The leading cause of maternal deaths in the Western world is… suicide.
When I first heard this statement a wave of shock and disbelief came over me; but the statement is, unfortunately, true.
The good thing is that there are more and more conversations going on about maternal mental health and the pressure on mothers. Postnatal anxiety and depression affect a huge number of mums; one source says 1 in 7, another source claims 1 in 5. Either way, the number is way too high. These statistics paint a very sad picture. Somehow, mothers have become one of the most invisible segments of society: their needs are often ignored, and their wellbeing is in an appalling state.
Modern motherhood in not a joke
Mothers are struggling – and that’s no joke. I see mothers’ struggle portrayed in supposedly “funny” and “hilarious” ways and I’m sorry but I can’t laugh. The barely-coping-about-to-go-crazy mother is not funny. The mummy-needs-wine-and-gin-to-survive-the-kids is not funny. Hitting the wine and the gin early afternoon because we can’t cope with our life is seriously wrong, and I definitely can’t laugh. Mums need help; not being made fun of.
Juggling work and motherhood is also a challenge. The overwhelmed working mum suffers just as much as the one who stays at home. While one feels guilty because she’s missing out on precious memories, the other feels guilty because she’s not making money. They are both judged constantly, and they both have to defend their choice. “Wow, you’re working full time? And who’s looking after the kids?” hurts just a much as “Wow, you’re a stay-at-home mum? It must be nice to just drink coffee and watch TV all day”.
Many women are unaware that motherhood will change their life completely. And it will never go back to “normal” ever again. Once you become a mum a completely new chapter begins – and you have to prepare for this. Unfortunately, most of the antenatal education is about pregnancy, birth and baby – which are of course vitally important, but there is very little (or no) talk about the mother. And how can we expect mothers to do a good job looking after the baby if they themselves are not feeling well?
Having a child is a massive change, and not just to your body. Your whole life will change. Your identity, your preferences, your relationship with your other half, the way you see the world, the way the world sees you… If you’re not prepared for these changes, if you don’t anticipate them, it can be a huge shock when they hit you. The feeling that your life is over. That you don’t feel like the same person any more. That you’re no longer just somebody’s daughter; you are now somebody’s mother and as such you are responsible for keeping them alive, nurturing them, and guiding them through life. “Wait, that’s a whole lot of responsibility – and how on earth am I supposed to do it?” – no, I don’t know either.
Who’s mothering the mother?
It’s very rare these days for mums to have the help and support of the wider family. They’re left to “just get on with it” and look after the baby, look after the household, look after themselves. They’re told to put the baby first, but also put the relationship with their husband first, and also put themselves first. The amount of times I’ve seen the word “self-care” and wanted to punch someone… and I know I’m not the only one. When self-care is just one more thing on your to-do list.
It’s not normal that a new mum doesn’t have time for a shower in peace. Jumping in the shower for a quick rinse while the baby naps, and hearing phantom cries all throughout that one-minute shower that you dare to allow yourself, so you keep turning the water off every five seconds to check if the baby is really crying or not… is not my idea of self-care. And it’s probably not yours, either.
It’s not right that the leading cause of maternal deaths is suicide. It’s not right that mothers are left to get on with it on their own. It’s no wonder that mothers are struggling: this is not how postpartum care should look like.
Who is helping the mother so she can heal, and she can make sense of her new life, and all those things she now has to be for her family? Who is nurturing her? Who is mothering her? You can hire someone to clean the house, and you can order food if you have no time to cook – but you can’t really buy nurturing, guidance, and loving support. The kind that your soul needs. This is where we have gone wrong, and this is what we need to change.
No amount of self-care can replace community care and nurturing. Humans evolved and survived because of community care: we need peer support, we need to feel like we belong to a group, we need that circle of trusted friends around us who understand.
In cultures where there is strong social support for new mothers the prevalence of postnatal depression is low. A lack of social support is a significant contributing factor to maternal mental health problems. This is where the change has to start. Mamas need other mamas to tell them honestly what to expect, to help them make sense of how their life has changed, and to support them when the ride gets too bumpy.
Motherhood is not a solitary journey – it’s a community affair. So let’s make it that.
Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash