Expectant Expectations

I recently asked an online group of mums what advice they would give if they could send a letter back in time to their first-time pregnant selves;

“I’d tell myself to ignore the midwife who told me I’d be unable to breastfeed my baby because I’d had a caesarean. I bitterly regret listening to her advice, which I now know was totally inaccurate.”

“Please don’t bother with the colour-coded, detailed birth plan. What a waste of time. I felt such a sense of failure when I eventually had an epidural. I so wanted to have a natural birth and ended up with an emergency c-section. I still blame myself for not being able to do it without drugs”.

“I wish I’d had the confidence to ignore the pressure to breastfeed. I had so many strangers hands all over my poor boobs in those early days. The health visitor put so much pressure on me to breastfeed that I literally felt like I was being ‘milked’. It really affected how I bonded with my baby as I felt so resentful. I’d tell myself to listen to my instincts and trust my gut”.

How different our expectations are from the reality of pregnancy, birth and the early years.

What saddens me is that the feelings of disappointment and failure by these women (and myself) could have been diminished, if not avoided, if only we were more realistic in our expectations.

Of course I’m not suggesting that every birth is difficult and horrible, but let’s face it, very few births play out exactly as expected. Friends who planned beautiful drug-free water births had emergency c-sections, and a dear friend of mine who had planned on taking every drug available to her ended up suddenly delivering her daughter on the floor at home.

Ante-natal advice on breastfeeding is plentiful, but far less support is available for mums who bottle feed. Those unable to breastfeed can be left feeling inferior and inadequate against their lactating counterparts. Many women expect breastfeeding to be a beautiful and nurturing experience but sadly find the reality very different indeed.

Dr. K is a new mum who has kindly shared her story with me.

“I did not enjoy my pregnancy at all. Far from the blossoming, glowing, Mother Earth person I expected to be, I had significant health problems throughout, high blood pressure, a number of pre eclampsia scares, carpal tunnel syndrome and feet that became so oedematous I had to wear special shoes for the last 3 months of pregnancy. Then there was the weight gain. Society places huge pressure on women to look slim. I felt I should resemble a waif with an egg attached to my abdomen, not the whale I became.
I accept that it was my own expectations of myself to breastfeed that caused me to get incredibly emotional in those early days. I felt like a failure. Being unable to breastfeed made me feel utterly ashamed until a senior midwife pointed out that whether breast or bottle-fed my baby would gain weight and grow”.

It’s not just over-thinkers like me who feel like failures if things don’t go to plan. (Watch this space for my own breastfeeding story). Dr. K had a very difficult pregnancy, birth and feeding experience. Even extensive knowledge and medical training didn’t align her expectations with what eventually came to pass. Even doctors feel frightened and often disappointed with themselves in their first days as mothers.

Another doctor, Dr M also shared her experiences with me;
” Those first few months of having a newborn baby were the most difficult of my life, but at the same time, you adore this new baby and all you want to give it is the best. If someone had told me how hard it would be, I’m sure I’d never have done it.”

I don’t think I know one mother who could honestly say the newborn days were what she expected and I think we underestimate how formative the early days are on how we view ourselves as mummies.

My theory is that even from as early on as pregnancy, we set expectations that are altogether too high. Detailed birth plans, for example, are setting us up to feel like failures from the moment we give birth. Perhaps strong pressure to breastfeed when it simply may not work for us only serves to make us feel inadequate from the off.

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My view is that if we were all a bit more realistic with our expectations from the very beginning, we may realise and believe that our worth as a parent is not determined or measured by whether we managed to deliver a baby naturally or breastfeed exclusively for the first year (or countless other factors).

I think that there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to ante-natal care. Women need more information on what to expect in those tough early days as a new mum. Some organisations are fantastic and some aren’t. Similarly it can be a bit of a lottery as to whether you get a supportive Midwife or Health Visitor who will look at your situation in isolation and not just tow the party-line.

Dr. M further illustrates this point; “NCT and antenatal classes are partly to blame because they don’t tell you how hard the reality of having a newborn baby is. They focus on the delivery but what we really need to hear is ‘what do I do with this baby once I get it home?!’ Maybe they don’t want to scare us but I definitely believe there should be much more realistic ante-natal advice.”

There are also some fantastic postnatal groups out there, and I truly believe that they are equally important as ante-natal classes. I think so many of us could benefit from postnatal groups in which mums are encouraged to be really truthful with one another and where competition is actively discouraged. Two groups who have contacted me can be found here and here. If you run a postnatal group and you’d like to tell us about it, please feel free to leave a comment below with a link to your website.

