Beth was interviewed by Shevonne Hunt for the awesome Kinderling radio show Kinderling Conversation, all about kids, health and relationships.
Penny Johnson from ABC’s great Babytalk podcast interviewed Beth about You’re Doing Great, Baby.
You’re Doing Great Baby! Is a picture book for babies but it has a subtle message .. parent’s you’re doing just great too! The book was born (like a lot of parenting projects) when a young couple realised that having a baby was a lot harder than they expected… and they really wanted a way of expressing this to friends and families while giving them support and encouragement as they went. So ‘You’re Doing Great Baby!’ was born, a picture book that when read out loud gives parents a beautiful affirmation that they are doing just fine too!
There are moments that are perfect. Where I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing. They don’t come that often for me, but when they do they are magical.
Some of the things that get me in that zone are:
- Making art or craft
- Walking and listening to music
- Playing with children.
(Disclaimer: most of the time when I’m playing with my kids I am not ‘in flow’ – I am thinking of chores that need doing, or writing a shopping list in my head, or tidying up, or cooking (or lately, composing a blog post). Not giving anything my full attention. But the times when I do manage to just enjoy whatever it is we’re doing are pure joy).
Having a baby or a young kid makes it harder to steal moments for all of the above (except for playing with them), and yet spending time with them is a perfect opportunity to surrender and just enjoy some simple pleasures. Clem will happily sit and play with wood-chips or dirt or a patch of grass for 30 minutes.
The best way for me to be more present with my boys (and enjoy myself too), is to be outside. At the park, in the garden or sitting out the front of our house, I’m not looking sideways at the mess I want to tidy, or the dinner that’s half done, or the chair that needs mending.
When I’m enjoying that perfect moment: a conversation with Leo or a bath with Clem or our whole family laughing or enjoying music together, I wonder why life can’t always be like this. And then Leo or Clem will ask for a drink of water and I end up pottering in the kitchen tidying up or loading the dishwasher. The moment lost. Those early parenting years are just busy.
Multiple times a day I’m struck by the fact that time is moving forward, and the kids are growing up. It’s bitter-sweet.
Clem is a-l-m-o-s-t a toddler and he’s (most probably) our last baby. Each time he grows out of a piece of clothing there’s no point in holding on to it for our next baby. Because there won’t be one. The lanolin that’s still sitting on my dressing table from the early days of breastfeeding probably won’t get used again. The toys that we pick up off the floor every day won’t be around forever.
The knowledge that I’ll be able to shoot off to a yoga class, read a book in the afternoon, or go out to dinner with Jeff in the not-too-distant future is exciting. If I’m feeling sad about the prospect of those little-kid years disappearing, then that’s a good reminder to sit down on the floor and just be with the kids or give them a hug.
When Leo was a baby, and I was climbing up out of the hole that postnatal depression had carved into my life, I vividly remember making a pact with myself to remember that there were lots of good times too. That I enjoyed this moment. That I drank him in. That I loved him more than I thought possible.
I knew I wanted another child and I didn’t want to wish away his babyhood because of my own issues.
That pact to recognise all the joyful moments was always an incredible comfort to me. I still think about it today as a reminder that I may as well be in each moment (whatever that entailed), rather than wishing it away. With a young baby the moments are underlined with sleep deprivation, boredom and having to choose between going to the toilet or waking the baby you’re holding. With an older child, the moments are underlined with different worries and discomforts: time pressure, money or career concerns… there’s always something.
Looking back at photos of the last six years I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. I see the fun we’ve had without seeing whatever little worry was on my mind at the time or whatever cold we were getting over… Photos are useful to help us enjoy the moment, but the act of taking them also removes us a little bit. It’s a double bind.
In 2013 I made an installation of 1,000 collaged photos – each one of them hoping to capture a moment in time. Seeing the beauty in little everyday domestic moments is pretty much what all of the art I’ve ever produced boils down to. I’m never going to figure it out or solve it or perfect it, but it’s my life’s work.
We are very lucky to have another guest post. This time by the lovely Shannon Taylor.
Shannon is a crafting, beginner vegie-patching, freelance writing mum of two, living with a muso hubby and a pug on Sydney’s northern beaches.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think anything can really prepare someone for first-time parenthood.
You know you’ll be tired. You know it’ll be hard. You know you’ll be sore. You know you will feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You know you’ll be crazy in love with your baby and will do anything for it.
But no matter how much you expected to be tired, sore and clueless, and despite being totally crazy-in-love with your new baby, nothing quite matches the utter culture-shock of having a child of your own.
Now, I always was the maternal type. The one who, as a kid, mediated arguments, soothed boo-boos and make decisions when consulting a grown-up would have resulted in big-time big trouble.
As a teenager, I was the one who dealt with pissed-paralytic friends, broken hearts and friendship infractions. “You’re going to be such a good mum one day,” I’d always been told.
So when I became pregnant, I had no worries. I could do this! Motherhood would just come naturally to me. Mothering was what I did.
Parenting would be hard, for sure, probably the hardest thing I’d ever done. It would be relentless and I would be tired and my patience would be tested. My body would be weird.
But I would take it all in my stride, quietly and determinedly, like I had done pretty much everything in my life so far. Or so I expected.
It’s been a really big deal for me to ‘come out’ as having suffered from mental illness after the birth of my children (yes, I had issues both times). I am writing about my own experience because I found it really helpful to read about other people’s stories when I was recovering, and because a big part of who I am is that I survived two bouts of postnatal depression (later diagnosed as mild postnatal psychosis).
I am also sharing my story because the challenges we’ve been through explain why we are passionate about this project. We have seen first-hand how tender those first few months are and would like to tell parents who are giving themselves a hard time that they are doing great.
You’re Doing Great, Baby is not just for people with postnatal depression. It’s for anyone who has found the learning curve of being a new parent challenging. For people who are tired and have good days and bad days – which is most parents I think.
People who suffer from mental illness often suffer two-fold: once in experiencing the issues and all the ramifications this has on your life, job and relationships, and then again in the shame of keeping it secret. I am not ashamed anymore. Or at least I’m getting there with not being ashamed. It’s a work in progress.
My darkest times were in the first ten weeks after having my first son, Leo. I became convinced I was a total failure as a mother and that Jeff and Leo would be better off without me. I felt unsafe in my own skin. So anxious I couldn’t sleep, watch television or carry out a conversation. So depressed that I couldn’t taste food or see colours. I was paranoid about my caregivers and felt like I was going crazy. Getting up each morning seemed impossible but somehow I did, and I put on a brave face for Leo – crying only while he slept. The thing that kept me going was my love for Leo and Jeff. I couldn’t figure out a way of not being around anymore that wouldn’t scar Leo for life. After ten weeks of suffering in silence – ashamed of what I was feeling at a time that was meant to be the happiest of my life – I told my Mum what I was going through and she made sure I got the help I needed.
If you’re curious about what helped me recover, it was first and foremost a mixture of medication, therapy and support from Jeff, my parents and understanding friends. I was helped along by exercise, diet and sleep (once my own depression-related insomnia was gone, getting up to a hungry baby was much easier).
I know there are a lot of lists out there of what to do if a friend of family member has postnatal depression (PND) but I wanted to write my own list to capture the things that helped me. I’ve also had input from other women I know who have suffered from perinatal anxiety and depression.
You can read more about my story here.
PND and related mental illnesses vary in symptoms and severity from person to person. If you are concerned for the safety of a mother or her child/children then seek professional help immediately. There are resources at the bottom of this post.
- Understand that PND is a mental illness. It’s no-one’s fault and it isn’t anything to be ashamed of.
- Respect her privacy if she doesn’t want to talk about her illness, symptoms or treatment. Let her know you are there to listen if she does want to talk, but encourage her to get professional counselling/therapy as well.
- If she does want to talk about her experience, do your best to listen without judgement.
- Understand that she won’t be her usual self at this time. With help and time she will get better.
- Tell her you love her and that she is going to get better.
- When she is starting to feel a bit better, or on days when she doesn’t feel so bad, sharing a laugh together can be wonderfully healing for everyone. Sometimes laughter comes at the most unexpected times and babies/little kids are excellent to have a laugh with.
- It’s important that you look after yourself. Supporters need support too.
- It’s probably not helpful for her to hear a big list of the things she can do to to feel better. Depression and anxiety make it hard to make decisions and chances are she is aware of all the things she could be doing to feel better but is having trouble doing them. For example, rather than tell her she needs to eat better, try cooking her some nourishing food (fish, protein, fresh vegetables, soups, stews) and dropping it off at her house with no expectation of a chat unless she would like one.
- There probably isn’t much you can say that will help them, but there is stuff you can do. Be guided by them. If she would like a chat then ask them how often she’d like you to call them and check in. If she would like to go for a regular walk, do that. If she would like you to come and play with the baby while she has a nap then do that. If she would like some adult company during the day then that’s a great way of showing support.
