Why we owe it to mums to ask the tough questions
Written by Amanda Purdie, Amma Manager & Birth Companion
Four and a half years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I suspected even then that something wasn't right. When my mother passed away just a couple of weeks before my daughter was born, I instantly felt a sense of detachment from the growing life inside me. It was as if my brain couldn't process two of life's most emotionally intense moments at once—the death of a loved one and the arrival of someone new. How was it possible that I would soon need to mother a child, having just become motherless myself?
At one of my final antenatal appointments, I broke down. I told my doctor how sad I was feeling about the death of my mum and how difficult I was finding it to process everything. His response? I'm sorry. That must be hard.
He was right. It was hard. But where was the follow-up? Had he dug a little deeper, he might have learned that I had spent the last week in bed feeling completely numb and dreading the birth of my baby. But he didn't ask, so I didn't tell.
A week later, my beautiful baby girl made her grand and rather dramatic entrance into the world. A plancental abruption led to an emergency C-section, so needless to say it wasn't the birth I had hoped for—but she was here, and she was healthy. And that was all that mattered, right?
Well, it sure seemed that way to everyone I spoke to in the weeks that followed. When someone experiences a traumatic birth it's natural to want to reassure them. Our default response tends to be to focus on the health of the baby. And it's true—their health is important. But so is the health and wellbeing of the mother.
When I had my six-week checkup, I put on some lipstick, brushed my hair and did my best to play the part of the happy mum. It was a role I'd gotten used to playing. Visitors would remark on how clean my house was, how well put-together I looked and how easy I made life with a newborn seem. But behind the facade was a mum in crisis. A mum still trying to grieve the loss of her own mum whilst struggling to bond with her baby. A mum who feared she was doing everything wrong. And a mum who loved her baby immensely yet wondered if she'd made a huge mistake.
When I mentioned to the doctor that I'd been having trouble sleeping—even during the night when my baby was fast asleep—I was given a leaflet on postnatal support groups in the area. She then said,"You look great. I'm sure you're doing fine." So away I went, leaflet in hand (and eventually binned), never to be asked how I was feeling.
In the months that followed, things got so bad that I nearly lost my marriage, my sanity and myself. It took my partner months of inisisting I seek help before I finally did. And I can honestly say it was the best decision I ever made. It took awhile, but I eventually discovered the joy in motherhood.
But what about the mums who don't have that person in their lives—someone who can see that they're struggling and encourage them to get the support they need?
As birth companions, we aren't trained to treat mental health conditions. But we are trained to listen, to show compassion, and to never judge a book by its cover. We know that, in many cases, we might be one of only a handful of people a mum interacts with in a week—so if we don't ask the tough questions, who will?
But here's the thing. The tough questions aren't as tough as you might think. Something as simple as "How are you doing—really?" might be all it takes to give someone the confidence needed to share their struggles. It's not about probing. It's about creating a safe space for someone to open up.
As mums, we just want to feel like we're not alone. We want to know that someone cares. And in the moments when we feel like we can't possibly give any more of ourselves to motherhood, we all need someone to lean on for strength. Simply by showing someone your willingness to listen, you can become that pillar of strength.
It all starts with a question.
This post was written to highlight the importance of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week (May 4-10, 2020). This year, Coronavirus has many expectant and new mothers feeling anxious and isolated. Now, more than ever, it's important that we reach out to the pregnant and new mums in our lives to let them know we care.
If you or any mum you know is struggling with mental health, here are a few useful resources:
Perinatal Mental Health in the Time of Covid (Scotland)