The myth of motherhood

By Michelle Duff

Half of all Kiwi women say becoming a new mum is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. So why do we keep pretending everything is tickety-boo? Michelle Duff finds out.
Shanna Breman-Trewern and Hazel Hills, 6 months (left) and Sophie Balfour with Madeleine Balfour, 6 months, at Morningside PlayCentre. Picture / Doug Sherring
Shanna Breman-Trewern and Hazel Hills, 6 months (left) and Sophie Balfour with Madeleine Balfour, 6 months, at Morningside PlayCentre. Picture / Doug Sherring

Like most women, Shanna Breman-Trewern had her birth plan sorted. She wanted a natural birth, in water if possible. She expected to feel overwhelming love the moment she locked eyes with her newborn.

Neither of those things happened. "It wasn't like that at all," says the 26-year-old, who delivered her baby via emergency caesarean section after a long labour. "I burst into tears because I was so mentally drained. That bond didn't exist for me, and I didn't have the magical, drug-free birth I had planned. For a long time, I wouldn't even say that I had given birth."

In Breman-Trewern's Government-funded antenatal class, the teacher passed around an epidural needle so expectant parents could see its length. Women were told their bodies were designed for a natural birth, and not to accept anything less. They were informed that unless they'd had a mastectomy, there was no good reason not to breastfeed.

"It was just scaremongering," Breman-Trewern says now. "But it's so bad that when it comes to the birth, every time they come near you with a painkiller, you think: 'What's that doing to the baby?'"

Heads nod around the circle of new mums here at Space, the new-parent support programme at Auckland's Morningside Playcentre.

Primary school teacher Rachel Suggate, 31, is smiling down at her 5-month-old son. "Motherhood was a real shock," she says.

Suggate spent lonely, painful hours trying to breastfeed her son, who could not latch properly. She had little support, but felt too guilty to stop. "I've got no family here, my husband works long hours, my mum died. I really struggled, and every time I got upset about it I thought, 'There's something wrong with me, why do I hate breastfeeding, I should love it.' I felt like a failure."

The conversation moves on to every new mother's obsession: sleep. Getting enough sleep, getting the baby to sleep. Recognising the baby's tired signs. Worrying if the baby doesn't sleep for long enough, or sleeps too long. There's a lot of talk of guilt, too; feeling guilty for not having a straightforward birth, for not loving your baby immediately, for giving the baby a bottle. For taking a moment to think of yourself.

New motherhood is hard. There should be no shame in saying this, and asking for help. But despite mothers being under more pressure to be perfect than ever before, many women feel like they can't. In a world where Kim Kardashian posts pics of her sexy post-baby bod to Instagram a few short months after birth, where an entire industry has sprung up to monetise sleep and feeding advice, and where online forums spew out screeds of judgment, admitting you're not loving every moment or that you're not coping or that you'd rather stick your hand in a hot vat of oil than have sex right now is to admit failure.

Space co-ordinator Jagprit Sandhu sees harried new mothers, worried their baby isn't sticking to a chosen sleep regime, spend up to $400 on sleep consultants. The results typically last a few weeks.

"As soon as something changes in [the baby's] routine, they're teething or sick or it just changes, then it stops working. Instead, we say listening to their gut is the key - it is more about going with the rhythm of the child than the clock." In India, where Sandhu is from, it is tradition for womento be taken care of, fed and massaged at home for 40 days after giving birth. The modern Western expectation, that a mother should "bounce back" even as she may be exhausted, emotional and recovering from a perineal tear or major abdominal surgery, could not be more different.

But here's the thing; to struggle is normal. We've all heard of postnatal depression, which studies suggest affects about 15-20 per cent of new mums, and up to 10 per cent of dads. Canterbury District Health Board mother and baby unit perinatal psychiatrist Liz MacDonald told Canvas the women she sees are probably just the very worst cases. The true number, including those who feel too embarrassed or for whom help is difficult to access, is probably much higher.

Depressive postnatal symptoms include everything from the "baby blues," - feeling low and crying for a few days or weeks after childbirth - to severe postpartum psychosis, characterised by delusions and hallucinations.

In the New Mothers' Mental Health survey of 805 New Zealand women carried out by the Health Promotion Agency last year, three-quarters of respondents said they were less able to cope with everyday stressors. Half of the women said the previous 12 months had been the most difficult of their lives.

"For most mums, becoming a mum for the first time is the biggest life challenge they will have to face - and for some, it is even more difficult," MacDonald says. "For some mothers, the rewards don't come immediately, but there's a lot of guilt around admitting you're not always finding motherhood the mostly amazingly happy experience in the world. There are lots of times with a young baby when it can be pretty boring and repetitive. I think there's a strong sense in society it's not okay to talk about that kind of stuff - and that's a shame, because it can leave a lot of mothers feeling isolated.

"It would good if we could get the courage to be a bit more real."

Giving birth isn't exactly new, and motherhood has never been easy. Our grandparents raised multiple sprogs in an era when washing machines hadn't been invented, and New Zealand had the second-highest maternal death rate in the developing world.

But back then, new mothers stayed in hospital for two weeks, learning "mothercraft". Specialist Karitane hospitals looked after newborns and mothers who struggled to breastfeed, or just needed help caring for their baby. It was considered job enough for a woman to be a mother.

