Q&A with Rosalind

Q: I have a friend who seems very anxious after having her first baby. How can I help her?

Becoming a mother for the first time is a fairly harrowing experience for many. The birth may have not gone as planned, and many mothers feel upset and troubled by their experience for some time. Some women grieve the loss of a natural childbirth, or they may feel traumatised or helpless following a frightening or concerning experience.

Regardless of birth experience, there is little time to regroup afterwards, before being discharged. No-one is given a manual about parenting, and the days of huge families where the older children had a lot of involvement with the younger babies are long gone. So we have to learn as we go, by trial and error. If we ask Dr Google, there is so much conflicting advice, of varying quality, and everybody seems to be an expert with their opinions weighing into the scheme of things, making us feel stupid and lacking.

The new challenges can feel overwhelming

Establishing feeding can present a range of issues, and little babies often are difficult to settle, causing the long nights to seem sometimes like torture.

Advertising causes us to imagine how things should be ‘yummy mummies’ tossing satisfied and just washed babies into the air, with shafts of sunbeams and joy. These ads might sell formula and nappies, but they sure make us feel savagely inadequate when we haven’t been able to shower for a couple of days and the baby just will not stop crying.

Partners and husbands may feel less connected as they struggle to ineptly help with the baby, or show less than ideal amounts of consideration and empathy. Perhaps we might even turn ourselves into their housekeeper/servant because after all, they are earning all the money at the moment and we are not working!

To add to all of this, we may have pre-existing anxieties and nervousness or sensitivities. We may have things we hated about our own childhood experiences and be determined to do differently, scared we will damage our child’s psyche as perhaps, we ourselves, might have been hurt.

Anxiety is very common for new mums

All of these factors add anxious layers to the way we engage in parenting, and react to our experience. Anxiety can build, making us increasingly reactive and brittle. There may be doubts creeping in about how the parenting is going, and some even question whether they are being good enough mothers. This is frightening territory and further exacerbates the anxiety, sometimes into panic attacks. By this stage, sleep can become affected, and even though the mother might be exhausted, she may lie awake in a state of exhausted alertness. There is a lot of fear about developing postnatal depression, and new mothers frequently report feeling secretive and shamed by their emotional fragility.

In my experience, anxiety is really common in new parents. This can build into feelings of fear and being overwhelmed, and cause people to start shutting down, avoiding friends and social functions, and opportunities to connect with people. Some become slaves to rigid routines that aren’t portable; they become stuck at home feeling isolated and out of the normal pace of the world.

You can help with some simple support.

It is great that as a loving friend you want to help your friend. Starting at the practical level, you could offer to come over for a visit. If she lets you, offer to hold baby whilst she showers and maybe has a nap. You can help her tidy the house. Hang out and don’t expect her to be a livewire. Offer to do some shopping for her. Maybe get a few of your friends to remember to keep her in the loop as many get on with their own busyness after the initial baby showers and birth acknowledgements recede.

Mother’s Groups can work for some

Some mothers might require more organised, professional support. If she is normally a sociable person, perhaps encourage her to join a mother’s group. Research consistently shows that therapeutic groups are highly effective for mothers in the perinatal period. In a safe facilitated environment, concerns can be normalised, people can feel that they are not alone, coping skills can be discussed and taught, and frequently women make friends that last through the lifespan. Babies are generally welcomed and these groups can be accessed by contacting the local child health centres, asking local midwives, or through GPs. There are social groups online on Facebook, and some private Psychologists run them as well.

Not all women like group therapy. Some feel the need for privacy, or others get too concerned about other people’s problems. In this case, encourage her to get a referral to a Clinical Psychologist, or Perinatal Psychiatrist.

If you feel you are experiencing any of these symptoms don’t hesitate to contact Gold Coast Psychologist Rosalind Philp on (07) 55 911 411 or via email on the contact page.