I lost myself during my first year of motherhood. There was always noise, and I was always busy, and yet I felt lonely. My daily disruptors included extreme tiredness, raging hormones, painful breasts, and my soundtrack was the constant whirr of the food processor. I felt like I was living someone else’s life. I was overwhelmed with love for my baby, William, but that devotion and desire to be perfect was edged with fear – and the worst part of it was the judgment I felt from some people around me.
In lucid moments, I understood the external pressure on me (and all of us) to mother a certain way, to follow a parenting trend, to compete ferociously with other parents, or to worry over and exaggerate every milestone, growth spurt, change of plan or expedition, was bullshit. But it didn’t make it any easier to cope with at 3am during a frustrating night feed, or during an exchange with a haughty older woman in a coffee shop.
When I started researching statistics for my new book, The Zen Mama: Your Guilt-Free Guide to Raising Brave, Kind Children, I discovered I wasn’t alone in struggling with my identity and happiness during my first year of parenting. A 2016 report by NHS England, revealed that up to one in five mothers experience problems such as postnatal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The ‘baby blues’ is not simply caused by hormones, but by many different factors including feeling unsupported by friends and family or doubting our own ability to be a good mother, with chances of depression increasing if a mother has a history of mental health problems. The shock of a new little person’s arrival, studies prove, hits as hard mentally as it does physically and socially, often more so.
From personal experience I know that if you’re ever going to negatively question yourself as a human being, becoming a mother seems to be the time. With approximately 665,000 births a year in England, which means 66,500-133,000 women a year develop problems, there has never been a more crucial time for women to support each other, offer encouragement instead of judgement, and accept a new mother for the type of mother she wants to be instead of forcing her to an impossibly high standard, and allowing her to create her own identity. Yet collectively, as a society, we’re doing the opposite.
And depressingly, in her essay, Mothers and Mental Health, published in 2018 by The Health Collective, Vandita Morarka highlights how mental health issues around motherhood aren’t short-term either. In fact, the negative external pressures a woman feels around her identity as a mother increases as her child gets older, as the set ideas of socio-cultural influencers like family, peers, and the media – who have constructed an acceptable idea of what a mother should look like and how she could do better – makes her feel increasingly like she’s not doing the best for her offspring. So we chase our tails, anxiously trying to become this role of a perfect mother who doesn’t actually exist, with terrible consequences.
Havovi Hyderabadwala, a clinical and forensic psychologist, speaks of ‘supermom syndrome’ and how this constant striving for idealism leaves women mentally and physically weakened and disabled in the long run. ‘The mothers who live by “shoulds” and “musts” tend to burn out faster than the ones who allow themselves to make mistakes and acknowledge their limitations,’ she argues. Of course, it’s natural that mothers – especially first timers – are nervous about making mistakes, but the internal pressure they are under will take a toll, causing her to lose or gain weight, become sleep-deprived, feel sad, and suffer with mood swings. Studies show how encouragement, wisdom and a fair dose of honesty about the journey will help mothers find their feet with your new identity.
Ultimately, I survived my first year with my son by interpreting the ancient rules of Zen Buddhism for modern motherhood and for me: trusting my instincts, silencing critical unhelpful voices from strangers, social media or even well-intentioned family, and even quietening my own negative inner voice who doubted my abilities. I found time to be alone and relax, focusing on the things the pre-mother me had always found bliss in (reading, long baths, nature walks), and I dropped the lies and illusions sold to us about what it looks or feels like to be a perfect mum, and contemplated my own route – what was best for my mental health and my child’s.
Five mental wellness tips for surviving new motherhood
- Acknowledge the major life transition you’ve gone through. Ask yourself questions. Who am I again? Why do I feel so different? How can I feel less anxious, tearful, tired?
- Don’t live vicariously through anyone else – celebrities, your friends on social media, your kids! Make your own news and events. Keep your mind engaged.
- Don’t allow yourself to be lonely. Talk to people you trust and can help. Your doctor. Your midwife. Your partner. The friends who have your back and understand the mothering experience. Connect with people who are also first-time mothers. Sharing your thoughts will make you feel less isolated. Asking for help is not a show of weakness. It takes a village, remember.
- Show yourself compassion. Be a friend to yourself. Give yourself a break. If you haven’t got dressed or washed today, who cares? What would you say to a mate who told you this? You’d say ‘don’t worry about that! You have so much going on! It’s not important.’ Talk to yourself kindly.
- Make time in the day for enjoyable things that make you feel like the real you. A warm bath with relaxing lavender or uplifting sandalwood essential oils; a five-minute neck massage from your partner; half an hour with your Kindle. Get outside. Fresh air and sunshine will boost your mood. Studies show that even moderate exercise is as effective at reducing mild depression as medication, while Vitamin D will help you sleep soundly by resetting your circadian rhythm and boost your ‘happy hormone’ serotonin levels. If stuck at home, turn on some music and dance, a fun activity that according to the New England Journal of Medicine keeps your brain sharp while it is strengthening your stamina, bones and muscles and gets those endorphins rushing.
The Zen Mama: Your Guilt-Free Guide to Raising Brave, Kind Children (Piatkus) by Sarah Ivens, is out now.