Nine years ago, I gave birth to my first child, and realised, through my own sense of adjustment (at times panic, fused with relief; joy and despair combined), that I felt profoundly psychologically altered. I spoke with friends, other new parents, many of them also colleagues in the field (counsellors, psychologists, doctors and midwives), and it appears for many, the arrival of their new-born meant they became visitors to a strange, unfamiliar place, where the language was untranslatable and even left one mute.
As Rachel Cusk describes in her book A Life’s Work - On Becoming A Mother: "Birth is not merely that which divides women from men, it also divides women from themselves so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed."
Once I had navigated this unfamiliar place called Motherhood, and could speak the language better, I returned to professional life as a psychotherapist and became determined to explore the possibility of providing emotional and psychological support to new parents, mothers and fathers in equal measure, and create a space that was progressive and supportive, a place for companionship and company, and a way to share, identify with and even normalise that which might feel abnormal in a context where there seemed to be an apparent conspiracy for mothers to be "doing well", and babies to be "thriving", all set against a backdrop of developing trends for raising children as promoted by so-called experts.
These experts appeared to occupy divided camps such as ‘Attachment Parenting’ versus ‘routine-led’, ‘breast is best’ versus ‘formula milk efficiency’, and I felt angry by this unnecessary division, and realised how damaging it is to new mothers, often already crippled with self-doubt. Mind & Baby was born in 2009, as a way to encourage a rejection of these developing, and at times destructive, trends for parents, and instead, both strengthen individual autonomy and individual experience, and also help parents get back in touch with instinctive processes.
I receive enquiries from GPs, from health visitors, obstetricians, midwives and even family members I have spoken via phone to concerned relatives, who sometimes look for reassurance that despite baby behaving and developing ‘normally’, mum is “..at sea..” and “…we want to help her to dry land”, as one eighty-two year old great grandmother poignantly put it.
I believe passionately that in the pre and post-partum period clients appreciate the opportunity for talking therapy as it can be a space for understanding, validation and emotional nourishment, where chaos can become calm and feelings of isolation move towards a new sense of connectivity. It is my hope that more funding will be put into Parentcraft sessions to allow for a more psychological focus around the whole birth experience, and that ante-natal departments are allocated more mental health midwives.
It is vital for the next generation of children that we get away from the ‘How To’ manuals that bombard today’s mothers, as the child’s long-term development and social wellbeing is naturally dependant on their ability to care.
With the effect on cuts to services, and government welfare and tax reforms, families are currently vulnerable and stretched in all ways, and I am certain that when intervention is made available early in the path to parenthood, the systemic family unit becomes healthier and stronger, and society reaps the rewards with a generation of emotionally well adults who pass on the legacy of secure attachment patterns.
I not only receive referrals from mothers and couples together, but also from new fathers, which is perhaps indicative of just how big the sense of aloneness and emotional adjustment can be for many men, when baby arrives, and when they feel that their psychological needs are not, indeed cannot be met in the new family system, and their anxiety does not seem justified set against that of their partner who has given birth. Both Post- Partum Anxiety and Post-Partum Depression are now terms that are used in conjunction with the male experience, which is certainly a positive, but there are few collective places to discuss this openly and yet societally we regularly hear of new parents engaged in the competitive tiredness battle when baby makes three.
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Before baby comes along
I have a special interest in supporting women through the third trimester when antenatal depression is likely to increase as Oestrogen levels peak, keen to provide a space for them to explore fears and concerns about the impending arrival, (or arrivals in the case of multiples), changes to identity and physical self, and of course the event of birth itself. Indeed, this may involve working with clients who have a more severe presentation such as Tokophobia and so may benefit from Graded Exposure Therapy.
An exploration of physiological processes, of somatised changes, neuro-biological shifts and hormone fluctuations, can also be a useful psycho-educational approach to strengthen what midwives and ante-natal teams are already doing so well.
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After baby comes along
Sometimes prospective clients will get in touch once baby has arrived, as they experience feelings that they are reluctant to express to their GP or Health Visitor, scared they will be labelled or pathologized in terms of being part of a PND ‘club’. These women may have at times destructive thoughts about their baby, about their mothering, and so they become concerned that this must surely mean they do not love, or even want their child.
It can be equally hard for a health visitor to assess how a woman is feeling, and what she might need, if that woman is censoring her thoughts, convinced that her child will be taken from her. Motherhood ideally can create a sense of belonging; a belonging to self, to the father of the child, to the new triad, to the wider family history past and present, and also to community, but for many this sense of ‘belonging’ may not come until much later.
For mothers who have lost their own mothers, either through death, toxic relationships, or simply geographical distance, this can have huge impact on the psyche and how they can mother as the ‘motherless mother’. I personally cared for a terminally-ill parent whilst pregnant, and grieved with a new-born, but despite all the clinical knowledge, intellectual understanding and emotional scaffolding around me, I had to accept that this had a profound effect on the early time with my child. I hope that as an Integrative therapist, I can help shape and support the client’s reality, give permission for a mother to say the unsayable, and explore the impact of past childhood experience on the way the individual then parents. In the groups I ran, where women fed and rocked, cried and also laughed, there was the vital opportunity for identification, where new mothers fed off empathy and new truths.
Bottle-feeding mothers would express that they felt ostracised by seemingly exclusive breastfeeding support groups (where was their intimate contact once a week with a loving midwife and the provision of a still-hot cup of tea?) and breastfeeding women shared stories of feeding in filthy A and E toilets to avoid receiving equally filthy looks from waiting patients.
Clients who have become parents for the second time, are still surprised, shocked even by their own sense of needing to adjust and acclimatise, and themes of abandonment can arise, as they speak about betraying their first born, in order to replenish love for the new baby.
Many women describe how they attempt to negotiate through the conflict of changing identity and self; how being with baby they somehow don’t feel quite themselves in the low-status occupation of motherhood, but in the approved world of work and career they are also not themselves, so they are constantly see-sawing between the infinite primary connection being wonderful and validating, but also strangely suffocating and depleting.
Compared to in Europe, where women are cossetted and cocooned by surrounding matriarchs after giving birth, here in the UK, women are pressurised to repair quicker, often without such support, and neurotic, even paranoid thinking patterns can become a distressing reality for the post-partum mother, and thoughts that she can feel most alone with as she attunes herself to her baby amidst this fog of unbroken sleep.
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Pregnancy and loss
In a world where motherhood is idealised and medically we are primed and conditioned for birth better than ever before, women speak about wanting a sense of autonomy and control in pregnancy, birth and beyond, and it is hard to sit with the unknown.
For some couples, sadly shock and trauma become the ‘known’, as they experience the loss of a baby, either in pregnancy, or in terms of foetal demise. For these couples not only is counselling beneficial in order that they can process and comprehend grief, but also to reconcile to a new reality.
This can often be described as an all-encompassing emptiness, living still with the physical loss of the pregnant state, an impending due date and the surrounding presence of new mothers and babies. This therapeutic space is complex and highly individualised, and counselling can often be long-term.
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Lucy Theo, an accredited BACP member, has worked extensively as a counsellor in private practice and other settings, including alongside midwives and paediatricians in an antenatal unit. Through Mind & Baby she offers pregnancy and postnatal support to individuals and couples, and in group workshops. Engaging, encouraging sessions allow clients to gain confidence and understanding in order to appreciate life with their babies and the journey into parenthood. Lucy is also a parent and believes passionately in combining the knowledge she has gained from both her professional and family life to make Mind & Baby work for individuals and their new families.