After a vaginal birth in Auckland Hospital, you can be out the door in less than four hours. Midwife visits last for six weeks, followed by several WellChild appointments in the first year. These visits are baby-focused - a 20-minute check where the baby is weighed and measured and the mother questioned about their child's milestones. New mothers often live away from wider family, and many have to juggle paid employment. Plunket, a charitable organisation part-funded by Government, do have free drop-in centres and short courses - but accessibility to these varies depending on where you live.

When it comes to publicly-funded support for the mental health of new mothers, there's a gaping hole, Postnatal Distress Centre psychotherapist Susan Goldstiver says. She thinks the true number of new mothers who experience anxiety, difficulties adjusting, birth trauma, depression, relationship issues or some other psychological distress is more like one in three.

"In my day there were just books, but now you can google and get a million different pieces of advice. There are subtle and not-so-subtle messages about what a 'good' mother is, and a lot of my work is alleviating that anxiety."

Women Canvas talked to spoke of feeling overwhelmed and fearful of not doing things the "right" way. "My experience of low milk supply really threw me: all of the pro-breastfeeding messaging I had seen and believed had not equipped me for my new reality," Angela says.

"I could not provide enough food for my son on my own, but I had to deal with self-generated shame of bottle-topping-up my son in public. I felt so alone and also so unsure that what I was doing was correct."

Carey, who had post-traumatic stress disorder after the birth of her son, now almost 2, agrees. "I definitely don't think there is enough support after a C-section for the mental shit you go through, from all the drugs to the failure you feel for not pushing your child out."

It may have helped Carey to know that in fact, the majority of Kiwi women do not have a textbook birth. According to the most recent maternity data in New Zealand, from 2014, one in three women have a "normal" vaginal birth. The rest have interventions from induction to C-sections and episiotomy, a surgical cut to enlarge the opening of the vagina. Natural birth is a great goal; but it is not the safest option for everyone.

Another major stressor for Goldstiver's clients; sleep. "The rules around sleep used to be just go with the flow around the baby's needs, instead of all the strict sleep schedules, all the focus on the baby 'sleeping through', which creates a lot of anxiety and stress."

Anna tried for weeks to stick to a strict sleep plan, stressing out when her baby wouldn't follow it only to find she was in pain due to undiagnosed silent reflux. "There is so much 'you should do this and you must do this' and it's scary and overwhelming as a first-time mum ... [even] now there is definitely still pressure about encouraging a military-like regime that all babies should follow, and it sometimes makes me feel inadequate that I can't."

Many women also felt a loss of identity from having their working days fill with menial household chores, Goldstiver says, along with pressure to keep up appearances. "Is your baby out with you at the mall within a week? Can you fit into your jeans? There are so many messages about 'bouncing back' rather than just stopping and being in the moment."

So who is benefiting from these motherhood myths, the uncertainty and sleepless nights? The baby care industry. In the United States alone, baby retail - including food, bath products, toys, and accessories - was worth $23 billion in 2013. In New Zealand, hiring a sleep consultant, a baby coach, or a lactation consultant is becoming commonplace.

That's despite research from the Society for Behavioural Sleep Medicine across 17 countries, published this year, which found few consultants were currently or had ever been registered health practitioners. "Consultants may not have training in infant development, sleep or mental health so there are no guarantees about the type of knowledge, skills or expertise parents can expect to access," says Bronwyn Sweeney, Massey University Sleep/Wake research centre doctoral candidate.

But, she concedes, they have grown from the need for parents to feel supported. "Parents who are very sleep-deprived describe obsessing about sleep, and it becomes something they become preoccupied with taking control of. Parents want to do the best job they can and seeking external assistance forms part of that."

However, broken sleep is normal baby behaviour, Sweeney says. The Sleep/Wake centre's own research into 1200 Kiwi mothers and babies found at three months, babies were still waking an average of twice a night.

A separate study found women who were given more information about their own and their babies' sleep were more relaxed about night wakings.

Baby coach Trish Martin is a former maternity nurse who sees her job as empowering parents. She finds tearful clients are often so afraid of being "bad" mothers they ask Martin's permission to stop baby-wearing, or go back to work, or put their baby in their own nursery, or give them a bottle, or let them cry a peep.

"They feel so guilty, because they're told they're not allowed to leave the baby slightly. They get so sucked into this [terrible] notion of 'cry it out' that they think that means they must run to their baby every time it cries," she says. "Actually, it's very important to let your baby cry for a little bit, because it's part of you figuring them out. You don't have to pick a baby up every time it cries, you can attend to it in a nurturing way with a very confident touch. That's different to letting them cry for hours, which is the last thing anyone would want to do."

So where does that leave us, the mothers of the world? Yes, there could be a push for more research-based teaching at antenatal classes. There could be more funding for mental health services. But Goldstiver thinks change can begin with individuals. It already has; bloggers like Australian Constance Hall and Wellingtonian Emily Writes have legions of followers who love their refreshingly honest takes on motherhood.

May it continue, she says. "I think it's about women being kinder to each other, and more honest, and society valuing mothering. There aren't many mothers who aren't trying their very best, whatever that may look like."

- Canvas

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