Why Maternal Wellbeing Matters
- Hopefully if you’re reading this, I’m preaching to the converted here. If not though, here’s some reasons.
- Maternal suicide is still the leading cause of death for mums in the first year after having a baby (MBRRACE UK).
- Postnatal depression affected around 1 in five women before the pandemic hit, but rates are now even higher (Maternal Mental Health Alliance)
- It’s easiest to form a secure relationship with your child when you feel OK in yourself, and we know that secure children do best in education, relationships, their own health and work as adults
- There’s stacks of support and information out there to help mamas get and stay healthy. For starters, you could try Koa Whittinghame’s book “Becoming Mum”.
Why Paternal Wellbeing Matters
- Hopefully it’s starting to change for our generation of parents but there can still be a traditional society expectation that dads are strong for mums and children and if you buy into this or fuse with it, it can get in the way of noticing and dealing with your own feelings
- A study by the NCT in 2015 found that 1 in 3 dads are worried about their own mental health, although only 10% are recognised to have Post-natal depression. It is worth considering though that in Scotland dads are not routinely screened for PND whereas mums are, which means rates for mums will always be higher than for dads until this changes – and if you are interested in my opinion, dads should be screened too – like mums, their mental health can also impact their children’s wellbeing, so if you care about your child’s wellbeing as a parent, you need to also care about your own.
Why Parents Relationship with Each Other Matters
- Hopefully, you’re already of the view that your relationship with your partner, if you have one, does matter. Note that strong and supportive can take lots of different shapes and forms, which might include affection, arguments and working as a team which recognises that each other has both strengths and weaknesses.
- Asides from children, having a supportive and strong relationship is good for both of your mental health and wellbeing. Having a baby can test the strongest of relationships in all sorts of ways and also change the way you relate to each other, communicate and spend your time. You might also see a different side of your partner. This can be both welcome and unwelcome, and both match and not match what you expected BC (before children).
- For children it’s really helpful if their parents can model good communication, trust and respect whether or not they are in a romantic relationship with each other. You are their first model of how to relate to other people, and their wellbeing will be best served if you can show them kindness, compassion and how to sort out any conflicts calmly and effectively.
- You’ll find it hard to model the above if you don’t also make time for some fun and the occasional date night, so it might be helpful to consider who in your network might be a babysitter you could get onside early on.
Baby Bonding and Attachment with an ACT perspective
When we talk about attachment, we mean the relationship that develops between two people. For a baby, their first attachment is to the person who looks after them most – often but not always their mum (primary caregiver). They will also form an attachment to any other person who looks after them (secondary caregiver). Attachment styles could be either secure or insecure. As parents, we will all already have our own attachment style which will have first formed through our own experiences of being parented. For the lucky 40%, this will be a secure style where we believe others are generally good and safe to be around, and trustworthy. Those of us who are secure tend to be comfortable sharing feelings and asking for help when we need to. Secure attachment is also linked to tending to do better at school, with friends and romantic relationships and at work as an adult. The majority of adults though will have an insecure attachment style where we are vulnerable to either feeling anxious in relationships with others, worrying about them going away or leaving us and trying hard to please them and cling on or to being avoidant in relationships with others and trying to keep them at a distance emotionally to protect ourselves from getting our feelings hurt. It’s also possible to have an “earned secure” style where our early parenting experiences left us feeling insecure in relationships but we have then been able to develop a secure bond with a partner or other care provider which has been powerful enough to shift our attachment style. For those of us who are either secure or earned secure though, we can still be vulnerable to being pulled into an insecure anxious or avoidant pattern when under stress – and a new baby joining your family is stressful.
So if you have the opportunity before having a baby, it can be helpful to reflect on what you think your own attachment style might look like and how it has formed that way, and what happens to the way you relate to other people when you get stressed. Reflecting on this might then help plan what help and support you might need in the early stages of having a baby.
If you’re reading this as a new parent and thinking you’ve been pulled into an anxious or avoidant style, that’s completely understandable. Whatever stage of family you find yourself at, if you are interested in attachment styles and reflecting on your own there is a good chapter in Miriam Silver’s book “Attachment in Common Sense and Doodles” on this topic.