- If she doesn’t want to see people please understand this isn’t a rejection of you – she just can’t deal with company at the moment. I really went to ground both times that I had the depression/psychosis and didn’t want to see anyone except immediate family. I really appreciated friends who let me know they loved me and understood that I would see them when I was ready.
- Be respectful of her choice to either take, or not take, medication. It’s her call.
- If she wants to seek the help of a psychologist or therapist (again, it’s her choice), do whatever you can to help make it possible e.g. offer to babysit while she goes.
- Be ready to share in her joy when she is feeling better. Acknowledge her strength and courage.
- Cut her some slack with getting *stuff* done. When I was at my worst I wasn’t up to eating, let alone cooking and cleaning.
- If she does manage to achieve something in her day but can’t see it, remind her that she’s doing great.
- Let her have good days and bad days. It is such a rollercoaster for everyone involved, but it’s going to be easier if you just leave space for her to feel how she is feeling.
- If she needs time away from the baby then help make this happen. If she needs to not be away from the baby then be supportive of that too. She’s going to be the best judge of what she needs.
- Random acts of kindness can really help. Whether it’s an unexpected meal, cake or box of fruit and veg dropped off at the door, or a pretty card sent in the mail, or whatever, random acts of kindness remind your friend you’re thinking of her.
- Consider making routine contact. I had a friend call me every Monday during her lunch break at work. She knew my baby would be asleep and it was a good time to chat. If I felt like it, I answered the phone, if I didn’t she left a message. It could be an email, text, whatever, but regular, gentle contact will let her know you really are there.
- Check with her partner how they’re doing and whether there’s any way you can help them to help your friend.
- Sometimes she may need an advocate e.g. someone to accompany her to a medical appointment.
- If it’s your partner who has suffered PND and you’re thinking about having another child, be ready to have open conversations about what you would do if it happened again. The book What Am I Thinking (referenced below) is a helpful discussion starter for this.
Birth is such an important time in a woman’s life. When a baby is born, a mother is born as well. Here are some thoughts about my two birth experiences with our boys. Reading other people’s birth stories has helped me process my own experiences, so I am offering these up in the hope they may help someone else.
Labouring at home
Get to hospital: freak out!
Vaccum and he’s here
Leo’s birth was traumatic for me (and probably for him too). We laboured beautifully at home (got to 9cm dilated), but when we got to hospital things went pear-shaped. He was born with the use of ventouse extraction, with a lot of fear and a bunch of medical people we had never met before in the room. He was whisked away for oxygen before I could hold him, or even look at him. We were reunited about twenty minutes later, but it was the longest twenty minutes of my life.
For the first few hours after he was born I felt like it had all been wonderful. I had a beautiful, healthy baby after all.
But then the memories of the birth started coming back to me in bits and pieces, along with a flood of emotions. I remembered being told not to push when I had the urge to (with no explanation) and then later being told crossly that I wasn’t pushing hard enough or fast enough and that my baby was in danger. I remembered the rushed episiotomy. The phone call for back-up being made in haste and the room being filled with medical professionals and bright light and me flat on my back.
I remembered the last thing I heard before he was born was the obstetrician saying to the midwife “of course the heart-rate would be fine now…”
Nothing was explained to me about what had just happened. It felt like I could have just dreamt it all.
“A woman is more likely to develop PTSD if she feels like all control has been taken from her and she is the passive object of other’s ministrations. She isn’t asked for consent, for example, for different maneuvers which they may do. She’s supposed to shut up and let them get on with doing the birth. And she comes out of that feeling helpless, and this helplessness can persist in other areas of her life too, so it’s not just the birth. So she gives up and feels that it isn’t justified for her to take responsibility for anything. And women can feel this for many, many years and I’ve had women in their 60s and 70s call me to talk about births which they haven’t yet worked through and this experience has stayed with them and incapacitated them.”
Sheila Kitzinger (1929-2015), author and birth activist
I believe in Jane Hardwicke Collings‘ idea that “everyone has the birth they need to have to teach them what they need to learn on their journey to wholeness.” She also believes that we learn something from each birth that helps women mother their child. Through Leo’s birth I learnt that I didn’t know how to communicate my needs effectively. Everything that I learnt during Leo’s birth, and in those early months as his mother, taught me how to tell people what I needed and how to advocate for myself and him. Now that Leo is five, it makes my heart sing to see how easily he tells people what he needs. That was always something I struggled with as a child (and as an adult).
I want to share some snippets of our story to show why we wanted to write You’re Doing Great Baby.
