After being diagnosed with post-natal anxiety and birth trauma following the birth of her first child, television presenter, life coach and author Anna Williamson went on a mission to uncover the real thoughts, feelings and behaviours that so many of us experience in the first few weeks of parenthood. Here, Anna reveals how by sharing her own experiences, she hopes to help other new parents cope with the often taboo topics that we encounter…
Having a child, and becoming a parent, is one of the most momentous experiences of life. It takes time to adjust to a new identity and role, coping with the changes in your relationship or going back to work worries and trying to achieve the mythical holy grail of being the ‘perfect’ parent. From ‘I miss my old life’ to ‘Will I ever feel like me again?’ The fear of being judged for even having these thoughts often means they are rarely discussed with friends and family, resulting in new mums and dads left feeling isolated, anxious and stressed rather than reassured, confident and that they can indeed cope. So why are we so reluctant to share our doubts and fears when it comes to first-time parenthood?
Anna believes, “I think so many people are made to feel like they should be deliriously happy at all times during pregnancy and early motherhood, but the fact is that so many of us, including me, feel the changes that happen to us physically, emotionally and mentally can be so overwhelming. For me personally it was an enormous source of an anxiety relapse. ‘Will I be a good mum?’ ‘Will the baby be okay?’ ‘How will I cope?’ ‘What about my career?’ So many thoughts plagued my already anxious mind. I needed to give myself a break but the massive task ahead of me, giving birth and learning how to be a mum was terrifying at times. So many new parents are reluctant to share any fears and doubts as everyone ‘expects’ you to be so happy and excited and then we can feel guilty or ungrateful if we don’t. While feeling happy might be true for some of the time, it’s also a very scary and unsure period of adjustment and it’s totally okay not to always feel entirely ecstatic – many of us don’t!”
Candidly she admits, “The most difficult adjustment for me becoming a mum, was going overnight from a confident, in-control career woman to a complete beginner – it was overwhelming. My long and tricky labour should have ideally left me with a week to recover in peace and quiet, but the reality of having to immediately care for a new baby, while I felt so poorly, was incredibly tough. In those early days and weeks, the pressure of being his mum and solely his source of food was so stressful that it was most certainly a huge cause of my post-natal anxiety. I also found it extremely difficult to adjust initially to having a little person with me 24/7 and dictating my every move. I just wasn’t used to it and a big part of controlling and coping with my own anxiety is having space and quiet. With a newborn it was very difficult to get either.”
While conducting research for her new book, Breaking Mum and Dad, Anna spoke to an abundant amount of new parents concerning the most common things they would suffer in silence over. She discloses, “What really astonished me was just how similar all of us new mums feel, about very similar things, grieving for the ‘pre-baby’ you, missing work, not initially enjoying it as much as they’d hoped. Of the many women I spoke to in confidence, only one admitted that she felt an immediate rush of love and bonding with her newborn, overwhelmingly the rest admitted to feeling more shock, or, an instinct to protect, but not a Hollywood- style rush of love that I think we are all expected to feel.”
There is plenty of notable advice and support offered with the book’s pages by Anna and Dr Reetta Newell, a clinical psychologist who runs a private practice specialising in working with children and families, however if Anna had to select just five pearls of wisdom to pass on to first – time parents what would they be?
“1. Don’t measure yourself against anyone else’s ‘progress’, just go at your pace. If you want to sit in your PJ’s for the next month, do it!
2) Be kind to yourself…you’ve got a baby! That is an amazing achievement so don’t feel you have to be perfect in any way.
3) Don’t try and do it all alone. Utilise the help that’s available…ask for babysitters in the way of in-laws and friends and give yourself an hour to catch up on yourself. Have a bath, go to the toilet in peace, have a nap or read a magazine. People WILL want to help, just be brave and ask.
4) Take some QT with your bubba – often we’re so manic with feeding and changing routines we can forget to take time to just ‘be’ with your baby. Lie on the bed together, skin to skin and just look at and cuddle your baby and take in every detail of your wonderful little being.
And 5? Talk it out! Being a new parent is a cocktail of emotions and feelings. Keep those thoughts in and they can fester so find like-minded mum pals and don’t be afraid to offload and share how you’re finding being a parent. Sometimes it just takes one of you to start the conversation and then suddenly you’ll find the flood gates will open (in a good way).”
While Anna explores issues that are difficult to talk about, and quite frankly a lot of the subject matters she covers would put anyone off becoming a mum or dad, it’s also very apparent her sole purpose is to reassure us that everyone finds parenting tough some days, and ultimately we should stop beating ourselves up for not always being Supermum and Superdad and just get on with enjoying our kids.
Anna’s conclusions on that are, “The fact is that so many DO find it a challenge and I think it’s really important to be honest about that. Not being honest about some of the very real feelings that can happen around pregnancy, and motherhood, initially made me feel like a failure and I know many, many others feel the same way. However, as a result of talking openly and honestly about it with friends, I now feel so much more knowledgeable, empowered, NORMAL and reassured…that I want to go on and have another baby. My book covers some tough topics at times, but it’s also done with humour, honesty, and a great big pat on the back. The wonderful other side of parenting is the absolute pride and joy that your kids can bring.
Just because we struggle from time to time doesn’t mean that we also can’t be super proud and contented on the flipside. There are so many wonderful moments – even through the fog – and nothing will bring any of us greater happiness, a sense of achievement, and love, than our kids.”
Breaking Mum and Dad: The Insider’s Guide to Parenting Anxiety by Anna Williamson and with Dr Reetta Newell, published by Bloomsbury, is out now. RRP Paperback £12.99