A bit more honestly with our fellow new mums can go so very far. Admitting that those early days are tough, that breastfeeding can be both beautiful and excrutiating, that sometimes you wonder what-on-earth you’ve got yourself in to goes such a long way.

Now I’m not for a second suggesting that we accost every pregnant woman we see, terrify her with birth horror stories and bombard her with unsolicited advice. I don’t think this will help anyone.

However, sharing our experiences with truthful sensitivity can help new mums feel less like failures and more like true, authentic women who can only only do their best each day.

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My letter to my thirty year old, newly pregnant self four years ago would say something like this:

Dear You

Mazeltov on your wonderful news!
You won’t enjoy pregnancy very much, but that’s OK. Lots of women feel like this too.
Several people will say you’re the biggest pregnant woman they’ve ever seen. Try not to be offended. It’s true.
Please do try to rest. You can’t stock-pile sleep as easily as you can lay down fat stores (sadly), but it will be several years before you feel properly rested again.
Keep an open mind about your birth. I don’t want to scare you, but when the midwife tries to send your husband home on the night that they induce you. Please don’t let him go.
Also, don’t bother buying any newborn clothes, there’s a very big boy in there.
Another thing… disposable knickers come up really small. Buy the biggest size you can find and avoid a very embarrassing shopping trip to Mothercare for your father-in-law.
It’s OK to sometimes feel a bit envious of friends who don’t have children yet and how they will sleep uninterrupted tonight. Everyone feels like this sometimes, but no-one talks about it.
If the house is too full of people sometimes, please politely ask them to leave. Allow your new family some private bonding time.
Oh, and you don’t know this, but there is such a thing as an over-stimulated baby. This is why he will sometimes scream for no obvious reason when there have been too many visitors.
Keep an open mind when it comes to feeding your baby boy and hold on to that for the next few years. The most important thing is that he and you are happy.
Please don’t compare yourself with other new mums. Do what works for you and let them do the same.
You will be the best mummy for your children and you will know them better than anyone else. Please remember this and have faith in yourself.
Love
You

I’ll leave you with these fabulous words from Dr M:
“What I’ve learnt having had two children is that it doesn’t matter how they are born, only that they are healthy. It doesn’t matter how they are fed, only that they are loved and looked after to the best of our abilities. Our worth as a parent is determined by how much we love and nurture our children, however we may do that”.

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I’d be so grateful if you’d please “like” Mummy Kindness on Facebook to help spread the kindness far and wide.
I’m also on Twitter @mummykindness and I’d love to hear from you.
As always, please leave me a comment below with your thoughts.

All images are credited to the Brave Girls Club
An enormous thank you to the two brave and fabulous doctors who told their honest truths to a total stranger for the benefit of others.

Be Gone, Black Dog.

I am sharing this post in the spirit of my Kindness Manifesto. In doing so I am reminding myself and others that it’s OK not to be OK sometimes. When I wrote the manifesto I emphasised that we need to be true and authentic and not pretend that all is perfect at all times.

Things have been far from perfect for me during the past week, I’m afraid. But I’m slowly feeling better again. I wrote this on Sunday and I think I’m ready to share it now. I am sharing this not for sympathy, but to stay true to what I’m trying to do with this blog. Sorry if it makes for uncomfortable reading. Please remember that anyone you come in to contact with today could well have written it. Let’s all be kind to each other. We’re all fighting our own battles and we can help each other.

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Black Dog Visiting

Looking back I could feel it coming.
Starting with a familiar sinking stomach feeling and slight panic for no apparent reason. Anxious.
Feeling like I want to be on my own. Like I need to escape. Like I just need some quiet. Like I just want to sleep for days until hopefully it passes.
Feeling like crying. But there’s nothing to cry about.
Feeling trapped in my head.
Such disappointment. So very disappointed with myself for finding myself here again.
I’d been doing so well.
Grateful for P keeping the kids busy so I can be by myself, but feeling incredibly guilty that he has to do this.
Feeling like I’m spoiling everyone’s weekend.
Thinking that surely he can’t wait to get to work to get away from me.
Bringing everyone down.
Trying to remind myself that this is an illness. That I can’t help it. That it’s chemical.
Makes no difference whatsoever.
Going to bed. P says the wrong thing.
Crying. So much crying. Can’t stop crying and can’t cry enough.
Can’t breathe.
Want to scream in to a pillow.
Can’t.
Considering going downstairs and literally screaming into a cushion.
Too exhausted to move.
Feeling like a total fraud.
Writing about kindness to ourselves and recovery from depression?
Sharing tips on how to be grateful and overcome negativity?
Bullshit. Hypocrisy.
I don’t want to be here again. I can’t be this person again. This burden.
Can’t stop crying. Trying to calm my breathing. Closing my eyes but the tears keep coming. Trying to sleep but the tears keep streaming.
So very disappointed.
Can’t turn these thoughts off. Where’s the off switch?
Will this ever go away?
Trying to remember: It’s always darkest before dawn.
It’s the cracks that let the light in.
Tomorrow is another day.
This too shall pass.
Sleep.

