Imagine running Britain's 'most brutal race' – the 268-mile Spine Race from Derbyshire to the Scottish borders – as a new parent. It's the race where competitors choose when they sleep and for how long, carrying the full weight of their kit in winter conditions and covering ground both night and day. Jasmin Paris, a 35-year-old mum to 14-month old daughter Rowan, did exactly that - and won. She beat the previous record by 12 hours, stopping for approximately seven hours across the three-and-a-half day race where she would eat, sleep and...express breastmilk.
Being a first-time mum without doing a 268-mile race can be brutal at times too, especially for those who are struggling with their mental health. With one in 4 people experiencing mental health problems in their lifetime, the church can be well-placed to come alongside those who are struggling. With great resources like the Mental Health Access Pack to offer guidance and the willingness of Christians to come alongside new mums, there is hope in what can be a very difficult time.
The Maternal Mental Health Alliance state that 'more than one in 10 women develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within the first year of having a baby'. According to mental health charity Mind, around 10-15 per cent of new mothers develop postnatal depression. The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) launched the #HiddenHalf campaign to improve the six-week postnatal check to better support those who are struggling with their mental health. Research by the NCT found that '95 per cent of mothers who had a mental health problem said that this had an impact on their ability to cope as a mother or on their family'.
It's important to be more aware of what is going on behind the scenes for new mums. Many might be intimidated by Jasmin's ability to do so much, but for every visible mum out and about with their bundle of joy, there is a mum behind closed doors struggling to leave the house. Although many may be familiar of what having a baby entails, it is worth being reminded of the challenges that mothers go through so they can be fully supported at this time.
1. Recovering from the birth
Having a baby puts enormous strain on the body no matter what type of birth you have. Stitches, soreness, aching and more have to be managed whilst learning how to look after a newborn. For some, it might have left an emotional scar from a traumatic delivery. Processing this while getting on with daily life can be very tough.
Tip: Talking it through with trusted family members, friends or a professional can begin the healing process, but it does take time. Being aware of any physical limitations can be important, for example not being able to drive after surgery and seeing if those needs can be met by someone with a car. Let parents know that you are always there for a chat if they need it.
2. Sleep deprivation
Jasmin Paris experienced hallucinations from sleep deprivation during the Spine Race and said: 'I was on the final section and I kept seeing animals appearing out of every rock, and I kept forgetting what I was doing and every so often I'd come to with a start and think 'what am I doing here?' and then I'd remember I'm walking the Pennine Way.' When I had my son, I hardly slept for two weeks solid and started to hallucinate. I would often be awake in the night thinking my son had fallen asleep on my bed whilst another baby had fallen asleep in his moses basket. At one time, I thought he was growing facial hair! Many times I was convinced that he was in my arms when he wasn't. It was awful.
Tip: It's hard to believe that the sleep deprivation will ever pass. If you know a mum with a newborn, offer to sit with her baby while she can catch up on sleep. At the very least, do the dishes, bring meals, hoover and offer any other practical help you can. If you are worried about her health, especially regarding hallucinations, it could be a good idea to encourage her to seek help from a professional in case it is a more serious condition.
There is enormous pressure placed on new mums to breastfeed with 'breast is best' often cited. A survey commissioned by BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour found that more than a third of the 1,162 respondents felt ashamed for formula feeding and half felt they had let their baby down if they struggled to breastfeed. It can leave feelings of guilt, shame and failure. Even if a mum does breastfeed, it can make it difficult to socialise if they are uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public.
Tip: Support mums however they decide to feed their baby. If a new mum is struggling with feeding or unsure what to do for the best, encourage her to get information and support from a healthcare professional so she is able to make an informed decision. In church, welcome her to feed where she feels comfortable, but offer her the option to go into a quiet room to feed if she would prefer.
4. Support network
Jasmin also shared that she has a supportive family which enabled her to practise her running. For some new parents, they might not have family living nearby or perhaps do not have a very involved or good support network. It can be incredibly isolating if you are a new parent to not have anyone to help out. The church can be supportive during these early weeks by providing hot meals and offering to help with practical tasks and errands. Calling by to be a listening ear is a valuable way to show that you care too.
Tip: Once the immediate excitement of welcoming a newborn home fizzles out, it is still important to keep in touch and see how mum is doing. This can be an ongoing source of comfort for some parents, especially if they are housebound or struggle with getting out and about.
5. Being sociable
Leaving the house can be a big deal for a parent who is anxious about looking after their baby out and about and all that it entails: feeding, changing, crying and the rest. For some mums the thought of going to a baby or toddler group is a huge obstacle to overcome. Every child is different and so are mums. What works for one will not always work for another, so it's important to support them where they are at and be there for them, whether at home or elsewhere.
Tip: Offer to go somewhere that they would like to go to or make it an enjoyable catch up at home. The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and enable mums to talk. A helpful guide on talking about mental health can be found through the Heads Together campaign here.
The NCT states that 'motherhood can challenge a woman's sense of identity, revealing a tension between "personhood" and "parenthood".' Identity is often wrapped in what we do. Jasmin is a vet but it also doing a PhD, she is a wife, a mother, a runner, a champion and more. Where do we place our identity?
Tip: It is great to remind a mum with a Christian faith that she is loved and is a child of God. This reminder of a Heavenly Father's love for his daughter can keep that identity rooted in biblical truth. Whether she has a faith or not, show her your love by action and give her time and space to do the things that she enjoys, whether reading, going for walks, baking, running - provided she has the energy to do these things! It's positive to do something enjoyable which can only be a good thing when it comes to improving mental wellbeing.
7. Social media #mum
Social media gives us a false understanding and a distorted view of the reality of being new parents. Seeing the highlight reel of motherhood on social media is hard. It's understandable that nobody wants to see sicked-on clothes, bags under eyes or the the pile of dirty dishes that haven't been cleaned. However, filtered photos of perfect children and always-smiling mums can distort the reality.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya wrote for The Mind and Soul Foundation explaining that 'parents are in danger of being drawn into a belief that we must present to the world images of 'perfect' children who bring overwhelming and neverending joy to us. Little consideration is given to the unique and often difficult journeys many women (and their partners) may have faced along the way, leaving some women feeling vulnerable and unsure of themselves.'
Tip: Even though it is difficult to control what and how much social media someone uses, it is possible to be an agent of change in the digital sphere. Send encouraging messages to uplift their day, a picture of an untidy house to remind them that this is the reality for most people or invite them to Skype or FaceTime to catch up. Social media should be social, not leaving people to wallow in a virtual reality that is far removed from the nitty-gritty of everyday life.