I was on BBC Southeast News this week. Don’t worry if you were bellowing at the kids to stop fighting and missed me, it was only about fifteen seconds. They’d wanted a mother to comment on Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party Conference. I’d been hesitant to jump into the fray, knowing that as a member of the public you are powerless in the hands of the editors, with their need for an ‘angle’.
I decided to do it because anybody talking about what women need in the way of support when they become mothers is a welcome thing. And I did talk about it, although it naturally got edited out, mothers never being very newsworthy, unless of course they’re celebrity mums and have lost all their baby weight five hours after giving birth.
In our society the focus shifts from mother to baby at birth, leaving many women feeling isolated and unable to process the experience they have just been through. In addition they have to care for a newborn when there is no infrastructure in place to care for them.
Like many women, I had focused solely on the birth of my child, not seeing that my life would be changed forever from that point. I remember filling out that peculiar little form at my six-week check that included questions such as, ‘Have you ever felt like harming yourself or your baby?’ I didn’t feel that, but who would want to tick ‘yes’ to this and have herself branded as an unfit mother? To admit that you are finding so difficult what many thousands, including your own mother, have done before you. That this longed-for bundle of joy should be so daunting. Add to this the stigma that still exists around mental health issues and it’s no wonder the feeling of panic sets in. When you are exhausted and tearful and all the mothers around you seem to be coping better, you don’t want to sit in a busy surgery and define your state of mind. The very phrase ‘post-natal depression’ is depressing! The Association for Post Natal Illness estimates that it affects between 70,000 and 100,000 women and their babies in the UK every year. It is rightly called ‘the silent epidemic’.
After my second child was born, I set up Mothers Uncovered. It is a creative support network for (mostly new) mothers. I thought it essential to have a Mum and Baby group that wasn’t entirely focused on the baby. Of course the participants talk about their babies, but it is in context of the whole person, because behind every mother is the woman she has always been. The participants are from all walks of life, backgrounds and cultures. Motherhood might be the only thing they have in common, yet they listen respectfully to each other, recognising their similarities and differences. They are all delighted and grateful to be mothers, but they need an outlet for the feelings generated by the enormous event they have experienced. In the sessions, they are interviewed, keep diaries and take photos to celebrate and mark this point in their lives.
Nearly all the mothers I have spoken to in the last few years have felt they couldn’t find an adequate outlet for their feelings at the beginning. Of course bringing up children is hard, but there is something about a mother’s state of mind in the months following the birth that sets it apart from the challenges faced later on in parenthood.
What I would have liked Miliband to promise in his speech is not wraparound care for parents of school-age children (not much help in enabling women to work if you have a younger child at home) but equal weight being given to the post-natal period as to the pre-natal, with regular appointments allocated at baby clinics for new mothers. They wouldn’t be obligatory of course, but it needs to be realised that the mental health of a mother following a birth is as important as her physical health beforehand. There is a cost implication, but a mother who feels supported will surely relate better to her baby, which would benefit families and society in the long-term.
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