This article was produced in partnership with NHS England’s ‘Help Us Help You’ campaign.
"You'll just know what to do."
"No one knows what they are doing."
These are the two conflicting pieces of advice I remember from my journey into motherhood.
The first was said while pregnant as a way of placating me when I had become anxious about the enormity of what lay before me. The second piece of advice was given when I had become a mother and my husband and I had bought our baby home for the first time and wondered openly how we would know what we were doing.
You see being a parent, being a mother, is both instinctively knowing what to do and not having a clue what you are doing – sometimes simultaneously. And being a mother in a global pandemic? That for most is uncharted territory, but those words still stand.
I was no stranger to mental health issues before getting pregnant, which made me more conscious of falling victim to further issues once I became a mother.
The NHS reports that up to one in five women develop a mental health issue during pregnancy or within a year of giving birth. I was no stranger to mental health issues before getting pregnant, which made me more conscious of falling victim to further issues once I became a mother. I am a strong believer in therapy and it saw me through a miscarriage and the subsequent pregnancy with my first born.
While I paid for my therapy sessions privately, the NHS offer free specialist perinatal mental health services that provide specific care and treatment for women with complex mental health needs to support them bonding with their baby. They also offer women with mental health needs advice for planning a pregnancy. These services are accessible on the NHS in every part of the country and the intention is by 2023/24, 66,000 women with moderate to severe or complex perinatal mental health difficulties will be able to access these services, from conception to two years after the birth of their child.
One of the hardest things for pregnant women and new mums during these unpredictable times is not being able to meet other expectant mothers and new mums. During the second lockdown, I definitely noticed more mums strike up socially-distanced conversations with me at parks or in the street as baby classes and parenting sessions go virtual and it becomes harder to see people in real life.
In October, I met Chiron Cole using a social networking app for mums. Chiron gave birth to her beautiful baby girl seven months ago, during the height of the pandemic.
“I was already feeling anxious and overwhelmed by being pregnant and the impending responsibility of raising another human being,” Chiron states. “So when the pandemic hit, I had to really work on not losing my mind completely because everything was uncertain and I like to plan.”
Chiron's biggest fear was being alone at the hospital to give birth.
“The rules about birth partners being present during the birth kept changing and on the day of the birth it was still touch-and-go. Being alone was probably my biggest fear which resulted in a lot of sleepless nights.”
Chiron’s husband was eventually allowed to be present at the hospital she gave birth in and was able to witness the birth of their daughter.
While the NHS aims for women to have their birth partners present during births, it is still best to check with the hospital you are planning on using due to localised restrictions. Mental health is a prioritised concern and enabling birth partners to support mothers is one way of prioritising this. Experiences of birth partners cannot be side-lined, which is why perinatal support is being expanded to partners who will also be able to receive an evidence-based assessment of their mental health and be signposted to support as required.
There are some positives we can take from this enforced time of reflection and stillness.
Being pregnant during a pandemic does not need to be viewed from a fogged-up visor and there are some positives we can take from this enforced time of reflection and stillness. Chiron noted that a pandemic pregnancy gave her the ability to slow down and look after herself.
“The fact we couldn’t mix households was initially a blessing in disguise,” she says. “I am unable to say no and would have been hosting right up until the baby was born. So being forced to be alone meant I could slow down and rest.”
Slowing down gives you time to process the enormity of what is upon you and having a baby is an enormous change to the life and identity of the person giving birth to them. I personally had some uncomfortable thoughts during the days and months after giving birth the first time, including thoughts that I was so useless my family would be better off without me. Suicide is a leading cause of death for women during pregnancy or within a year of giving birth. I believe that a lot of mothers feel that by asking for help or letting others know that they are struggling, others will feel they are a bad mother – I know I did. However, I always verbalised these thoughts, mainly to my husband and therapist but also to the health visitor and my doula.
Chiron also believes mothers should “talk to someone... ideally, someone who has been through motherhood already, that you can lean on for support. Someone who can champion you and tell you you’re doing a great job when you think you’re failing. Someone you can count on in those early days when you don’t know anything about anything and your body feels like it doesn’t belong to you and you’ve got a tiny human attached to you 24/7.”
Despite giving birth in a pandemic, Chiron is loving her motherhood journey more than she thought possible, stating that “motherhood has made me slow down, reassess what’s important and enjoy the privilege of the most insane love I have ever felt.”
It is possible to make the best of times from what has felt like the worst of times for many.
Chiron recommends finding time to meditate (even if it’s while you feed the baby), getting fresh air daily, sleeping (even if it’s just an extra 30-minute nap here and there), and speaking to a therapist or someone else impartial. But whatever helps, mums shouldn’t rush to be back on their feet.
When I was pregnant, I found it helped to discuss my thoughts and fears with a friend or my partner; acknowledging these feelings validated them and gave them less weight. I would also talk to the baby while rubbing my stomach or sitting in the baby’s new room with my own thoughts reflecting. After childbirth, regular skin-to-skin contact with the baby also helped, whether I was breastfeeding or we were in the bath, as did good food, which I ordered in for those first few days.
Hopefully, these tips from two women who have been there will help you to make the best of times out of the worst of times. Remember, Mama, you know what you are doing even when you feel like you don’t. Lean into your instincts and most importantly, know that without taking good care of yourself, you can’t take good care of your baby.
If left untreated, mental health issues can have significant and long-lasting effects on the woman, the child, and the wider family. The NHS offers specialist perinatal mental health services which provide care and treatment for women with complex mental health needs and support the developing relationship between parent and baby. They also offer women with mental health needs advice for planning a pregnancy. Speak to your GP or midwife if you need help with your mental health.
For more information visit the NHS’s information page on Mental Health Problems and Pregnancy.
Header image by Melanie Brown