A recent study into the impact of lockdown on mothers from the Journal of Psychiatric Research revealed 61 per cent of new mums met the criteria for anxiety, largely driven by the high levels of isolation. The impact the pandemic has had on maternal mental health will not be fixed overnight. In an exclusive interview, we chat to psychotherapist Anna Mathur about the most prevalent issues impacting maternal mental health, and her advice on the habits to adopt as we come out of lockdown.
How has lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic impacted maternal mental health?
After communicating with hundreds of women with young babies throughout lockdown, I can confidently say that nobody’s mental health has gone unchanged or unchallenged over the last year. Mothers have shared collective grief that the past year has not looked how they might have hoped when they dreamed about welcoming a baby into the world.
They have been robbed of support, both practically and emotionally; they’ve missed out on many ‘firsts’ shared with friends and family; and many have not had the maternity leave experience of coffees and classes that they might have enjoyed. Without the chance meetings that groups and cafes facilitate, mothers have had to be much more intentional about meeting one another, or agreeing to talk on the phone. And without as many face-to-face appointments with health visitors and midwives, many cases of postnatal anxiety and depression have slipped under the radar.
How does isolation affect parents?
Many mums have said they’ve felt lonely and isolated throughout the pandemic. Face to face meetings bring warmth, the unspoken communication offered by body language and presence.
Isolation provides a pressure cooker for relationships and family dynamics as there is little of the space and natural distance we all need! Many families are reporting that some of the tricky dynamics or irritations have turned from small hairline fractures into big cavernous ones.
Existing mental health challenges can intensify in isolation too. When we are left alone with our thoughts, fear and anxieties, with fewer distractions or opportunities to talk them over, they can grow. Those who are struggling also have fewer opportunities to engage in ‘normal’ behaviours that might help them, such as socialising or using childcare to exercise in order to give them a boost.
During lockdown we all turned to virtual ways to keep in touch, be it video calls or social media – but can this have a negative impact on mental health?
Screens and social media have been a vital lifeline over this past year. Without them, we would have been left without contact and support from those we care about and trust. But what we also tend to find on social media is fodder for comparison.
This is why I partnered with women’s health brand, Elvie, for #TheRealFeed campaign, which encouraged mums to share the realities of motherhood and breastfeeding on Instagram, using the hashtag. To this day, women continue to use the hashtag to share their real stories and images of motherhood in a bid to help combat ‘picture perfect’ parenting.
When all the pictures we see online display success, you feel more alone in your challenges. So when you see Instagram posts of crisp white sheets and milk drunk faces, your bleeding nipples and sleepless nights feel like the anomaly. The gap between how we believe feeding ‘should’ be going (fuelled by social media), and how it actually is going, often lead to feelings of guilt and failure.
I encourage my community to pause and ask themselves what it is they need or hope for when they reach for their phone, and how else might they meet that need. Bored? Perhaps open a book. Isolated? Call a friend. When we’re tired, it’s so much harder to coach ourselves through moments of comparison that undoubtedly arise when we scroll.
How can parents block out negativity and stop themselves from comparing their journey to another family?
Parents receive lots of unsolicited advice from well-meaning family members and bystanders. Just because someone may offer advice or a differing opinion, it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong.
Be mindful of the power you’re placing on the opinion of others. When I get a piece of advice, I imagine holding it in my hand and asking myself whether I want to ‘keep, chuck or save it’. Consider the source of the advice too: was it from a GP, a passer-by, an experienced friend? Was it from an opinion forum or medical website?
Everyone’s parenting journey will look different. Different doesn’t mean that one is right and one is wrong.
When you find yourself comparing your experience with that of someone online, remind yourself that what you see is only half stories. You know a lovely photo on your phone doesn’t mean that the entire day was like that. Whilst our brains are hardwired to believe what we see, we need to intentionally remind ourselves not to compare our behind the scenes with someone else’s highlight reel. This is the message Elvie spread through #TheRealFeed, and I back it 100%.
What advice would you give to parents struggling with burnout after this intense year?
Burnout arises when, over time, your needs are consistently overlooked and your feelings go unheard and unvalidated. Parents have had less support and fewer chances for rest and respite than normal, offering a greater likelihood of burnout.
The true antidote to burnout is rest, and acknowledging the value of your feelings and needs. I know that isn’t easy when you have a young child or children filling every moment of your day, but it’s possible to get rest in small ways.
Start by becoming aware of your needs. As you consider the needs of your child - are they hungry, angry, lonely, tired? Do they need a drink, a snack, a nap? Ask yourself what yours are too and then make small steps to meet that need.
You might not be able to get more sleep, but what can you do less of? What boundaries might you put in place around things that you do purely to please or appease others, or what standards might you nudge down temporarily in order to take some pressure off yourself? Maybe you can delegate something to a family member, partner or friend. It might not be done as well or as quickly, but at times of burnout, reclaiming energy should be the goal, not perfection.
How can parents look after their mental health coming out of lockdown?
As we emerge from lockdown, I encourage you to see it as the start of a rehabilitation! Go gentle on yourself as your diary fills up again. It’s a change, and whilst it might feel like stepping back into some kind of normal, a lot has changed over the last year!
1. When you get an invitation, adopt a pausing technique. Even if you know it’s something you’d love to do, say ‘let me check the diary and get back to you’. It gives you a moment not just to accept on impulse, but to think about the wider plans of your week; how your energy levels might be; and how overstimulated you or your child might feel. It’s going to take some time to recalibrate to the changes, so try not to overload yourself.
2. I also recommend having a few people in your life who are fully clued up on what’s going on behind the ‘I’m okay’. Be open with these select few more often as you transition through this change.
3. If you aren’t feeling yourself, or are feeling consistently low, please do seek support by speaking with your GP or consulting a therapist. This past year will have impacted everyone differently and you’re worthy of support.
What does self-care mean to you?
Before I had kids, I thought self-care was about face masks, long baths and spending time with friends. Then I had children, and decided that I’d ticked the self-care box when I’d drunk something that wasn’t a tepid coffee, showered or eaten an actual meal. I was doing those things yet I still wasn’t feeling myself.
I realised that those things weren’t self-care, merely self-respect. Meeting your basic needs is foundational to good mental health. Self-care to me, is all the things that give me something extra – long conversations with friends, the long bath, the placing of healthy boundaries and investment into good habits.
Acts of self-care we are able to engage in as busy mothers may seem small. Don’t underestimate small things. It might not be a world changer to have a nice long bath, but it may top you up enough to deal with the next bout of teething or curveball. Each act of self-care is a statement of value, which over time boosts self-esteem and confidence, just in the way you gently and lovingly tend to your child boosts theirs.
Self-care gives me the energy to be myself. We need energy for much more than managing the logistics of being a parent. We need energy to laugh, to rationalise anxious thoughts and to feel ourselves.
Anna Mathur teamed up with Elvie for #TheRealFeed campaign to challenge the notion of ‘picture perfect’ parenting. Share your stories using #TheRealFeed on Instagram to be a part of the movement.