This week is Maternal Mental Health Week. A huge topic which has brought a lot of comment on issues such as post-natal depression and post-partum psychosis.
In the course of my work I have spoken to a number of women who have suffered from mental health issues after having children. For many it is linked to issues of identity and isolation as well as the follow-on from fairly traumatic birth experiences. Having a baby often brings a huge questioning of who you are as your old self morphs into the new sometimes all-consuming role of ‘mother’. It can be hard to keep hold of the old you. For many that old you may be closely tied to your work. As many women leave it till later to have their first child that can mean they have had years dedicated to their job or career. It can feel like landing on another planet being thrust from doing something you feel fairly competent at to someone new and incredibly responsible for which you have let to learn proper skills. Add onto that exhaustion, both physical and emotional, and it is not surprising that mental health problems result.
I was speaking to a dad recently who mentioned that his wife had an emergency Caesarean. Due to his employer’s enlightened attitude to Shared Parental Leave, he was able to take a few weeks off to help her recover. This is not the usual experience, though. Many women face most of the recovery weeks looking after a small and demanding baby on their own for the vast part of the day – if not the whole day if they are single parents without family support. In what other circumstances would major surgery be followed by such physical and emotional demands?
For many women there is also anxiety about returning to work. Some feel pressured to go back early due to financial concerns; others because of fear of losing their jobs. Far too many have gone through pregnancy or the early stages of maternity leave facing maternity discrimination, made to feel they are a problem or a burden or that they have somehow become less effective at their job simply for having got pregnant, at a very vulnerable time in their lives. I know way too many women who this has happened to and who have not taken legal action because they need to focus on the birth or their young baby – and their employers know this. The long-term mental impact of such treatment is difficult to measure and can lead to all sorts of upheaval at a time when everything in your life seems to be overturned.
So it is good that we are focusing on maternal mental health this week. It needs to be seen in a holistic way. It’s not just about hormones. Context is important and that means ensuring that women are supported at home and at work through pregnancy. That doesn’t mean they are treated like a china doll, but it surely means a little bit of empathy and that pregnancy should not be taken as a licence for bullying and bad behaviour.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.