May 1 2023 marks the start of Maternal Mental Health Week – an awareness campaign the Hector’s House team is extremely passionate about. We’ve asked the wonderful Hayley Anderson to write a guest blog about this important topic. So make yourself a cuppa, have a read and be sure to share with a friend.
Image by Hayley Anderson
Maternal mental health matters more than we think.
It’s one of the key social markers for how well we’re doing as a culture because it has an impact on everyone. Supporting mothers has a ripple effect of support throughout families and communities because mothers are the emotional centre of family life.
The unconditional care and loving hard work that mothers offer their children today directly shapes the mental health of generations to come. This makes supporting maternal mental health important work for our ongoing collective wellness. When mothers are resourced, everyone benefits.
The mental health challenges we face as mothers.
1 in 5 mothers are diagnosed with a mental health condition during pregnancy or within the 1st year of motherhood. During the pandemic it doubled to 47.5% of new mums and it created an ongoing maternal mental health crisis (with a £17.5 billion price tag). Loneliness, isolation and lack of support are experiences for mums and the pandemic, followed by the cost of living crisis has only heightened this.
The transition into motherhood (called matrescence) is a demanding time where our lives change unrecognisably over short period of time. This understandably leaves mothers feeling lost, depleted and uncertain of who they are. When we don’t have a consistent, nurturing support network who recognise matrescence as the challenging time that it is, it’s easy for us to think there is something wrong with us or that we aren’t able to cope. The truth is that matrescence is a messy time for most mothers when guidance and support becomes vital. We simply can’t navigate becoming mothers alone and there’s nothing wrong with us if we found it hard.
Beyond matrescence, there are many unrealistic expectations that then get placed on us as mothers that can each easily lead us into overwhelm; being a good homemaker (cook, cleaner, laundrette, family life admin manager), returning to work with ease, having an active role in school, groups and activities whilst still being a good partner, an involved friend etc ~ the list could go on. During pregnancy our brain gets rewired to care more for others so we are inclined to try to do everything we can on this list and for our children even when it causes harm to ourselves.
Most of us were taught to be ‘good girls ’growing up which means we also learned how to be ‘good mothers’, who quietly and diligently get on with our duties without rocking the boat. In a culture that expects us to do it all and do it quietly, it really does take a lot of courage to admit when we’re not ok and that we can’t do it all on our own.
Image by Daria Obymaha
They say it takes a village and they are right!
Human mothers evolved in intergenerational communities of 50-150 people, so are wired to raise children with the support of a village. Our body, and particularly our nervous system, is fine tuned to keep us and our children safe but it’s important to understand that it evolved to do this alongside many other nervous systems working together. It’s only very recently that it’s become normal to expect a mother to do this on her own.
Experiencing feelings of overwhelm, an inability to cope, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance or emotional reactivity are actually completely understandable nervous system responses to the reality (or threat) of consistently looking after children without a village.
It’s a big ask for mums to build their village from scratch during matrescence and its easy to get diagnosed with a mental health condition when we lack the basic village support we need. It can be a comforting relief to remember that we’re simply not wired to mother alone. When we find mothering hard, we can give ourselves a break and know that we are enough and that we are already doing enough.
Image by Aaron Burden
My invitation to everyone this maternal mental health week is to cultivate some village heartedness so we share some of this load mothers are carrying. The village may not exist as it once did but we can cultivate it in ourselves and bring a slice of it to the mothers in our lives. Ask yourself:
• In what ways do I expect mothers to do and be it all? Could I reframe this from a place of compassion and village heartedness?
• What support could I offer? Where is it easy and possible for me to help? What small way can I share the load?
Ways we can look after our mental health and cultivate village heartedness as mothers:
• Practice daily self compassion and thank your nervous system for doing the job of a village. Know that all mothers find it hard sometimes ~ you are not alone.
• Notice as things start to feel too much ~ are you putting unrealistic expectations on yourself? Look around you, take a deep breath and ask yourself ~ do I really need to do this? is it possible to slow down? can I ask for help?
• Be courageous and resist saying, “I’m fine” when people ask how you are. We all have the power to change the conversation around motherhood by being more honest about how it really feels for us. Shed the identity of the supermum who can do it all and practice vulnerability instead. You’ll be amazed where this takes you in conversations ~ especially with other mums.
• Find ways to be around other adults to give yourself a slice of village as much as possible. Challenges are exacerbated when we’re alone or alone with our children too much. Parenting alongside other adults will lessen your load and improve your health.
• Nourish yourself with healthy, nutrient dense foods so you’re resourced to face the everyday demands of motherhood (ask someone else to cook for you?) Especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Nutritional depletion is often mistaken for mental health conditions as it causes very similar symptoms in the body.
• The best thing you can do for your children is to prioritise your own happiness. Do whatever relaxes you, brings you joy and keeps your spark for life and mothering alive. It’s ok to take time away from your children to do this ~ they will benefit enormously from you returning happier.
Hayley Anderson is a mother working to restore life-sustaining connections between body, cycles, soul and the land that supports us. Through her offerings as a birth story listener, sensory herbalist and fertility awareness method educator, she guides menstruators and birthing people towards easeful fertility cycles and matriarchal post-birth experiences. Her work offers a held space for our fertility, conception, pregnancy, birth, postpartum and matrescence experiences and stories to be witnessed and honoured for the power and significance they carry.