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.