Mothering in isolation-The search for a village, the “answer” and someone to hold us.
I have recently been researching the types of post natal care and support new mothers receive around the world.
What I discovered has both shocked and saddened me and led to feelings of frustration and activism. The changes in the family dynamic over the last 50 years and how we interact with each other in society as a result of technology are now threatening the health and wellbeing of mothers, and critically the health of our future society with mothers playing a pivot role in educating our children.
First some shocking facts I discovered;
The biggest cause of maternal death in the western world is suicide.
80% of new mothers report feeling overwhelmed by motherhood
Up to 1 in 5 women develop mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year after childbirth
These issues must be acknowledged and given full attention. We need to identify exactly what is causing these patterns and then provide help and support to prevent women suffering. These statistics are embarrassing and indicate how little motherhood is valued in society by going unchallenged.
The issue of how mothering has become so overwhelming for so many is a complicated one with many factors playing a part. From my experience and observations I feel that that the points below have played a significant part;
The Lost Of The Village
If we look at mothering and the role of women historically, there are some clues as to why new mothers are suffering. Before globalisation and urbanisation, family and community were rooted into a physical place. Families were larger, more integrated and birth and death were more visible and experiential. Girls learnt about mothering from their mothers and female relatives. Baby care was shared and women got hands on experience of what it meant to care for young children. Although there was less science and knowledge around pregnancy, birth and motherhood, feminine wisdom and experience was shared and more emphasis was placed on instinctual responses to mothering. The emphasis was more from the heart and less from the head.
Mothering is largely instinctual, driven by biology but it is also a learnt behaviour that requires women to see mothering. In today’s society where the majority of births take place in hospital, breastfeeding in public still causes some controversy and new mothers return alone to their homes after birth, there are few reference points or guides on mothering that come from our own authentic roots. The art of mothering is invisible and because it is not seen and celebrated in society, its importance diminishes along with the value of mothering.
Lone mothering appears to be the new experience for women. In many tribal societies the existence of “alloparenting” or “parenting by others” meant that a mother did not carry the full responsibility for raising her child alone. There was a village or a community with varying experience, skills and abilities to help raise the child and support the mother. In this way the mother did not need to give up her identity and entirely surrender to motherhood. She could be the primary carer but also be cared for. Being part of a community or village meant she had a sense of belonging, of being able to share, to learn and to grow into her new role. With others to support and to teach, the pressure of motherly perfection was reduced. As a new baby was born into the community, so was a new mother and a female circle would be present to welcome and celebrate both. The pressures on a new mother now to “have it all” means many are not able to speak out and ask for help in fear of judgment or being a failure. Mothers struggle on silently in fear of being accused of “not coping”. A sense of competitveness has crept in.
In addition to today’s new mother not being as physically connected to her village, she may also feel mentally separated from her female family roots due to the huge changes that have occurred for women in the last 60 years. Equality has created some divides between women of different generations. The speed that society has changed and the opportunities for women’s liberation and empowerment has resulted in some mothers feel a disconnect from their female relatives even if they are physically present. This feeling of not identifying with your family or peer group can led to isolation, self doubt and not feeling accepted which can lead to mental health challenges.
To find a new village, mothers may turn to social media and the “tribes” of mothers online and yet here we find authenticity can be challenged. The constant screen scrolling of Instagram and Facebook can create a sense of belonging but it does not provide the important physical connection that the new mother’s brain desperately needs. A new mother’s brain is wired for physical contact and craves oxytocin through touch and connection. Phones simply cannot meet this need. In the quest to feel accepted, new mothers may align themselves with the most “fashionable” tribe in hope of feeling like they fit in, even if it does not entirely reflect their own views. This can feel lonely and confusing. A new mother’s sense of isolation can be magnified by having feelings that she can’t find a home for or have an outlet to share. The world of mothering on social media can be noisy, shouty and relentless in its creation of images that we should be inspiring towards. The quiet inward voice of a new mother can be swallowed up in the hope of fitting in, causing conflict between the authentic self and the latest hashtag. This can feel disempowering and lead to new mothers feeling like they are competing to be seen, loved and appreciated. In the search for a village, new mothers are switching to looking at screens for love and appreciation rather than tuning into their babies to find the love there. The effect of this could have profound effects on our children and society.
