I read something a few years ago that really surprised me; in the UK, the leading cause of death for new mothers is suicide.
I was shocked by that, but why? I’ve been a new mother to five new humans, and I know just how hard and amazing each and every one of those experiences was. I have spoken to many friends who found the early days tough, but not many of us shared that with each other at the time.
For some they blamed themselves for not having an instant bond with their baby. For some they felt overwhelmed by the guilt that they could not live up to some fairytale ideal of parenthood. For some they became seriously ill with depression and were too frightened to ask for support for fear that their baby would be taken away. There were so many different ways that these women had punished themselves and blamed themselves for being imperfect.
I always say imperfect parents are the best parents, because there is a secret to parenting; there is no such thing as perfect parenting. If you think you are the perfect parent then by definition you are imperfect since you’re clearly not trying hard enough. Good parents try, and people who try sometimes fail. You can’t escape the laws of the universe.
Guilt is a parent’s companion. It follows us around. I feel guilty if I don’t let my children have any chocolate, because it’s a nice treat. I feel guilty if I let them have it, because sugar is the root of all evil. There is no right way and no wrong way, and as with most things, everything in moderation is good advice… unless you’re talking about giving your baby opiates or alcohol, and even then that’s fine if you’re living in the 1930s.
There are so many shades of grey. There is so much uncertainty. I was going to write this article about being an autistic mother, but whilst there can be additional sensory difficulties, challenges with change to routine, difficulties communicating needs to health care professionals and so on, there are so many more commonalities across the neurotypes, and so that it isn’t my focus here.
Today is Mental Health Awareness day. Support for those with mental health problems in the UK is currently shockingly poor. We are seeing standards of care slipping, we are seeing people with serious mental health conditions being sidelined and ignored.
There is no focus on preventative treatment and the treatment for those who are in serious need is lacking.
I’m still shocked by that statistic about new mothers, but then I remember the nights of exhaustion and despair. I remember those nights when I was the only one awake in the whole world (or so it felt), and my baby, who was supposed to love me above all others, screeched at my ineffectuality, and I had slept a total of six hours in half hour increments over the past five days, and my nipples were sore, and my hair was greasy, and nothing felt like it was mine anymore, and I didn’t have the capacity for full rational thought, and the whole world was telling me how happy I should be, and I was telling me how happy I should be, and I hated myself for not being happier, and the crying kept punching into my ears with each breath she gulped down, and I started crying with her, and she wouldn’t feed, and she didn’t need changing, and I had already walked around in circles for miles, and I couldn’t risk taking her out in the car because I was so tired, and I didn’t know how to ask for help, and I didn’t know if morning would ever come, and I didn’t know if I should wake my husband because he was tired too and he had work in the morning, and it was all so bloody hard.
And those times passed, and they were not forever, and they are not my main memories of my gorgeous and perfect babies. I remember the rush of love they gave me and the softness of their skin and their smiles. But oh how I know where too many nights like that could take you; where too many messages that you are imperfect and failing if you are not blooming and joy-filled can take you; where too many opportunities to reach out and speak are lost to assumptions that everything is wonderful now, can take you.
Parenting is hard. It is rewarding and amazing, but it is also hard. To any mothers caught in that beginning bit, that moment of unquenched turbulence, you are amazing and it does not last forever. Things do get better and things do change. Don’t be afraid to talk to people about it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If there’s no one else awake, The Samaritans are always there to listen in the UK (google will point you in the right direction if you’re not). Talk to your health visitor if they are nice – and if they’re not go to your GP.
If I’m honest, I think it’s the people who go through huge changes like being a new parent, and don’t have some kind of crisis, who have the issue! It is so utterly normal to find the world difficult when it turns on its head. Be kind to yourself. Seek help. Ask for support. You’ve got this.