When I was a new mum I read A LOT of blogs and articles about things that I was going through and wanting to learn more about, and I found it really helpful and normalising to read unvarnished tales of motherhood. I hope that in turn it is helpful for people to read about our story.
The main challenges I faced when I first became a mother were:
- Mental health issues. I have had postnatal depression (PND), which was later diagnosed as mild postnatal psychosis, after both of my children.
- Breastfeeding issues – Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT) and the heartbreak of low supply.
- Birth trauma.
- Isolation and loneliness.
- Not knowing how to look after myself or ask for help.
- Identity crises.
- Freaking out about baby sleep.
- (Listening to) the unhelpful things people say to new parents.
It’s not all challenges though. There have been many, many joys. Especially once the mental health and breastfeeding issues had settled down. I have also written about the good times:
This is part three of a three-part series about breastfeeding with Insufficient Glandular Tissue.
You can read my breastfeeding story here. This post is a collection of everything I’ve wanted to get off my chest (ahem, pardon the pun 😉 about facing breastfeeding challenges.
- Just because you can’t exclusively breastfeed it doesn’t mean you can’t breastfeed at all.
- Please don’t judge bottle-feeding mums.
- Please don’t judge women who have stopped breastfeeding after breastfeeding challenges.
- Please don’t judge any mums!
- The things women are told to do to increase their supply are very daunting for a first-time mother still learning the ropes. It’s all very well to say to feed and pump around the clock, but when you have a baby who takes a long time to settle, naps for 40 min stretches, needs you to hold them constantly and their feeds take an hour (as Leo’s did), that’s pretty much impossible.
- Formula is necessary for some women, for lots of different reasons. I felt like I was feeding him poison at first because of everything I’d heard and that’s soul destroying.
To health professionals dealing with women with breastfeeding challenges, including IGT
Please acknowledge a woman’s grief when breastfeeding doesn’t turn out as she had expected.
A new mother is as vulnerable as her tiny baby. She’s spent 9+ months nurturing this little person and she wants the absolute best for them and it’s very confronting if you can’t give them what they need.
After spending the last six years listening to women’s stories of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood, I have seen women dealing with all sorts of challenges.
Challenges to do with:
- Birth trauma
- Mother’s health (mental or physical)
- Baby’s health
- Sleep (baby’s or mother’s)
- Family or relationship stress
- Isolation and loneliness
- Identity crises
- Outside stress (death of a family member, moving house, financial stress).
There are surely exceptions, but I can’t think of a mother I know who hasn’t faced one challenge or another (or multiple challenges). It’s as if this is part of a woman’s rite of passage into motherhood.
Sometimes women face these challenges alone – not wanting to tell anyone what they are going through. Especially if their issues are hidden, such as injuries from birth or pregnancy. Other times it’s very obvious that they are being challenged to their core. At the time it’s not something you would ever hope for, but often there are amazing insights that can come out of dealing with one (or more) challenges in that early time.
I found that the challenges I faced as a new mum have given me deep compassion for other mothers’ struggles. Our book has been borne out of this compassion and everything we have learnt.
Through Leo’s birth I learnt how to communicate my needs and advocate for myself and my child. I don’t feel like I can know for sure what Clem’s birth has taught me until he is a bit older, but one year on it has taught me that surrendering to, and learning from, life’s ups and downs is my life’s work.
It’s so important to honour our disappointment when things don’t go as we had hoped. I remember my despair when I couldn’t produce enough milk to sustain Leo. I needed to grieve. Gratitude would come later, once I’d honoured my sadness and my profound wish that things could be different. (I will write more about my journey with breastfeeding with Insufficient Glandular Tissue in a later post.)
It’s easy for people who aren’t in a mother’s position to belittle her feelings of loss and disappointment when things don’t go as she had hoped and planned for, or dismiss them as ‘first world problems’. This is so unhelpful. Everything feels heightened with a new baby around and what the mother needs is support and empathy – not “at leasts” e.g. “at least you have a healthy baby”.
I had mild postnatal psychosis and postnatal depression after the births of both of my children. I thought that all the work I had done and the lifestyle changes I’d had would mean that I’d be fine after Clem was born, but it happened again. Mental illness is bad enough at anytime, but trying to recover while you’re also looking after and getting to know a baby with round-the-clock needs is extremely challenging. Beating myself up about getting sick again wasn’t productive, but I have had times when I felt like a failure for having it happen a second time.
Women dealing with challenges: I salute you.
It can feel so lonely to be going through whatever it is you’re going through. I know so well that feeling of just wanting your family to have a happy life free from struggle. I solemnly hope that you find some peace in whatever your sorrow is.