The information age that we live in, where knowledge is king and experts are everywhere, can lead to anxiety and overwhelm. Mothers are googling everything as we speak to solve the age old problems that ironically deep down they know the answers to. With google at their side, mothers don’t need to tune in, listen to themselves, trust their instincts and their feelings. In the solution focused world with live in, it’s quicker and simpler to google the answer rather than stop, listen and figure it out. Quick fixes, cheat sheets, life hacks don’t apply to babies but we are fed the idea that by learning more and more we can get everything under control. Having control can help us think that we are managing any problems or threats but in reality it’s an illusion which then creates anxiety. Anxiety leads to stress and stress blocks one of the most important hormones for a new mother, oxytocin. By overthinking, we literally block our mothering instinct and make things feel even harder. We need to focus on helping new mothers access all available sources of oxytocin after birth. Oxytocin can help to relax the body, improve sleep and digestion. It dissolves stress and helps us feel love. It is essential for new mother health.
Most women in the UK leave hospital within 3 days of birth and push themselves to get back to their “old selves”. This is a futile task as motherhood changes your body, mind and spirit. Through motherhood a new self is created to be embraced. This is a process and a journey and not something you master overnight. The pressure on women to bounce back after birth, to handle a job and a family and to juggle everything is ridiculous. There is simply no respite from what is seen to be the “ideal mother” if you are exposed to any kind of media. It is simply overwhelming. The change in focus from the care women receive in pregnancy, to the care they receive in the postnatal period is completely out of balance. In the UK, as soon as the baby arrives, a mother’s status diminishes.
This is not the case in many other cultures around the world where women are literally treated like queens. New mothers receive a period of rest and recovery after birth for 40 days allowing them to physically recover, regain their strength and energy and mentally adjust to the process of becoming a mother, caring for a new life and navigating the various hormone withdrawals after birth. The level of hormone oxytocin drops dramatically after birth leading to withdrawal similar to a drug user giving up his addiction. This can lead to new mothers feeling negative and anxious. Most 40 day post natal rituals focus on getting womens’ oxytocin levels back up through massage, rest, nutrition and by installing a sense of self love and compassion. When you feel loved, you love yourself and then you are able to give love to your baby; love creates love. The new mother’s brain needs oxytocin to help her bond with her baby, create a good milk supply and to shrink her uterus back to its original size. Mothering in isolation with no physical contact will inhibit oxytocin and make a new mother feel more vulnerable and alone. New mothers need nurturing touch and responsive care as much as babies do.
So what can be done? At the root of the solution lies love and care. New mothers need to be celebrated, loved and nurtured so they can go on to provide love and nurturing care for their babies. Studies have shown that a secure attachment between a parent and baby is one of the most important aspects of mental and emotional wellbeing for babies. If we can prioritise infant mental health, it is now time to do the same for maternal mental health. The two are completely linked and have a huge impact on the shape of our society.
I believe that;
- New mothers must be supported physical and mentally in the period straight after birth. Women should be able to physically recover from birth through support from family, a doula or the community. Nurturing new mothers leads to more nurturing for babies. We need to recognise that new mother care is as important, if not more important than new baby care. The bottom line is new mothers should be able to practise self love by asking for their needs to be met and should receive love from those around them.
- We need to move towards heart based parenting and not head based. It’s time to stop googling for advice and tune in. It’s time for women to start talking and sharing more experiences of motherhood with honesty and authenticity. It’s time to invest in creating loving relationships through presence, time and responsiveness.
- We need to get physical. We need physical meet ups, circles and support groups. Physical community is so important. Walking to a local group to meet new mums gets your endorphins flowing, gives you a sense of perspective and gets you out of the house. Connection creates a sense of love and belonging which in turn enables a sense of worth and acceptance. We need to feel happiness, community and love in our bodies. Blossom & Berry’s Love Creates Love groups help to meet this need.
- Women must feel empowered to speak their truth and express their needs. Enough of the “I’ve got this shit” and more of “I need help”, “I want to talk about”, ”I am feeling”. It’s time to come out from behind the filter, drop the mask and be vulnerable. Let others know that its okay to not be okay and that experience is growth, however hard it may seem.
- We need to value mothering. It’s the most powerful force in the world. Give new mothers the status they deserve and let them know they have the answers already.
In my work as an infant massage instructor I focus on rebuilding the village for new mothers through creating a supportive space and by encouraging sharing of experiences. I encourage as much physical touch between mothers and babies as possible as this is how we can use biology to communicate love and create connection. Touch is powerful and can instantly calm, relax and rebalance the body and mind. I focus on helping new mothers understand that they are incredible that they are loved and valued for all they do. In this way love creates love and has the power to support new mothers mental health and make a change in society to benefit us all.
Who is with me?