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*Black Dogs have been used as a symbol for depression since Celtic times. Winston Churchill famously used the metaphor to articulate his own struggles with mental illness. Black Dog image from Living With A Black Dog by Matthew and Ainsley Johnstone

If you need help and support, please click here for a list of support organisations. Please don’t suffer in silence.

Complimentary Thinking

I think there is something about sharing your darkest secrets with the wider world that makes people trust you and feel comfortable sharing their own stories with you. As a result my head is spinning a bit. I have already learned so much in the two short weeks since I started this blog. I’ve received messages from people I’ve not seen for years, telling me about their struggles with depression, and messages of encouragement from mental health professionals congratulating me for my honesty and advocacy. This means more to me than I can articulate.

It’s been a scary, scary process so far. Two weeks ago not even my dad knew about my depression and neither did some of my very closest friends. Everyone has been incredibly supportive, but still I admit I’ve questioned myself. I have a terrible habit of reading in to things that people say and imagining hidden messages that usually aren’t there.

For example, one very dear friend asked me via text message how I felt about my story being “out there in the wider facebook world”. Her message was of genuine concern for me, having recently found out things about me that had previously been unknown to her. She was worried that I was feeling regretful. However, my mind started racing and my imagination went in to overdrive. Does she think I’m over-sharing? Are people talking about me or criticising me for putting so much “out there”? Does she think I’m doing the wrong thing? Am I doing the wrong thing? What have I done? This was absolutely my own self-doubt rearing it’s ugly head.

The point I’m making is this: Even though written and statistical evidence support the fact that lots of people have been helped by this blog (it’s now had over three thousand views in under two weeks), this is still a very scary thing to do. Particularly for someone prone to anxiety. I don’t take compliments well and I have a hard time in believing nice things people say about me. There is a technical term for this that I learned during my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and it’s called Mind Reading, or assuming you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts.

For me, it’s not enough to just share my story in the hope that other mums like me will know that they’re not alone. Reminding mums that they’re not the only ones feeling like proverbial swans on a lake, seemingly gliding along on the surface whilst underneath kicking and thrashing about to stay afloat is all well and good. There must be something I can do to encourage other mums, above and beyond sharing my own (mis)adventures in parenting.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and there will be more than one post on this topic. But first I’d like to cast my mind back four years. In my old life, I used to have a pretty high profile job negotiating advertising contracts for a national newspaper. I was responsible for bringing in tens of millions of pounds a year in revenue. It was a big responsibility. But I had a manager, she had a manger, he had a manager and his manager reported in to the City. Everyone was accountable to someone. We had regular one-to-one meetings and appraisals and knew in no uncertain terms whether or not our performance was up to scratch.

Move on four years, and I find myself doing the most important job in the world, raising two small children. But I have no boss (well, actually, my son often feels very much like the Boss of Me but that’s not the point!). I don’t have regular appraisals (I know the health visitors are there if you need them but I stopped paying attention to them when they told me to limit my son’s carbohydrate intake when he was seven months old).

As mums, we’re only really answerable to ourselves, and we’re our own worst critics.

Rightly or wrongly, other mums are the benchmark for how well I feel I’m doing as a parent. My husband or mum may tell me they think I’m doing a good job, but in my mind they’re obligated to say that. It’s in their job description. (There’s a CBT term for this, too actually. It’s called Discounting Positives, or dismissing positive things as trivial).

Now luckily for me, and as I’ve said before, I have a very supportive group of friends. We are usually pretty honest when it comes to the highs and lows of raising babies and toddlers and we don’t feel the need to compete with one another. With this in mind many of them seemed hurt that I hadn’t told them about my PND at the time I was going through it. The reason I held back wasn’t that I didn’t trust them, far from it. I didn’t tell them because I knew them well enough to know the words of comfort they would offer, I knew what they’d say and I knew they were right. It just wouldn’t have made any difference to me at that very low point in my life. I couldn’t really believe anything complimentary that my friends might have said to me. I discounted their positives without even hearing them.

My point is this: We may believe we know someone, but deep down, we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes. The mum who you think has it all together may well be falling apart at the seams and feel completely unable to discuss it with anyone. But what can we do? How can we make a difference?

