Mother’s Day 2020 is undoubtedly going to be one to remember, and sadly not necessarily for positive reasons for many people. Enforced separation due to COVID-19 social distancing, changes to maternity care and new lockdown-related responsibilities all have an impact on the mental health of mothers, while the many other forms of motherhood may feel neglected.
We consulted psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg who goes by the moniker @mumologist to give her insight on modern motherhood and how our circumstances are impacting the ways we connect. Dr Emma Svanberg specialises in pregnancy, birth and parenting, and runs an online course on the impact of our parents on our own parenting style.
What does being a ‘mother’ mean and how has this definition evolved?
The word mother has two very different meanings: there is the noun, the person in relation to their children, but then there’s the verb, ‘to mother’, which is a definition that crosses generations and cultures. To mother is to raise children with care—to look after someone else with deep love. But actually the word ‘mother’ has become so loaded in recent years; being a mother has simultaneously been held up on a pedestal as the peak of our feminine achievements, while (in our productivity-obsessed culture) often seriously undervalued. This means that mothers often hold the sense that they should be enjoying every moment and making the most of their mothering journey, while also feeling that their role as a mother is not an important one and that they should be getting back to more socially acceptable, fulfilling pursuits. There are so many reasons for this–our distance from family and social support, patriarchal systems of work, a lack of acknowledgement of the importance of raising the next generation... the product is that many mothers find it hard to embrace the modern definition of motherhood because it’s such a confusing role to be in.
‘Mother’, of course, should also refer to people who mother without having children themselves. Some (grown up) children may not feel that they were mothered, and others may feel that they were best mothered by other women. Often we end up with many people we feel mothered by, some our elders and some our peers.
What qualities are unique to mother-child relationships?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the lack of reciprocity. Parenthood is pretty one-sided, and if we have parented successfully, our children shouldn’t feel that they have to give back very much (and at some times all they will be giving back is their difficult emotions!). In many ways, being a parent is like being a safe harbor but willing those little boats to head out to sea with confidence.
There are a lot of factors which allow mothers to give in this one-sided way. Donald Winnicott talked about primary maternal preoccupation–the pinpoint focus mothers often have for their children in the first months of life. This is what helps babies survive, because we become so tuned in to their needs. We now know that brain changes occur to help this focus develop, making women more sensitive to reading social cues and with a heightened threat response. Women often talk about feeling absent-minded during and after pregnancy, but we also develop incredible skills in emotional and social intelligence.
Of course, other qualities that are unique to mother-child relationships are how intense and sometimes destructive they can be. Our mothers have the capacity to affect us so deeply – both positively and negatively. Our relationship with our mothers (or primary caregivers who may of course not be biological mothers) shape our expectations for our relationships with everyone else too. If we are lucky enough to have a mother who gives us security and safety while allowing us to explore, we’re more likely to look for that same feeling with friends and partners. If we have a mother who isn’t able to tolerate our expressions of emotion, we’re more likely to learn to hide our vulnerabilities. If we have a mother whose own emotions we have to contain, we can be left looking after everyone else too. We become tied together even when we don’t want to be.
Is it human nature to want a mother figure?
Absolutely, I think it’s the most essential longing that we all have as humans to want to be deeply cared for. That might not always come from a mother, but we do want someone in our lives who can nurture us, see past our mistakes, and love us unconditionally. It’s one of the hardest things to fathom as we grow up if this is not what we received, because we can then spend our lives looking for someone who will fulfill that longing (and usually being disappointed). Sometimes we have to learn to mother ourselves, too.
How can we positively channel feelings of longing for loved ones?
We can embrace them! We can often feel a bit afraid of big feelings, but it would be a bit strange if we weren’t longing for our loved ones at the moment. We have to acknowledge that it is a sad time, that we wish we could be with our loved ones, but we can create new rituals instead. Many people are speaking to their friends and family far more regularly than before lockdown, and for many there has been a newfound appreciation of those they value. It might be hard to be apart at the moment, but the reunion will be very sweet! Some of us may have lost loved ones recently, and it’s hard to channel grief in any positive way. If this is the case, then it might be more about talking to others and getting support.
How can we give ourselves space to grieve those lost?
