So, I’m eating a slice of toast while reading a blog from my facebook page this morning. I can do that now, because my children are older. I can even finish my cup of tea, and make sure that I am wearing appropriate clothes to walk the dog in. I no longer find myself rushing around to make sure my children have their hats and scarves on, and then to go out realising I am wearing no jacket. Putting others first seems to be what mothers do, to the detriment of their own mental health. This is partly related to guilt. Guilt is a big deal in new mothers.
So, as I read this blog about babies’ mental health, I am struck by how easy it would be for this blog to make mothers feel even more guilty. It is littered with phrases such as “what parents do profoundly shapes who we will become” and “early experiences matter – a lot”. It tells us how our handling of our babies shapes their personality, their future mental health, their critical thinking skills and so on.
Then it goes on to say that the good news is that “nurturing strong mental health in young children is not a specific undertaking in which parents need to engage – as if it were a “job” or task. It is how parents are with their babies that matters….delighting in the joy of young children’s daily discoveries”. Well, frankly, that this is good news is debatable. If it were “a task” it would be easier to complete. You could have a checklist in the morning, and make sure you have done your jobs.
- Dress baby
- Feed baby
- Smile at baby and make eye contact
But no. Now, we have to “delight in the joy of young children’s daily discoveries”. Actually, if you have ever tried to get a toddler out of the house on your own, with a baby still in their jumpsuit, having to get to pre-school on time, not having eaten yourself, or finished your cup of tea, with baby sick still on your shirt, and your toddler says “look, a leaf on the ground”, you do not delight in this. You do not feel like cooing, smiling and delighting in your toddler’s very slow progress along the pavement. You grit your teeth and say “come on” in a voice that is far too squeaky, desperately wanting your toddler to move it, so that you won’t be late again.
The blog is correct. It is the delight and joy that people share with their babies, that helps the baby develop. Mother and baby create a “dance” of interaction. With each positive interaction, the baby’s brain fires more neurons, lays down the foundations for feeling loved, trusting and explorative. Nature designed mothers to look into their baby’s eyes and feel joy, for this very reason. But nature did not design us to be able to do this on our own in a rather large, otherwise empty, house. It is not fair to tell a mother who is doing this job on her own, that she “just” needs to be joyful, if you expect her to do a job that is stressful, lonely, unsupported and practically impossible, and then ask them to be joyful while they are doing it. Not only do we as a society do just that, but we then actually have the gall to suggest that if they aren’t joyful they are damaging their baby’s mental health! You cannot feel guilty and joyful at the same time. This is because stress hormones (associated with feelings of guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, worry) and very different to calm and joy hormones (associated with relaxation, mindfulness, connection, warmth, compassion, mutual joy and sharing). Stress cuts across joyful feelings immediately because nature designed us to prioritise being alive over being happy. So if a mother is stressed, she will find it harder to “delight in the joy of young children’s daily discoveries”. When a mother has her baby, she is recovering from a birth physically and psychologically, she is learning to adapt to being a mother (being responsible for a little being, no longer able to put her needs first, no sleep and so on), she is grieving her old life and adapting to her very different new life, she is having to manage the housework, cleaning, ironing, cooking, school runs, worrying about her weight, worrying that her husband still feels included and loved, and so on. This is too much for a new mother. She needs to rest. She needs to be looked after. She needs people around her. She needs her privacy. I have to say, a little part of me envies Mormon mothers (yes, I actually wrote that!). While some people think it dreadful that they should share a husband, I see it slightly differently, because in Mormon households, the mother is not alone. Imagine if you always had other “wives” around you in the house, to help with housework. Imagine if you only had to be responsible for feeding your children one or two days per week, because some-one else is cooking the other five days. Imagine if, when you need a wee, but your child needs to put their shoes on because you are late, imagine some-one saying “I’ll do it, you pop to the loo”. Imagine, when your child has had a dreadful tantrum, and you feel like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards, some-one says “you poor thing. I’m going to make you a cup of tea, and settle your toddler down with a drawing for you”. Imagine, when you are about to shout at your toddler because you are tired and wired, you can turn to some-one and say “I feel like screaming” and she can laugh and say “I know that feeling. Off you go, I’ll spend 5 minutes with her”. Imagine on a day when you have a cold and you feel wretched, a woman says firmly to you “go to bed and stay there. I’ll do this”.
The point isn’t that we should become polygamous, the point is that society needs to look after mothers if we want mothers to look after babies. The research shows us that mothers who feel the “joy” of parenting do a great job raising kids. However, one cannot force “joyful” parenting on some-one, especially not by increasing guilt. You create the conditions for joy. In response to the research, society has to do a great job taking care of mothers. The flipside of joyful parenting is sad, scared parenting. Perinatal mental health problems are on the rise, and we know that this is not good for babies. The government is addressing this by increasing “identification” and “treatment”. This is important, but we are putting sticking plasters on a bigger problem. Isolating and burdening women is the problem. And it’s affecting fathers too now, as they are increasingly expected to juggle full time work, house, children and looking after mum. They are getting sick too.
Stop the guilt. Stop the scare mongering. Prioritise taking care of our families, so they can thrive in joyful, relaxed interactions. Simples.
Mia Scotland, Clinical Psychologist and Author of “Why Perinatal Depression Matters“.