The best bosses I ever had in my media career were those who asked for input from their teams and gave feedback on a job well done. And yet, the majority of comments I’ve had so far on this blogging adventure have been from mums who feel inferior to other mums, who feel in competition, who feel they are judged by their peers on every parenting choice they make.

Only this morning, one of the mums at nursery said to me “I never really had many female friends before having children, but I thought this would change once I became a mum. In actual fact, it’s even worse. Women can be so bitchy and competitive, especially when it comes to child-rearing. I can’t be bothered with it all! Where’s the solidarity and sisterhood?”

Now this? This we can do something about. This is where we can affect change.

If you see a mum who’s managed to make it out of Tesco’s with shopping done and sanity seemingly intact, what’s to stop you saying “Nice work there, sister! Last time I tried to do the shopping with my kids in tow I aborted the mission and contemplated abandoning my children along with the shopping trolley. I take my hat off to you. Well done!” ?

Conversely, when the mama with the screaming kids in the supermarket is, for once, not you, a friendly smile or words to the effect of “we’ve all been there, love, don’t worry” could well go such a long way in helping her to survive her ordeal. I’d argue that random words or encouragement from strangers are just as valuable as praise from those who know you well. And remember, we don’t know what’s going on under the surface of even the most immaculately made-up face.

I genuinely believe that if we were more confident in our abilities as mothers and less focussed on our insecurities we’d be able to brush off some of the more tactless comments we’re regularly bombarded with. I think it’s our lack of confidence in ourselves that cause us to find hidden meanings in otherwise harmless comments from our peers.

I think if we focus on praising our fellow mums by giving credit where it’s due we can go a long way in remembering that we’re all in this together. We’re all fighting our own individual battles and we could be lightening each other’s loads. I bet you can think of countless mums that you admire for different reasons. But do they know this? Could it be that whilst you’re comparing your insides with her outsides, she’s doing the same and finding herself to be lacking?

Here is an excerpt of an email I received from a friend after she read my blog. I’m nervous about sharing it as it feels a bit like blowing my own trumpet but I think it proves my point:

“To use the not-so-random example of you, who was never anything other than friendly and supportive to me, I enjoyed seeing you but it was always mixed with envy/insecurity that Monkey* was advanced in crawling, walking etc, that you had family close by, a routine, less night waking, a spotless child-friendly but stylish house and that you always looked great! It’s not that I was unaware you had a horrible birth experience and were upset that breast feeding hadn’t worked but in my mind, the things you could control, you excelled at. I don’t know how relevant that is but thought you might be interested to hear it.”

This whole paragraph was a revelation to me. It had never occurred to me during those early days that anyone would look at me and see anything worth looking up to. But there it is, in black and white. Who knew? I wonder if having this knowledge would have made a difference to me when depression hit two years later with the birth of my second daughter? Impossible to say.

But we’re not just talking about me here. I genuinely think that almost every mum could benefit from a bit of encouragement now and then from her peers. That by consciously making the effort to support one another with kind words, we can help culture an environment of solidarity rather than competition.

I asked an online group of mums to tell me if they’ve ever received a lovely compliment and how it made them feel:

“My autistic sons paediatrician said to me ‘you clearly have a great understanding of his needs and are so in tune with him, he is lucky to have you as a Mum’ she may have said that to everyone, but I don’t care! it helped.”

” A friend recently told me ‘You are incredible. You’ve had so much to deal with lately and you just get on with it; you are a wonderful mum and a fantastic friend and your children are a credit to you.”

” I was on my way home from the school run with my three year old twins in the pram. A lady stopped me and asked me if I didn’t mind her telling me something!! She went on to say what lovely children I had, how they were always well dressed and polite, that my daughter was always on time for school and how calm I was all the time!! I was gobsmacked!! And I felt very emotional as I had been struggling so much. I told her how much it meant to me! It made me feel like the best mum in the world! My friends often compliment me on how well behaved my children are! I have struggled with PND since having my twins so compliments mean a lot to me.”

“An older lady stopped me in the hospital toilets to tell me that my son (age 6) was a lovely spoken, polite little boy. It feels lovely when it’s a stranger telling you rather than somebody you know (although that’s still nice too)”.

I hope you’ve got examples of lovely compliments that you’ve been paid. I hope that you’re able to accept genuine words of support and encouragement and not discount them. I hope more than anything, that in reading this article, you’re formulating a mental list of women you know who deserve a pat on the back and some recognition for the incredibly important and often hard job we’re all doing our best at. A psychological pay-rise, if you will.

So with this post I’m setting you some homework. Please go out in the world and practice some Mummy Kindness today, and come back here to the comments section to tell me and your fellow readers how it felt to make someone else’s day.

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