Welcome to Part 1 of my ‘Mental Health’ blog series. This first entry is about understanding parental mental health and in particular that of a new mum who happens to work in the mental health sector. For this blog I interviewed Aman, a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist qualifying from the University of Oxford. Aman Chohan is a British Punjabi Sikh woman born and raised in Wolverhampton who now lives in Watford with her husband of seven years. The couple became parents in January 2018 to their son Samraj. Aman works closely with people experiencing difficulty, helping to manage their mood.
During Aman’s maternity leave, and given her area of expertise and understanding all too well the importance of talking about mental health, she decided to start a blog about managing women’s mental health as they enter parenthood.
“My blog talks about how I pulled myself out of the lowest of lows. The aim is to help other mums and parents feel less alone when going through those very feelings.”
Why does your blog specifically discuss maternal mental health?
One in ten women develop a mental illness during or after pregnancy. This is such a shocking statistic given that motherhood is viewed as being the happiest time in a woman’s life.
The media and advertising companies targeting to-be parents sell this idea of parenting perfection (as do our family and friends). No one really discusses the almost immediate impact that pregnancy has on the body as well as the mind.
After five years of family and friends trying to convince me that I would make an amazing mother, my husband and I decided we were ready to bring a child into the world. It was only when we became pregnant that the same family and friends started joking about how life would never be the same, that my body would be ruined and that we would never sleep again.
I often hear other mums tell the same story. Motherhood is wonderful, but difficult. It is not like a nine-to-five job. You do not get to leave at the end of the day. It’s not the kind of job where you can hand in your resignation if you get sick of it, or become bored mindless. You are essentially stuck – until your child is an adult that is. And if you’re Asian, possibly beyond that.
For the first few months, all any parent seems to do is feed, change, put to sleep and repeat. It is mind-numbingly boring and sounds repetitive but no one day is exactly the same. Most mums will tell you that they experience the happiest and lowest moments of motherhood during maternity with first smiles and coos followed by the lows when their baby refuses to sleep all night or cries for reasons outside of their resolve. This is why I decided to share my experiences about being a mum.
What psychological impact does pregnancy carry and what was that transition to motherhood like?
I am that mum who had a great pregnancy. I hate telling other mums about it, as many others have a list of prenatal complaints. Saying that, I genuinely believe there was a switch that turned off when Samraj was born and I completely forgot everything that had happened in the ten months before. My husband has to remind me that I couldn’t brush my teeth to the best of my ability through the first two trimesters, and I used to walk with my right leg dragging behind me due to a trapped nerve for about 6 weeks – and there was the time when I cried in Morrisons because they didn’t have any gluten free cupcakes.
Despite all that, I practiced mindfulness throughout my pregnancy teaching myself that each symptom I experienced was temporary. I prepared for the birth by reading The Hypnobirthing Book by Katherine Graves and practiced meditation daily (okay, once a week). This allowed me to view the birth as a natural and beautiful process to meeting my baby, and although I did not have the water birth I wanted, I felt the birth was in my control and the pain was nothing to be feared.
The first six months of being a mum was a shock. I was an early bird, a woman of motivation and high energy. For any average person, broken sleep of a few hours over a number of days is enough to plummet their mood. Add to that a ton of hormones that soar through your moods from giggling ecstatically to sobbing uncontrollably in seconds. Then there’s the aching body, lactating and sore breasts and difficulties in relieving yourself due to stitching and soreness. Also, there are visitors who drop by without any notice who implicitly demand you are cheerful and can provide tea and chit-chat during the hour you had planned to go to the toilet and shower. This does not include the stress of having a small being literally attached to you using you as a food source (if you have the pleasure of breastfeeding), you have to be available at their every whim. It got better over time as I got to know Samraj and his needs, as well as my own changing needs too. At around month six I felt more like Aman and less like someone living at the will of a new-born.
What are the best and worst aspects to being a new mum?
In my experience, and from what others tell me about their lives, there were more drains on my energy physically and emotionally than I could ever have expected. There was no semblance to my old life as Aman, the career focussed, wining and dining, doing HIITs before work woman that I was. That transition from one to the other was incredibly difficult. I was alone at home with a baby who couldn’t converse with me about the Netflix show I had just binge watched – let alone keep up with current affairs.
I paint a dark picture of motherhood but each day is actually speckled with so many beautiful moments that you think your heart could explode with love and care for your new family. There are tiny and huge achievements every day that would make my mood ascend with pride. It was the small things that gave me most joy. The way his chest rises and falls when he breathes, or noticing how his eyelashes curled perfectly. I would pray for Samraj to fall asleep and when he did, miss him immediately and want him to wake up just so that I could play with him.
What can a parent of babies and young people do to help keep their mental health in check?
There are lots of things people can do to keep on top of their mood like being self-aware. Notice that you are feeling low or anxious and label it as such. By doing that you can then take-action. Give yourself ten minutes a day to do something indulgent and see how it impacts your mood.
The main thing that helped me carry on and stay on track was making plans. With a baby it is so easy to stay at home all day every day. Even if my plan was to walk around the block, it got me out of the house and changed into clothing that was not pyjamas. I went to one baby class weekly and made some nice mummy and daddy friends there, and caught up with NCT mums (a leading charity in the UK for parents) once a week. It made all the difference meeting parents who were in the same boat as me and had not slept for a week. We laughed, moaned and cried together with a side of carrot cake.
It is so easy to lose contact with friends and family because your schedule no longer matches their 8am-6pm work routine. Modern technology is on our side! FaceTime, WhatsApp voice notes, Snapchat etc are all mediums that we can use to keep in touch. Just a few minutes of talking to an adult a day brushes a lot of the baby delirium away. Exercise brings great mood boosting endorphins, even if you’re dancing madly in your living room. My toddler thinks face masks are hilarious, so I do it as a weekly activity.
The more you look after yourself, the better you function overall and the better a mum you will be to your bubba. Mum guilt will do all it can to keep you from doing nice things for yourself but it is so important.
What is the best way to manage low moods and feelings of sadness?
If you feel lonely or have emotion built up inside, talk about it. You can talk to anyone you trust: your partner, your parents, friends or family members. Sometimes we build things up in our minds that when said out loud, do not seem so big anymore. If your mood change becomes persistent and you find it impacting different parts of your life then consider speaking to your GP. They may offer you advice on how to improve your mood. They may also suggest making a referral for talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or counselling. Every UK borough has a service offering talking therapies which offer a safe, confidential space for you to talk about what is going on with you. This helps in building the right coping mechanisms for overcoming these negative feelings and often people feel much better and begin to grow in confidence just after a few sessions.
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Aman’s interview highlights how Mental health is a continuum. It is vital to remember that talking about how we feel helps with our own sense of well being. Whatever the significant change is in your life and however overwhelming that may be at the time, there are always ways to manage those feelings.