By Anna Ceesay
Trigger warning: this piece may be triggering if you’re on your own maternal mental health journey. Please take care when reading it and refer to our Urgent Warning for further support. This content is for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment.
I remember that feeling so well. Waking up every morning and trying to bury my feelings for the whole day. Ignoring my instinct as it told me repeatedly that something was wrong. Carrying on, because, well, I had to carry on. When I hit rock bottom in January 2017 I was looking after a toddler and pregnant with my second. I was exhausted, and scared, and in denial. I’m from the Spice Girls generation. I was raised to be a feminist and thought that I could do anything. I wanted to work hard and be happy. Simple, right? So to have to admit that I needed help, that I couldn’t cope, was a pretty massive thing for me. At the time I felt defeated and weak. I wasn’t an independent woman and I couldn’t look after myself. What was wrong with me?
I know I’m not alone. Many women struggle to speak out about their feelings during pregnancy or after having a baby. Just five months after my breakdown, NCT published their ‘Hidden Half’ research which showed that:
‘around half of new mothers’ mental health problems don’t get picked up by a health professional. This “hidden half” struggle on alone, often afraid to reach out for help or unaware that it is available. Some women feel they have to hide their problems because they see them as a sign of failure or out of fear of having their baby taken away. Some are dismissed by health professionals who see their problems as the “baby blues” – a temporary period of sadness that rarely lasts more than about two weeks after the birth.’
Four years have passed, and thanks to NCT’s brilliant campaigning, it was announced last year (in 2020) that women will get their own six week check with their GP after giving birth (not just for baby). This will hopefully give more women the time and space to be honest about their mental health. But is that the end of the story? I asked Motherdom’s 4000-strong Instagram audience why it’s so difficult to ask for help. Many of the themes I’ve highlighted came up, as well as the following (for sake of ease I have paraphrased these and put in the first person):
- I don’t know what’s available;
- I should know how to do this;
- I don’t want to worry others;
- I don’t want to be a burden;
- It shows weakness;
- If you complain you’re inadequate;
- Women are expected to do it all and shut up about it;
- It shows you’re not enough;
- I’m too stubborn;
- I’m worried it might affect my work;
- I was told I wasn’t depressed enough to meet certain criteria; and
- It makes you feel inferior.
Dr Caroline Boyd is a chartered clinical psychologist who specialises in supporting parents perinatally, from pregnancy to childbirth and all aspects of the transition to parenthood. She told me that there are many fears that can get in the way of mums seeking help, including ‘being judged an unfit mum…or unable to cope. And worst case scenario having their baby taken away.’ That was something I definitely struggled with. I feared my daughter, a toddler at the time, would be taken away from me if I revealed to my GP how I was feeling. But my GP was amazing, and told me I’d absolutely done the right thing by asking for help, and that wasn’t going to happen.
Caroline also believes that there are ‘myths around motherhood’ which she terms as the ‘Supermum myth’. She feels that we’re conditioned to believe that ‘being a mum is natural, and fulfilling, and emotionally straightforward. And that as mums, we’re meant to be calm, and coping, and in control at all times. And I think that ideology really shapes expectations for women… I think that when mums do then struggle, in the lived reality of being a mum, women often assume that there’s something wrong with them, or that they’re somehow failing or inadequate.’
As someone who is on the other side of her experience of maternal mental ill-health, speaking up was the best thing I ever did. It meant that for the first time in my life, I actively took care of my mental health and wellbeing. Two things I really didn’t know anything about before then. Going to therapy was sometimes really hard, and sometimes really fun. I cried and I laughed. I felt a huge catharsis and finally understood that it’s okay not to be okay. I was taught that I am not my thoughts, and that my thoughts don’t need to control me. I would walk out of my therapy sessions with my beautiful little boy in his pushchair, letting the tears cascade down my face and not being ashamed. I’m not a Spice Girl, I’m Anna. I’m human. That was a massive learning curve for me.
One of Motherdom’s readers, Kirsty Woods, also says that getting a diagnosis of OCD after having her baby was a huge relief: ‘I felt I could finally make sense of a lifetime of feeling like I was “weird”, “twisted”, or “secretly a monster”. I started having sessions with a therapist, and it was like removing a cork from a bottle: everything came pouring out, not just about my OCD but with much wider issues to do with grief, identity, self esteem etc. Over the months that followed things started to improve. I began to practise strategies for managing my OCD, and accepted that anxiety and OCD are a part of who I am. I don’t think it will ever go away, but it doesn’t need to define or control me anymore.’
What’s it like for mums of colour to ask for help? Dr Rima Lamba, who is an intersectional feminist counselling psychologist specialising in women and mother’s wellbeing, patriarchy, race, and transgenerational issues, says: ‘South Asian women face particular and unique difficulties when they consider the idea of support in the shape of therapy for example. Cultural messages around honour, shame and the fear of “log kya kehenge” (what will people say!?) will push against the visceral need for help, for soothing through talking.’ She notes that reaching out for support ‘sounds so simple, easy even. And yet it’s far more complex in reality.’
Sandra Igwe, the Founder of The Motherhood Group, which is the coordinator of Black Maternal Mental Health Week UK told me: ‘I think it’s so difficult for mums to ask for help with their mental health, mainly due to shame, fear and the stigma surrounding mental health. Many mothers believe that if they ask for support they automatically become failures and weak which isn’t true. Asking for support is natural, and in fact a sign of strength.’
If you’re reading this and you’re feeling alone, or scared, or not sure what to do, I understand. I know that asking for help can feel really scary, and complicated, and unknown. I’ve been there. Caroline urges mums to understand that ‘it’s so common to struggle, please know you’re not alone. Asking for help shows you’re committed to improving things for you and your baby.’
It is also true that mental health services are under pressure across the UK, and in some areas, don’t exist at all. If you are seeking help with your mental health, you may need to do a little research. Unfortunately, it’s not always straightforward getting help and not all the help that’s out there is suitable for every person. Different people need different kinds of help, and you may have to search for what works best for you. This is Caroline’s advice for what to do:
- Try and think about how much your feelings are affecting your everyday life with your baby or pregnancy. Do things feel unusual for you?
- If the feelings are persisting, speak to a family member or friend who won’t judge you. You could try rehearsing with that person what you might say to a health professional.
- Don’t wait to reach out to professional help. That might be your GP in the first instance, your health visitor, or community midwife.
- Your GP can advise you on the pathways that are available to you through the NHS. She or he will also know about self-help groups that are running locally, and can give advice on which of the amazing mental health charities might be able to support you. The role of the GP is to assess what you might be experiencing, what’s going on including context, and to think through with you where you can get the best help. So do ask them to make suggestions for sources of support outside as well as inside the NHS.
- If you have the funds, and want to explore private talking therapy, you can start by looking at BACP or UKCP.
- If you are seeking emergency support, you can visit A&E; call 999; make an on-the-day appointment with your GP; contact your local crisis team; or call the Samaritans on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org