's where I called BS and everything changed.
I wouldn’t like to be left to cry for two hours – something would be seriously wrong for me to be that upset. So I made the decision to co-sleep from then on, and I didn’t feel an ounce bad about it. I finally had more sanity to my day, and I finally had more sleep at night. But what an ordeal to have to go through to finally trust my instincts, and do what a mother is capable of doing. My daughter wasn't a problem child, she simply wanted something we all want until the day we die — connection, comfort and human touch. I hate sleeping alone, so did she.
It's Up To You, Mama…
You really do need to be proactive about getting your own support these days — and all mothers do need it at some point and in some form. Be it emotional help, physical help or both. These days, new mothers are more stressed, alone and unsupported than ever. We must build our support networks before and after our baby is born. Here are 6 ways to build your support network after having a baby.
A little gem my mother shared with me long ago was that when you're having a baby (as well as when your children go to kinder or school), these are the best times to make new friends and connections. You really need to take advantage of this, as people are going through what you are, and have the same interests you do – your children.
3 Tips For Getting Help
If you find yourself feeling in an emotional hot mess, here are my top tips to consider, so you can start getting back on track.
#1: Get A Postnatal Doula
Don't have friends or family around who can help you after the birth? Postnatal doulas are mothers' angels, especially when needing emotional or physical support. They are usually birth doulas too, however they have additional training and/or experience in the post-natal period, and may include breastfeeding, counselling, support, massage and can help around the home. Sometimes just having someone experienced that you can call upon for a few hours to hold and care for your baby while you have a shower, listen to how you feel or even do a quick vacuum and dishes can make all the difference. Here are 8 reasons why you should hire a postnatal doula.
#2: How About A Cleaner?
One of the big issues that beats down on a mother's to-do list is house cleaning. Can you spare a bit of money each week and buy someone else's time to help?
Cleaners are totally worth it for your sanity. Don’t feel like you are a failure, or that you should be managing. Remember, we weren’t meant to raise babies on our own, but in a community where we all contribute – because it DOES take a village! In many cultures, the mother is nurtured and surrounded by the community when she has a newborn. So hiring a weekly cleaner for a while until you find your feet, or even on an ongoing basis is a great option. Happy mummy, happy baby. For just $50 or so, in two hours you'll have a clean house and feel so much better. It doesn't matter if you can only afford that monthly or fortnightly – it's pressure off you.
#3: Are You Asking For What You Need?
Sometimes us women can be guilty of expecting our partners to be mind readers. Have you been honest with your partner about how you're coping and what you want or need? Are you afraid to ask, because you're worried he will think you've not “got this” mama business yet?
Family and friends often want to help, but don’t know how they can help you. Or they may have to guess, because they haven't had little ones around in a while. Or perhaps they just don’t know how you're feeling. Don’t feel bad asking for help! They will feel better knowing how they can help you in a way you need, and you will feel better asking for what you need.
Ask them to bring a meal if they come over, or if they can help out with the dishes. When you have a newborn, most people who come over are very willing to help, so make the most of it while it lasts!
#4: How's Your Diet And Exercise?
What we put into our body impacts our body and mind. It can make us tired, or it can fuel us.
Some important things to consider for emotional well-being include:
- Aim to have daily exercise, even a short work. When you move the cells in your body, you'll feel more awake and energised.
- Have daily sunscreen-free sun exposure. Not in the peak heat, but get 15-20 minutes of sunlight per day, for your immune system and emotional health
- Drink plenty of water. If you're dehydrated, you'll feel foggy, unable to concentrate and tired.
- Eat plenty of good fats, nuts and seeds. Get stuck into foods like avocado, coconut oil, almonds, walnuts, chia seeds and more.
- Eat plenty of fruits and veg, in every colour each day. Aim to eat a rainbow – each colour has it's own powerful health properties.
- Protein is important – especially when you're hungry between meals, protein can help you to feel full. A boiled egg is a quick and easy snack.
- Check your iron levels. These can be low after the birth, and your cycle can make it worse. Low iron can make you feel tired and depressed.
Breastfeeding issues have a way of leaving new mothers in an emotional heap.
At the first sign of breastfeeding problems, I strongly recommend that you seek the professional advice from a breastfeeding expert – an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lacation Consultant). Alternatively, call the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) helpline, or equivalent in your country. If you need to seek medical advice, these people will refer you. While I hate to say it, other medical health professionals have very little training in breastfeeding – usually falling between zero to three hours. They do not have the depth of expert knowledge that IBCLCs or the ABA's counsellors have. However, if you need medical help, doctors are best.
If you become a member of the ABA, you will also get connected with social opportunities. As a member, you will receive regular publications, including newsletters of your local group gatherings, which are very supportive no matter what experience you have had, and often have talks on a range of topics. The ABA also offers workshops on a range of topics by great speakers.
Don’t forget to check out BellyBelly’s Top Recommended Breastfeeding Books which are loaded with all the best information around, written by IBCLC’s.
Parenting Classes and Courses
Parenting education is vital in this day and age, because many of us find that we didn't have great role models growing up. Not only that, but we now know better with lots of things too, for example cry it out methods, that used to be all the rage. So we need to support ourselves. The more you learn, the easier parenting becomes, and the less it stresses you out. With more tools in your toolbox, you'll feel like you can easily pick one and deal with the situation at hand. It will also have positive long term effects, as we model what we've learned to our own children. Have no tools, and you're in a screaming heap.
There are a range of parenting classes and courses, just like there are books. Infant massage is a great way to soothe your baby and help with bonding and connection. Pinky McKay runs baby and toddler classes in Australia. A great parenting course for older children is P.E.T. – Parent Effectiveness Training, which gives you loads of great, gentle, respectful strategies. You'll also find the book here.