Here’s some thoughts on how ideas from ACT can be helpful when considering attachment.
Opening up to experience and willingness
This is about being willing to approach your inner experiences like thoughts and feelings with willingness to have them and curiosity about them. If you’re reading this as a parent, that tells me you already are warming up to that idea.
Mindfulness can help you learn how to tune into your own feelings and thoughts and inner experiences as they come up and pass over in the present moment. If you notice how your feeling, it becomes much easier to make choices about how you respond to yourself and how you act on your feelings in your relationships with the others in your family including your baby. If you’re new to mindfulness and pregnant, I’d recommend the app “Mind the Bump” to learn about mindfulness now. If you have a baby, I’d recommend some form of mindful activity as from my experience of my babies, neither has been willing to stay still to practice mindful audio exercises (though if your is and it works for you, fab!). I’ve enjoyed mindful rolling in the grass, water play and sand play with my baby son today, and my daughter and I used to enjoy mindful watching out of the window when she was a baby. Practicing mindfulness with your baby in my experience has been great for developing skills at tuning into them and noticing the little quirky things that make me love them more like the constantly changing sounds they make.
In ACT, values are about reflecting on who we want to be and on how we can act in ways that move us closer to living a life we care about. So, whether you’re pregnant or have a baby it’s a good time to consider what sort of parent you want to be, and what sort of relationship you want with your child. Do you want them to feel secure with you, or to be clingy or distanced? Do you want the same sort of relationship with your child as you had with your parents or do you want it to be different? If different, how? What tends to happen if we don’t reflect on it is that we play out the same relationship with our child as was modelled to us by our parents. For some of us, that’s fine. For others, it’s not what we want and it helps to consider trying to do things differently with our own child – if you want to do it differently it is possible but it will take effort and mindfulness can be a great skill to help you notice how you’re going and when you might fall into old unhelpful habits (which we all have, however secure we identify ourselves to be).
Spotting traps and letting struggles go – Defusion
It can be helpful to be able to get some space from intense feelings and thoughts, and any thoughts and feelings you have about your attachment relationships may well be intense due to the length of time they might have been carried around for. You might want to defuse from the pull to classify yourself in a particular attachment style, if you notice you are pulled towards that thought. Most of us have at least some insecurity in our relationship patterns as life and relationships are complex, we’re not robots and were not raised by robots ourselves either. Babies also play their own role in the attunement dance, and a calm healthy baby might well be easier to attune to than a sick, premature or colicky one. Try to defuse also from the “blame game” if you notice thoughts like that start up in your mind – most often parents are just trying to do their best with the hand they’ve been dealt, and not all hands have the cards we would want them to. Any time you notice yourself feeling low, sad, anxious or overwhelmed it might be helpful to take a step back and try to notice if there are any thoughts or “old stories” going on about who you can be in relationships with others, and to consider if now would be a good time to change the script – however your old relationship journeys have played out, you have a chance to choose in the present moment who to be with your baby.
You can choose and change your parenting values at any time. If you choose for example to be a kind and compassionate parent though, committed action might look like making time for cuddles, learning new skills to soothe your baby (a skill that takes practice like any other, and one that changes over time with one baby and will differ between babies too), and seeking emotional or practical support for yourself if you feel you need it.
This is about being able to reflect and review how things are going and making changes if you need to in the moment. It’s helpful to recognise that none of us – not me, anyway – are perfect parents, however many books we’ve read, however many children we give birth to and raise successfully, however hard we try to project a positive image. We all have our highlights and lowlights, and our children will remember a little of each. The lowlights can be a chance to grow and develop for both ourselves and our children, so it can help to try to be grateful for those experiences too. You might find you are both a terrible and wonderful parent on several occasions in the same day – and of course one persons terrible might be someone else’s wonderful since we all have different values and parenting priorities. It’s also helpful to recognise we can’t be mindfully reflective all the time – if your baby suddenly starts munching crayons, you’re going to want to remove them from his mouth rather than notice the crunchy sounds and the changing coloured teeth. What matters is you aim to do what works for you and your family, and if you notice something not working, try to do what you can to make it better.