Don’t worry, be happy. For many new parents, this is easier said than done. Counsellor Michelle Parkinson suggests ways to overcome anxiety and step closer to peace.
I’m a counsellor and a mother of three. I wouldn’t describe myself as an anxious or indecisive person, but there was something about becoming a mum that magnified these traits in me. Looking back, I can remember even the process of getting pregnant began to stir up anxiety.
When my husband and I started trying to conceive, nothing happened. Then when I got worried about nothing happening, I didn’t get my period for over 100 days. This is the way with anxiety; when you start to lose your confidence and question yourself, the questions can turn into comparisons and judgements and the thoughts can snowball. Negative self-talk in our heads can be relentless and frightening. Anxiety as an emotion can be a helpful warning to us when something isn’t quite right, but when you’re too anxious to make a decision you can become paralysed - unable to move on and unable to think rationally.
Having a baby can be a prime time in a person’s life for anxieties to come to the fore. Birth is a monumental physical and psychological event. The hormonal changes combined with the stressors that come with a significant life change can make new mothers prone to postnatal depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand, and I encourage you to seek help through your GP or plunket nurse if you suspect you may be depressed. This article, however, is aimed specifically at mothers who have found they are more anxious than they were before they had children.
When you have a baby, all of a sudden you are responsible for a brand new life. You are the ultimate authority and everyone will be looking to you (and your partner) for answers. Most of us have the intention of being the best parent we can be. Most of us feel a new and overwhelming love and protection for our child as we bond with them. With these intense feelings of love come the fear and the risk of losing our baby. Our anxieties can be aroused right from the beginning; from conception (especially if there has been difficulty in conceiving), from pregnancy (especially if there have been miscarriages or difficulties during pregnancy) and from birth (especially if there has been difficulty or trauma in birth). A whole range of things can be triggers for us. Some people find simply being in hospital anxiety-provoking. Even if you have a straightforward pregnancy, birth, and a healthy baby, there is a constant stream of questions to face and decisions to be made on your baby’s behalf. There’s the hearing test, the heel prick test, the question about vitamin K … and so begins many years of trying to make the best decision you can for your child with the limited information that you have.
It can be overwhelming. We rely on others to help us make these decisions; our partners, our midwives, our doctors. We trust advice we are given but if something traumatic has happened, we may be unable to fully trust others or to accept support, or even to rest and take a break. Mothers can find themselves constantly on high alert if there has been a problem with their baby’s health. This hyper-vigilance makes it almost impossible to get the rest that a new mum needs in order to cope with her new role.
Through the fog
Sleep deprivation and extreme tiredness make all our emotions more difficult to deal with. When you are sleep-deprived, you can’t always cope with the normal stressors of parenting. I remember my third night into parenting after a long labour and an emergency Caesarean section - I had been in hospital two nights and this was my first night at Birthcare. My son had changed from a sleepy and quiet little thing into an insatiable demanding baby who cried and fed hour after hour after hour. (I now know this is pretty common for a two- to three-day-old, but I didn’t then.) I have a clear memory of my midwife coming early that morning. As she walked into the room, I burst into tears and voiced the anxiety that I had been feeling so intensely - “I can’t do this! I’m not cut out to be a mum”. She replied calmly, and without any hint of surprise at what I had said, that I could do it and that I was already doing it. I so needed that encouragement right then, because till then I just couldn’t hear anything other than my own negative thoughts.
Steps to peace
When we are anxious, the normal self-talk that we all have in our heads changes and the negative thoughts become louder, drowning out the positive ones. We ruminate on an issue without getting anywhere. It can be freeing to identify the negative thoughts, fears or worries by either voicing them or writing them down. Then you have something concrete you can start to unravel. Once you have worked out what the anxious thought is, you can argue against it, test it to see if it’s a real fear or an imagined one, and put it into perspective. If you can stop and unravel your anxiety, and then let it go, you can start to re-claim some peace in your inner world.
