I'm Jenna, mum of two (4 & nearly 2), founder of @mum2mumpenarth and I'd like to share my postpartum story with you.
I think we all have expectations of what motherhood will be like before we have kids. It’s impossible to know the reality of how all-consuming motherhood is and how that manifests itself in how we feel day to day. I definitely had unrealistic expectations of how challenging I would find motherhood. I approached it with the same way as I had approached my career - something that I could control if I worked hard enough/got organised enough and with a heavy dollop of self-criticism when I wasn't achieving what I thought I was supposed to.
My daughter was born in 2014 and had multiple health issues when she was still under 6 months (hip dysplasia, severe eczema & multiple allergies). Due to these issues, this made me even more protective of her and not willing to accept help from anyone (not even my husband). I would tell everyone that I was fine and was coping but deep down I wasn't. Breastfeeding until 8 months on a restricted diet because of my daughter's allergies compounded the tiredness and exhaustion. And what goes hand in hand with the sleep deprivation? The overthinking, anxious thoughts and catastrophising.
I stayed in a lot, going out would seem like a big thing, I'd think of all of the things that could go wrong and that in itself would stop me from going out. I wasn't practising self-care and I completely ignored my own needs. After a family bereavement on top of this and returning back to work after maternity leave, I realised that I wasn’t in a good place at all. I was low, felt like I couldn’t cope, was anxious most of the time and never felt like I was doing a good job as a mum.
I went to my GP who said I had postnatal anxiety. I didn't end up going to the anxiety management courses that I was referred to, so the anxiety was always there. I tried to self-manage the anxiety through practising meditation, and taking time out for me just for me, which was the start of my self-care journey. The routine of being back in work helped me a bit and I fell pregnant again in autumn 2016. Strangely, when I’m pregnant, my mental state is always quite calm, a complete change from my normal state!
Fast forward to May 2017 when my son was born. I didn't breastfeed my son which made a huge difference to me, I felt so much freer and for the first 3 months I think I was high on adrenaline and he was a good napper. But then the naps dwindled, he was more active, my daughter was hitting peak threenager tantrum phase and for a good 5 months I felt that postnatal anxiety return. I mean, it was no wonder really when I never had treatment for it.
I felt numb, couldn't find joy in anything, told myself (and truly believed) that I was a bad mum and that my best would never be good enough. One day, just before Christmas 2017, I thought, I've had enough of feeling like this. I was emotionally and physically drained by that inner critic who berated me day and night. That day, I rung MIND and chatted to an amazing lady there. Just to voice what was in my head, in a safe space with no judgement, was so cathartic.
That visit to MIND kick started a GP referral and 12 months of course referrals for postnatal anxiety (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Stress Control, CBT and 1 to 1 counselling) which ended in Dec 2018. The 1 to 1 counselling was transformational. Being able to identify my limiting beliefs threw everything on its head and opened my eyes to why I thought and acted certain ways. A lot of it boiled down to low self-confidence and low self-esteem. I could then see how that linked directly to me genuinely feeling like I was a bad mum. Practising self-care daily also made a huge difference to my emotional wellbeing, self-confidence and the ability to show myself self-compassion. Recognising that my needs mattered too and that it wasn’t selfish to prioritise myself. My counsellor said to me 'self-care is what is going to get you out of this' and I always reminded myself of that when those hard days and hard moments would hit me.
Midway through my course referrals in Aug 2018, I started to realise how powerful it was when we feel like we can be vulnerable, open up and be heard. To help other mums who may feel like me, I founded @mum2mumpenarth, a group just for mums to come along without their kids and be themselves for 2 hours. The group is a place where mums can chat openly and honestly with each other, listen to a guest speaker who is related to self-care and pick up self-care tips too. The fact that the group is without kids means that we can have a break away for the chaos and stress of #mumlife and also not be distracted too and have quality conversations. I've made some amazing friends from the group and I always say the group is as much for me as it is for the other mums.
Where I am now a few months after finishing all of my course referrals is in a completely different place to a year ago. I have more self-confidence, I don't pretend I'm OK when I'm not, I prioritise self-care and I can show myself self-compassion. I recognise and respect my needs. I still have bad days/weeks but I've got a toolkit I can refer to which makes a huge difference. I used to feel so stuck and hopeless and now I know that I can bring myself out of those suffocating feelings.
One piece of advice I would give to other mums is - don't be afraid to open up and share how you are really feeling - whether that be to your friend, partner or GP. Don’t struggle on thinking that you are the only one who feels like you can't cope, or thinking that no-one else feels the same as you. Supressing those feelings and thinking you can pull yourself together exacerbates the situation.
Also prioritise yourself and your self-care as much as you can, and try not to feel guilty about it. It takes a bit of trial and error, but working out what self-care you enjoy, what self-care you can fit in when you have the kids and even during those times when the kids are ill and everything is overwhelming, it makes a huge difference. Listening to podcasts, diffusing essential oils, practising breathing techniques and kind-self-talk are my go-to’s for my self-care when I’ve got the kids.