A couple of weeks ago, on 23rd March, I watched Kate Middleton, The Duchess of Cambridge, speak about motherhood and mental health at the Best Beginnings ‘Out of the blue’ film series launch. The films explore how important it is to be open and receive support for mental health issues, especially during the first years of parenthood.
The Duchess of Cambridge told her audience, “Personally, becoming a mother has been such a rewarding and wonderful experience. However, at times it has also been a huge challenge- even for me who has support at home that most mothers do not.
Nothing can really prepare you for you the sheer overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother. It is full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love, and worry, all mixed together. Your fundamental identity changes overnight. You go from thinking of yourself as primarily an individual, to suddenly being a mother, first and foremost.
And yet there is no rule book, no right or wrong – you just have to make it up and do the very best you can to care for your family. For many mothers, myself included, this can, at times lead to lack of confidence and feelings of ignorance.”
She went on to highlight that 20% of women will suffer from mental health problems within a year of giving birth. I would imagine that the figures could be higher – after all, how many women suffer in silence because they don’t want people to think they aren’t coping or they worry that someone will want to take their baby away from them?
Many more parents feel overwhelmed, isolated, anxious and fearful well into their children’s childhoods.
Kate Middleton’s speech really resonated with me and many of the women in the Unique Mumpreneur network, which is why I wanted to talk about this issue in a blog.
Although I’m sure that mental health problems have always occurred after birth for some women due to the maelstrom of hormones affecting the body, I wonder sometimes if the rates of postnatal depression are higher now?
In today’s world, so much of life is lived out in public view on social media that we are all able to compare our own experience to the experience of others. I imagine most of us have posted pictures with our new babies and growing children, looking – for all intents and purposes – like the perfect, happy family. But it’s a skewed perspective, life through a filter.
We see and share our picture-perfect moments, but how often do any of us really talk about the fear and worry and blind panic that can come with being a parent? Do we talk about being on high alert all night when our baby gets a temperature? How many of us post photos of the tantrums (ours and our children’s) or videos of a school run gone wrong?
Do we talk about how boring it can be to sing the same nursery rhyme for the hundredth time in a row or how you just want to sit in the kitchen and weep as your toddler dumps their dinner on the floor – again – and refuses to eat? Do we let people see how exhausted we are after a year or more of broken sleep, a kind of bone-tired that makes you understand why sleep deprivation is a form of torture?
Probably not, because that would seem ungrateful, churlish, not motherly. And, right now, if the media is to be believed, a good mother is almost saintly in her bliss, holding her camera-ready little one in the arms of her bounced-back-to-pre-baby-body with a smile of endless calm and patience.
It can be absolutely exhausting to chase this ideal of parenthood. Rationally, we know that perfection doesn’t exist and, even if it did, it would look like something different to each of us. How would you even recognise perfection if you achieved it? We’re setting ourselves up for failure if that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mum (but how telling that I feel I must clarify this position before I say anything negative!), but I wonder if it’s a harder job than ever before, simply because there are so many expectations that we place on ourselves and that are placed on us.
As women, we’re told that we can have it all and yet is it really possible?
As the Duchess of Cambridge’s speech highlights, one of the first things that happens after you have a child, whether biologically or through adoption, is that your identity changes to that of ‘mother’. I think many women lose themselves under the weight of that label, whether it’s for a few days or even many years. There’s a huge period of readjustment where you have to figure out how to be a mother and still be you. How do you still occupy the other roles in your life? Wife, partner, daughter, sister, niece, aunt, carer, professional.
Even as things settle down and you become more comfortable in the role of mother, you may feel that you’re constantly having to make compromises that weren’t part of your life before.
A report by the Fawsett Society about Parents, Work and Care: Striking the balance highlights that stereotypical gender roles still persist, especially when we become parents. Mothers still take on the majority of tasks around raising children, from washing clothes and nursing a child through illness to organising play dates and birthday parties. After a baby is born, 29% of people believe that men become more committed to their jobs, while 46% of people believe women become less committed.
The report also shows that men may have to lie more than women in order to take time off to be with their children because many employers are more likely to give women time off in the event of an emergency, often because they perceive that women are less committed to their jobs. In many ways it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People perceive women as the main carers, therefore they get pushed into that role.
The end result is that women often feel like they have to work like they don’t have children and raise children like they don’t have to work. In which case, compromise is arguably inevitable.
“Guilt to motherhood is like grapes to wine.” Fay Weldon
Of course, with compromise comes ‘mummy guilt’, that feeling that we’re letting people down in every area of our lives. Mummy guilt begins right from conception, whether it’s worrying about the glass of wine you had with your Christmas dinner or stressing about what you eat when pregnant. Then there’s the guilt about the birth, how you decide to feed your baby, whether or not you co-sleep, purees or baby-led weaning, sling or pram, too much TV, not enough educational games – the list goes on and on.
And everyone has an opinion. There are so many contradictory voices, no wonder we can sometimes feel paralysed with fear or our feelings of failure. Parenthood has become a competition, but what is the prize? Public approval? The ‘perfect’ child? But what is the ‘perfect’ child? That feels like a huge amount of pressure to put on any person, let alone a baby!
So how can we change things?
As the Duchess of Cambridge said in her speech, “Some of this fear is about the pressure to be a perfect parent; pretending we’re all coping perfectly and loving every minute of it. It’s right to talk about motherhood as a wonderful thing, but we also need to talk about its stresses and strains. It’s ok not to find it easy. Asking for help should not be seen as a sign of weakness.”
The reason I wanted to write this blog is to start a conversation about the reality of parenthood. The truth is that we’re all doing the best that we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Sometimes we’ll feel like we’re winning at this parenting lark and other times, we’ll feel like we’re setting our kids up for years of therapy.
‘Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful’
Our children don’t stand still. Just when you’ve nailed how to manage a pattern of tricky behaviour, your child will move into a new phase and all the goal posts will shift again. Today you might be worrying about fussy eating but in a few years from now you will be debating when to let you child walk to school on their own. There’s always something to worry about but the good news is that nothing lasts forever.
It’s also time to ditch the comparisons. What works for other families may be completely different to what works for yours, and that’s OK. The world would be a boring place if we were all the same.
Instead of trying to outdo one another, let’s try to come together to provide a listening ear and support.
Through the Unique Mumpreneur, I primarily come into contact with women who have decided to run their own business around their families to have more control over that all-important work/life balance. I know from experience that this can be a lonely, exhausting path sometimes, for all its many benefits. One of my hopes in setting up this community, including regular networking groups, is to give you a place to come for support, advice and companionship so that you never feel like you’re on this crazy journey alone. There will be people who are ahead of you on the path – for example, women with school age children who can devote more time to their business – and people who are behind you, such as women who want to change how they work with a view to a future family. We all have something to give and something to learn from one another.
Above all else, if you are struggling with your mental health right now, please ask for help, whether that’s by talking to a friend, your family doctor or reaching out to an organisation such as Best Beginnings, as highlighted by the Duchess of Cambridge.
As mums and as women, we’re stronger together.
Don’t feel you have to go it alone. Join the Unique Mumpreneur Facebook group to become part of a thriving community of women who ‘get’ the highs and lows of life as a mum in business.