Whether it is a recent loss or one longer ago, Mother’s Day can be an incredibly difficult time if you have lost a loved one–whether that is the loss of your mother or if you are a mother who has lost a child. Often, we develop rituals to help us in our grief and some of those may not be possible this year. You might instead like to think of a ritual to honour their memory in a different way just for this year, and to turn to people who you know to be supportive and accepting of your emotions at this time.
What emotional issues are arising for new mothers now?
Becoming a new mother is an incredibly beautiful and challenging time, but to do so in lockdown is particularly difficult. Where I am in the UK, many women have seen their birth choices pulled back. Of course, this is to ensure the safety of women, babies and healthcare staff but, as so often in maternity care, there has been a reactive approach which could in the longer term see a rise in symptoms of trauma. Birth partners being present only during active labour may have an impact on the anxiety of those who are left alone—such as going to scans, attending appointments, arriving in the early stages of labour and dealing with the postnatal period. People are managing so well in really difficult circumstances, and staff are often giving exceptional support, but we do need to think about how we can prevent trauma now. Many new mothers also look forward to the first few weeks after birth—introducing their new baby to friends and family members as well as (hopefully) receiving some practical support. New motherhood can feel like a lonely time, and there’s a chance that new mums will feel more isolated.
However, lots of the women I am speaking to have also identified positives to being in lockdown. There is no pressure to carry on with ‘business as usual’. Becoming a parent can be hugely transformative, and often we feel pressured to pretend that we haven’t been affected by the arrival of this new baby. This is in such contrast to other cultures where postnatal mothers are encouraged to rest and bond for the first month at least. But, in lockdown, we can really dive into that baby bubble, allow ourselves to become preoccupied, to really get to know this new person in our lives. With partners more likely to be around, there might be an opportunity to set up conditions which will enable shared parenting to thrive. There are stories of breastfeeding success rates increasing during this time as new parents can just focus on their babies without managing a stream of visitors, but still have access to support via phone/Skype calls with breastfeeding counsellors.
For many though, this may feel like a very far cry from the postnatal experience they were hoping for. Lots of postnatal groups, which can feel like a lifeline to isolated new mums, have popped up online and connecting with others having a similar experience can really help.
How can mothers support their mental health while in lockdown with children?
Where to begin! Many mothers now find themselves at home with a child or children, often doing paid work as well, and possibly with a partner trying to work full-time. There may be added financial stresses and of course the overarching anxiety of the pandemic. For those with school-aged children, they may be attempting to educate and deal with the big emotions their children inevitably experience at the massive changes in their lives—and all with no access to support, and probably less access to their usual coping strategies. We know that mothers are still more likely to take on more of the household labour and childcare responsibilities so the burden on women may be greater.
The narrative around the lockdown hasn’t been particularly helpful to parents—the emphasis on taking this time to pause, to reassess values, to educate ourselves. Most of the parents I speak to find that their day is relentlessly busy from the moment they wake up to bedtime, and the idea that they ‘should’ be doing something productive just adds a lot of pressure. Somehow, even in a global crisis, parenting pressure has ramped up even further, with parents wondering if they are doing enough, educating enough, making the most of this time.
Many of the women I’ve spoken to, particularly those who have experienced postnatal mental health struggles, are finding the lockdown is really triggering those past difficulties. There are lots of similarities for moms between the early years of parenting and now feeling stuck at home. For many, who perhaps found that their mental health improved with time rather than anything feeling more deeply resolved, old feelings are coming up and feeling raw.
If you do feel like you are struggling, do speak to others. This is a time when online communities are really coming into their own. I run a parenting community called The Village and parents have been using it as a space to share their anxieties and get a bit of solidarity. It helps to know that you’re not the only one. If you feel like you’re really finding things a challenge, you might want to speak to a professional to get some support. Many therapeutic services have moved online.
The most helpful thing we can do for ourselves and our families as parents is to massively reduce our expectations—and then reduce them even more. We are all living in fight or flight mode at the moment, even if you’re feeling pretty much okay, it’s likely there’s a low-level anxiety going on for every member of the household. So now may not be the time to learn a new skill: instead, focusing on your wellbeing and the wellbeing of your children as your one priority can take the pressure off.