The anxiety of being a first-time parent
Were you anxious after your first baby was born? If you felt worried, tense or nervous on a regular basis, you weren’t alone. New research performed by Dr Karen Wynter from Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, one of the collaborating institutes on my acupuncture for menopause trial, confirms what parents already know – having a first baby brings with it insecurity, lack of confidence, and anxiety. Anxiety could be the new postnatal depression, it seems, and is more common than postnatal depression.
I remember the self-doubt that arose in the first few weeks of motherhood, and the self-judgement. I felt out of my depth, and also confused by multiple different schools of parenting. Should I stick to a routine? Should I follow my baby’s cues? Should I do controlled comforting or sleep with my baby? Is it bad that my baby always falls asleep in the sling or the pram? I felt guilty – a lot – and I didn’t know why or where it was coming from.
I spent many days hanging out in the parent’s room at our nearest department store. My baby would cry during nappy changes, but other babies didn’t, and their mums appeared so calm and in control – they looked into their babies’ eyes, cooed at them, and their babies smiled back contentedly. What was I doing that was wrong? Were the other mums judging me?
I remember going to sleep at night and hearing my heart thumping very fast – a telltale sign of anxiety. It raced away, and I slept poorly as I was always waiting for the baby to wake up. My baby also developed severe eczema, and as I struggled to control her skin breakouts I felt increasingly inadequate as a mother and even as a doctor.
As time went by I became more confident. She stopped crying so much, and sleep improved. My heart stopped racing. We also discovered that she had multiple food allergies, and the eczema cleared. I felt validated at this point and after this I learned to trust my instincts as a mother and not be swayed by other people’s opinions. With Number 2 I had a much better experience as I already had a network of supportive mums and knew the basics of caring for a baby. We also escaped the colic and eczema that came with our first baby.
If you are feeling anxious and it is affecting the way you get through the day or night, do speak to someone. An empathetic friend, your maternal and child health nurse or your GP. You can also phone PANDA (Post and Antenatal Depression Australia) who have a helpline (unfortunately only within business hours) or the Maternal and Child Health hotline. Don’t be afraid to “fess up” about how you’re truly feeling inside. You don’t have to pretend you’re supermum. I think this was my biggest lesson. Honestly, when you’ve only done the job for a few weeks, how can you be an experienced mum? We need to get away from the illusion that giving birth to a baby immediately equips you with some magical “mother” superhero persona and that you will “just know what to do”. We need to make new mums know that we know it’s a job that has a steep learning curve and that night after night of crying and lack of sleep can turn the most capable person into a blubbering mess.
Seek help from kind people and ignore the ones who make you feel inadequate or guilty. Unfortunately not all mothers are compassionate to their fellow creatures.
And remember, you’re not alone. One in three women in Dr Wynter’s study had significant anxiety. It’s not so much that babies don’t come with a manual – nowadays they come with too many manuals. In this era of pseudo-scientific mothering, with its reliance on advice from multiple baby “experts” and “gurus” with vastly differing styles of parenting, new mothers are bewildered and vulnerable. We feel we can no longer turn to tradition or what our mothers did, and we struggle to meet the ideals of modern “intensive mothering” which eschews a labour-intensive parenting style and inherently results in a good dose of mother guilt. The media bombards us with images of perfect happy mothers, beautiful babies and tender moments while we sit alone and dishevelled in our non-perfect houses, jiggling our cranky babies on our spew-covered laps or shoulders. If we dare to share our feelings online we receive cruel comments like “Stop complaining, children are a choice”.
Perhaps, with research like this highlighting parental anxiety, we will finally begin to have an honest conversation about postnatal anxiety, and help someone else in the process.
Photo credit: By Mark Colomb (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons