‘Baby blues’? Let’s stop belittling the suffering of new mothers

‘Baby blues’? Let’s stop belittling the suffering of new mothers

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As a society, we struggle to empathise with the mental health problems of motherhood. Mothers and children pay the price

Mother comforting her newborn baby son in a nursery.
 ‘Those who haven’t had children sometimes can’t see what the fuss is about … Everybody has a mother – how hard can it be?’ Photograph: Monkey Business Images/Getty/iStockphoto

Sleep deprivation. Paranoia. Panic attacks. Extreme mood swings. Social isolation. Depression. Anxiety. Neural damage. Cause for concern, surely?

But what if it’s as a result of becoming a new mother? In that context, is your opinion different? You know about motherhood beforehand, and it’s short term. Women can prepare for it, and it’s not that big a deal. Those who haven’t had children sometimes can’t see what the fuss is about. Some who have, and did not experience many problems, think those complaining about it should just pull their socks up. Everybody has a mother – how hard can it be?

Blogs such as Hurrah for Gin and Selfish Mother are breaking down the stereotype of the “perfect mother”, but they can overstate the alternative as louche and fickle. It’s still perceived as a smug club. Yeah, we know it’s hard, but nothing a double gin won’t solve. There is a social knock-on effect, though, of not looking after a mother or those around her, especially for her child.

For most people who have a baby, it is inconceivably hard. Modern society protects us from most of the ravages of nature – serious illness, cold, discomfort and pain. But in childbirth and looking after a newborn, we experience the harsh realities of our basic existence; we get closer to our primal selves. And we’re not used to it. Coupled with this, a lack of social support structures means women often end up isolated and struggling. As a facilitator for Mothers Uncovered, a Brighton-based charity that focuses on the mother rather than the child, I see it all the time.

It may be short-term, but the consequences can be long-lasting. For some people the cosily named “baby blues” doesn’t go on for two weeks, as the NHS suggests it will. Mothers interviewed for our book, The Secret Life of Mothers, talk about a range of problems that simply start in the first few weeks. One, known as G, says: “It is known that mothers suffer from depression, but they talk about that straight after you’ve had a baby. A year later you’re a bit out on your own.”

Statistics vary, but between 50% and 90% of mothers experience the “baby blues”, and one in 10 suffers postnatal depression. And between feeling tearful and overwhelmed (“I’d hand her to my partner, rush off to the bathroom and sit there crying my eyes out,” says B) and severe depression, there is a spectrum of mental health problems that deserves attention, such as anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. These have an impact not only on the mother but on her parenting. They can affect her ability to bond and engage with her children, fracture their future relationship and damage her relationship with her partner. “Over the first year I was neurotic, demanding, moody and aggressive,” another mother told us. This is not a small, niche group. Half of mothers experience an emotional or mental health problem that could go on to have long-term effects.

The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen talks about an internal pot of gold, an inner resource that helps us through life, that we get from a parent in childhood. Stability in the first few years offers this internal resource that children can draw on later. If we acknowledge that the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial, we need to start valuing mothers to stop exacerbating the mental health crisis in our young.

According to the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), half of mental health problems in new mothers go undetected. Nearly two-thirds (60%) of mothers said their six-week check with the NHS was focused mainly or equally on the baby. Half of those who had an emotional or mental health problem that they wanted to talk about didn’t feel able to. Many said the health professional didn’t seem interested.

The Mothers Uncovered support network in Brighton.
 The Mothers Uncovered support network in Brighton. Photograph: Kerry Ghais
Women are too often afraid of looking like a failure, of having their baby taken away. They feel that they should be coping, as everyone around them appears to be, and feel inadequate and guilty if they are struggling. Almost all the women in the groups I run find it a revelation that other people feel how they feel. They had thought that they were somehow at fault.

There are ways to help. A proper six-week check for new mothers would cost £20m a year – a drop in the ocean, considering maternal mental illness in the UK costs £8bn a year. We can also destigmatise not coping. We can examine the language we use in relation to motherhood, such as “baby blues”, which belittles the suffering many experience; we could stop calling women “Mum” as soon as they have given birth, taking away their name, and with it their identity and sense of importance. We can reach out to new mothers around us, and accept that even if a woman plans for and loves her baby, if she is suffering, whether it is temporary or not, it is no less valid.

Things are changing. The NCT says that specialist services such as peer support are hugely effective, and can make the difference between a woman coping well and “sliding into serious mental ill-health”. Giving women permission to think about themselves, as we do at Mothers Uncovered, can sometimes be all it takes.

Politicians are starting to wake up too. In May 60 MPs and peers wrote to Steve Brine, the minister for public health and primary care, to demand a mental health check for new mothers. Awareness is growing.

As a society we are starting to empathise, and to appreciate that the mental health problems mothers experience are as valid as any other – but it is hard if we haven’t been there. “I remember going to see a friend of mine years ago who had two gorgeous children,” says G. “Lovely husband, lovely house and she was depressed, and I remember thinking, ‘Why are you depressed? You’ve got everything.’ But now I understand.”

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