This week is maternal mental health week. I’ll be quite honest I didn’t even know this existed until I just spotted something on my Instagram feed a few moments ago. But I am ready to jump on board and educate myself and maybe others out there too because maternal mental health is so incredibly important and so often overlooked.
Things are getting better, no doubt. There is general awareness of post-partum depression and an understanding that baby blues can be a normal introduction to motherhood for many but that’s about it. There isn’t a whole lot of awareness of maternal mental health beyond the initial crash course in ultimate responsibility for another person that occurs in those first months or so after birth. But, being a parent is relentless and so are the emotions that rotate around that. How I feel about motherhood can be as complicated as the little beings I have brought into this world. It can be joyous, satisfying, entertaining and so much more but it can also be lonely, frustrating, repetitive and downright miserable.
I had a not great moment earlier this week when I snapped at the toddler, who was hovering around my feet in my microscopic kitchen as I was trying to serve up dinner, which involved balancing plates on the microwave, the fish-tank belonging to the fish we are looking after for our nursery during lockdown, trying to get hot things out of the oven while carefully pirouetting around the planets we painted earlier as part of an ongoing solar system project we are working on.
I told her to go away. It’ s a thought that often pops up but one I’ve never expressed, at least not audibly, before. Her response was to collapse on the floor sobbing. This did not help me complete dinner preparations but did ramp up my guilt-o-meter another thousand per cent! Kids are amazing at knowing exactly which buttons to push. After some cuddles, an apology on my part, pretty sure the niblet had forgotten what I said within ten minutes but the scars of that encounter are still uncomfortably itching all over me.
I can’t say I didn’t mean it, I absolutely did, at that moment I wanted nothing more than for her to go away. What a terrible thing to say to your child and what a terrible mother I must be for not only thinking that but actually expressing it. I shamefully shared this episode with a friend whose response was so brilliant I’m going to quote verbatim:
‘Imagine how awful it would be to have perfect parents, there’d be no validation of uncomfortable feelings or modelling how to feel shitty and get through it. But yeah, it’s tough on us when we swerve out of the ‘parent I want to be’ lane and into the ‘I’m still a human fucking being let me breathe’ lane.’
As soon as I read her message the truth of her words rang out like a bell. Of course I am not perfect and of course I am not going to always behave as a perfect mother but that doesn’t make me any less of a mother, if anything it makes me more of one. Letting my kid have a glimpse of the turmoil inside from time to time isn’t going to break her, or destroy our relationship, it’s laying the groundwork for a future connection that goes beyond the ‘she’s my mother so I love her’ and will hopefully one day translate into a solid understanding and acceptance of the she that is me including, but also beyond, being ‘mummy’.
Looking at the episode through a lens other than I’m a failure of a mother, I could tell you that my child was ignoring me as I asked her to give me some space, I snapped in a way that was emotionally hurtful, I recognised my mistake and the upset I had caused and apologised for that while reassuring my child that my love for her remained unshaken and unconditional. That’s not so bad.
My mother used to jokingly say to me and my brothers
‘If I can’t be a shining example let me be a horrible warning’.
I would laugh but never really thought much about it until, well, now really, but I realise that like all good comedy there is a marked vein of seriousness in it (essay title from school in relation to twelfth night, feel free to discuss in depth in the comments) and that there is a value in demonstrating a very human wide range of behaviours veering from the exemplary to the ‘don’t try this at home’.
My daughter has started telling me multiple times a day, and now I think about there is a clear correlation with the commencement of lockdown, ‘don’t worry mummy!’ At first I laughed, wondering where she was getting this from and then I started to become a bit anxious about why she was saying this so often, was it just because I usually reacted in a good humoured way, did she sense that I was constantly worrying about something or other, was I failing as a guardian supposed to shield her from negativity at all times. She also constantly seeks to reassure the cats who clearly are very worried every time she approaches, especially when they are on the bed and she is bouncing her way towards them, ‘don’t worry cat’.
Recently she has added to her repertoire ‘are you okay mummy,’ and there is no mistaking this, she genuinely seems very concerned whenever she asks that. When she asks doesn’t seem to correlate to any particular stresses, take this evening when I left the table to cut up her kiwi fruit and she’s calling through to me in the kitchen, but she probably is picking up on the fact that I am more stressed and anxious than usual.
We are in an intensely stressful situation, there are other concerns on top of the pandemic, and I am with my children all the time so I cannot keep my shield up at all times. But now I am thinking I should stop trying to. Yes, I want to be able to reassure my children, I want to protect them as much as possible from the drama unfurling outside but cocooning them from negativity won’t do anybody any good. Inevitably it will seep through the cracks that are increasingly becoming apparent so surely it’s better to occasionally address some of these issues rather than getting out the emotional gaffa tape and bubble wrap and hoping for the best.
Curiously, when it comes to their wellbeing I am much less cautious with my children physically than I am emotionally, not reckless abandonment style but I am happy letting the kids explore, run around, climb about and anticipate the occasional scrape and bruise as part of the learning process. So why is it then I can’t think the same way about their emotional development? Sure there may be the odd stumble and fall but it’ll help equip them with the ability to make their own decisions in the future about how best to safeguard their wellbeing.
I realise now I had meant to write about my own wellbeing and have wandered into that of my children but I am starting to see that the two are interlinked and that this isn’t as dangerous as I had feared. So much of who I am gets caught up in how they are doing, relaxing a bit on this front will benefit them and give me the headspace I need to concentrate on myself from time to time without the constant nagging guilt that so often accompanies that.
I love my kids, I also love me, that should work out well for all of us.