The following tips can really help new parents overcome anxiety:
1. Spend time with people who encourage you and help you to feel more confident in yourself. Avoid those people who try to convert you to their parenting approach, or who are ready at every opportunity to tell you the risks of doing things a certain way. There is wisdom in investing your time in relationships that make you feel good. Critical or judgemental people can exacerbate anxious thinking, causing you to question yourself unnecessarily. Easy-going people can have the opposite effect, bolstering your confidence and quietening your anxious thoughts. Your own feelings and instincts can act as a guide in this. Practise noticing your feelings and what they are telling you. Do you always feel a little bit uptight before you see that particular mum from your coffee group? Perhaps you might be better to spend a little less time with her and more time with someone more uplifting.
2. Check in on your worries – are they justified? Often parents are worrying about matters relating to their children. Is my child getting picked on by another child? Is their language development normal? The list goes on. I have found myself worrying about an issue with one of my children, but then realising that the issue wasn’t actually an issue for the child in question. Children can pick up on and absorb your anxiety. Try asking yourself whether the anxiety belongs to you or your child. If you can foster (in yourself) a belief in your child’s ability to cope with life using their own strength and resilience, you can pass that confidence on to them. I really appreciated Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy (based on respect for and trust in your baby to be an initiator, explorer and self-learner) and Magda’s book Your Self-Confident Baby, for teaching me to sit back and observe as a parent, and trust my child to explore the world and do their own learning.
3. Embrace a ‘good enough’ mentality. Being a mum is hard work. It is relentless, draining and complicated. During the first few years of your child’s life especially, you may not be able to maintain all the aspects of your life that you are accustomed to. Your vegetable garden may go to seed, your exercise regime might go out the window, you might find it too much to have friends over for meals. Anxiety and perfectionism can be linked. Perfectionists can find the adjustment to motherhood challenging simply because they can’t maintain the same standards as before they had children. Lower your expectations for yourself. When you notice yourself becoming anxious about something that hasn’t been done or isn’t up to standard, ask yourself some simple questions to put it into perspective: How important is that thing really? Am I being too hard on myself? Do I need more time and space for that? Can I live with it as it is - is it good enough for now?
4. Nurture yourself with self-care practices and positive self-talk. Become more aware of the chatter that’s happening inside your head. If you notice you are being critical and harsh on yourself - telling yourself you can’t do it, or you always muck that up, or you’re not a good mum - stop that train of thought and turn it into something positive. Be kind to yourself, acknowledge how hard you are trying, even if you didn’t get everything right today. If you have done something wrong to someone else then apologise as soon as possible and let it go. I believe apologising to your kids is a really important and healthy thing we can do to show them we are all human, all fallible, and that it takes courage to own up to our mistakes and to move on from them. This provides positive role modelling.
5. Trust your own judgement and instinct for what is right for your family. Be careful not to ask too many people for advice or you can become confused by conflicting points of view. Speak with a few trusted people if you are looking for second and third opinions. Beware of the risks of internet ‘research’. If you (and your partner) are really stuck on a decision, try making a first step and test out how it goes and how it feels - most decisions can be reversed without too much difficulty.
6. Ask yourself some questions to try and get a healthier perspective on what you’re worrying about - it could be that you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Try asking yourself the following questions: Is this going to be an issue in five years time? What, realistically, is the worst that could happen? How important is this thing that you are worrying about in the scheme of things? Another simple thing to ask yourself is if there is one thing that would make this situation feel a little better. Even a partial solution is better than no solution.
Some anxiety is good. It allows us to be protective and defensive of ourselves and our children, and to sense when something isn’t quite right. This article addresses some simple things you can try to control your anxiety, however anxiety that is overwhelming, paralysing or intrusive will require some professional help. Try your doctor, a counsellor or psychologist. Find a professional who really listens to you and someone you feel ‘gets it’.
Michelle Parkinson has a Masters in Counselling. She divides her time between caring for her three children and counselling at both an Auckland secondary school and privately through her practice, wainuicounselling.co.nz