How to be a happier mum
Everybody’s selling happiness this season, but what to do if you’re just not feeling it? Words by Louise Chunn.
Having a baby and becoming a mother is a major — scratch that, the major — change in a woman’s life. But that doesn’t mean that it always leaves you feeling as euphoric and proud of yourself as you were when you first set eyes on your little one.
It doesn’t help that just as you’re see-sawing between emotions according to your new baby’s sleep patterns or your toddler’s ability to cause chaos, the world appears to expect your new mum status to constantly render you Happy, with a capital H. Or that everywhere you turn – from Holly Willoughby’s Truly Happy Baby to Fearne Cotton's forthcoming Happy: Finding Joy in Everyday and Letting Go of Perfect – there are bubbly guides trumpeting the buzzword of the moment.
When every other mama appears to be on top of her game it can make the rest of us panic that we’re not channeling those happy clappy vibes 24/7. But esteemed psychotherapist Susie Orbach doesn’t even think that happiness should be the goal for any of us; it sets too high a target and leaves us feeling disappointed or judged, rather than finding equilibrium in our lives.
Boredom-busting as it, is social media can play havoc with our sense of wellbeing. Too many modern mums feel a pressure to be “perfect” – and is it any wonder given the constant flow of Instagram and Facebook posts raving about how easy-peasy this whole parenting lark is? Admit it, you feel like crap sometimes, no matter what filter you put on your life.
But that’s only natural, you’re learning how to do this new thing — being someone’s mum. Or, if you’ve got more than one, you’re freaking out about how you’re ever going to get through the next day. You shouldn’t feel bad if occasionally your smile slips. Show me a mum who can cope with everything, without ever feeling overwhelmed or angry or sad, and I’ll (ever so politely) call her a liar. Mums don’t not want to admit to feeling like that, but I believe that your mood often lifts if you get it out. Have a good cry, phone your own mum or a friend or sister; just don’t sit there beating yourself up for not being that unbelievable mother that no-one actually is.
For a small number of mums, the low points or teary days can turn into something more serious. But for most of you, it’s just worth knowing a few tricks that should keep you afloat through the tricky times.
A new you
When you become a mum your brain behaves differently as a result of the changing hormone levels in your body. It’s why you feel overwhelming love for this tiny newborn you have never seen before, but feel absolutely nothing for someone else’s baby. But hormones are also why you might suffer from depression or anxiety. Think of PMT and treble it.
Last year, (2016) for the first time, brain scan research on a group of new mothers up to two years after birth showed that having a baby actually changes a woman’s brain, and that some of it is permanent. The grey matter is reduced in some areas to allow a mother’s brain to focus on empathy and understanding another’s needs. In other words, your brain is making you a better, more instinctive mother.
But you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to understand that the effect of pregnancy and then birth has kick-started something profound in your body. Quite often you'll fix on the effect on your stomach or boobs, but really it’s your brain that is the prime target. It’s not so different from falling in love, but the fierce object of your attention is a baby for which you feel huge responsibility. Naturally, this can sometimes feel too difficult a task.
One of the things that can happen to new mothers when their emotions are rocky is that they don’t want to leave their home. Sometimes they may say that they don’t want to take their baby out in the world - filled with germs and noise, but often they are the one who is feeling a little frightened and reclusive. It can happen to anyone, so don’t be surprised if suddenly it hits you too.
You don’t have to swing straight back into your old lifestyle, but it is important that you don’t lie low for too long, especially if you start to show signs of anxiety at being around other people or in unfamiliar surroundings.
Ask a good friend or understanding relative to come with you for a short walk or out for a coffee. You might want to warn them that you feel a little wobbly when outside your home and that you may suddenly want to back out. This is not the time for a Saturday morning in Top Shop. Keep it short and local and don’t set the bar too high for what you will do, or how many others are involved.
Author Rachel Kelly who suffered mental health problems after the birth of one of her children says that she has learned to treat herself like a slightly neurotic dog. Don’t laugh! It makes sense. Be careful with things like coffee which can heighten anxious emotions, and alcohol, which – after the initial release of inhibitions - can leave you feeling low. Rachel, along with nutritionist Alice Mackintosh, has recently written a book about how eating and drinking the right way can make a big difference to your sense of wellbeing and your actual mental health. It’s called - yes, that word again - The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food.
A couple of other simple points to remember: grab sleep wherever you can find it. Looking after a baby is hugely disruptive of your regular sleep patterns, everyone knows that. What many people don’t seem to realise is the extent to which emotional troubles can be soothed by sleep. Being sleep-deprived can make you feel like you’re hanging by your fingernails from a precipice with no safety net in sight —- but a couple of hours of good, deep shut-eye, and life can look entirely different. If you need to park your baby with someone else to make that happen, so be it. Sleep rules.
And if you can’t sleep or relax, why not try some mindfulness techniques? It’s not just a trendy hashtag; mindfulness meditation practice is clinically proven to help against some types of depression, without needing any extra exercise gear or even leaving your kitchen. There are lots of apps, such as Headspace and Calm, and many books including Spilt Milk Yoga by Cathryn Monro, which focuses on finding your way through motherhood, and The Mindfulness Key, by Sarah Silverton. The important thing is to use mindfulness techniques if they suit you, and if it’s not for you, chuck it aside. Don’t let it become something else to beat yourself up about.
Talk to others
If, however, you think you may be suffering from PND, it’s important that you speak to someone. It might be a friend or relative, it might be your GP or a therapist. You would seek advice if you thought you had broken your toe; why not if you are crying, feeling estranged from your baby, or having even worse, potentially dangerous, feelings? For many new mothers, the shame and the stigma of mental illness holds them back.
“I didn’t want to admit it to anyone - that after all those years of wanting a baby so much, I couldn’t deal with it, I was utterly miserable,” said one friend of mine, remembering the months of secret agony before she finally reached out to a friend.
As Sarah McGuinness, a therapist on the welldoing.org site has written,”Having a baby is always a huge adjustment and like any significant life change it can be very difficult. Unfortunately motherhood is often portrayed as something that women should take to easily and enjoy, which means that the many women who struggle with it feel a sense of shame and failure and find it hard to ask for help. It's crucial that more women feel able to acknowledge their difficult feelings as with the right help and support most will recover well.”
In addition to friends and professionals, there are also networks and groups that can help with support and advice, from skilled organisations such as Bluebell and The Smile Group and national charities PANDAS and APNI. For some new mothers, just telling another person how they feel will help them turn the corner, but others may need more help.
What won't help
Blaming yourself is a complete no-no. You’re not at fault, and beating yourself up will only make you feel worse. If you have had any previous history of depression, you are more likely to struggle with depression after your baby is born, whatever you do. And with all the changes in your body, post-natal depression is a fairly common side-effect of birth.
Steer clear of the “brave face” or “mask” school of coping. You may fool your friends and family, but isn’t that exactly who would want to help you if you let them know? Remember, too, that negative feelings - such as you are “failing” your baby or worries about harming your child — can all be dealt with by seeking help from therapists or other experts. Lots of new mothers seek help in this way, and the vast majority wish they’d done it sooner.
And once you are feeling better, remember that being a mother is a long road with many twists and turns. It’s only logical that not every day will be sunny and filled to the brim with happiness. If learning how to cope with the downsides is part of becoming a mother, it could be one of the most valuable skills you ever learn.
Louise Chunn is the founder of therapist website welldoing.org and a former editor of Psychologies magazine.