You may or may not know, May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness month. While there are awareness months and days in abundance, this is one that feels especially vital to me. Because I set up Happy Mum Happy Baby when I felt like we weren’t talking about maternal mental health that much. We were starting to get better at talking about mental health difficulties in general – about depression and anxiety, about the importance of reaching out when you need support.
When it comes to motherhood though, it feels different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different. I described it recently as ‘a ride that us mums are on’, full of astounding highs and devastating lows. And it’s continuous. Any anxieties or struggles we feel don’t pass after the first year. Learning to manage maternal mental health is an ongoing thing.
That’s why the work people like today’s guest do is so important. Why talking about our own experiences is so important. Why communities of parents saying “yes. Me too. I feel that too” is so important. Because the more we can unite with each other, stand by each other and support each other, the more we’ll demystify what’s going on in our heads.
Love Gi. Xxx
I am SO thrilled to be sitting down with psychotherapist, writer and all round legend Anna Mathur to chat about what we need to be thinking about as we go into Maternal Mental Health Month. I loved talking to Anna for the Happy Mum Happy Baby podcast recently and this chat was another chance for us to take a deep dive into parenting and the oversized computer we carry round in our heads.
Anna – it’s so great to have you here for Coffee with Gi. You say that your book Mind over Mother will help readers ‘learn to address the most important conversation you’ll ever have – the one inside your head, because investing in your mental health is the best gift you can offer yourself and your child’ – can you tell us more about what that means?
How often do you find yourself overthinking the words you’ve spoken or the ones uttered to you? You are also aware of how the tone of voice and the words spoken to your child impact how loved they feel. Words can encourage and support. But they can also discourage and destroy. However, the most significant conversation you’ll ever have takes place in the secret of your mind. It’s the foundation to your inner world. It informs the way you interact with others, your level of self- worth and the decisions you make.
Can you imagine speaking to your baby, a friend or loved one in the way you speak to yourself? Consider the impact it would have on their sense of worth. It would impact whether they believe they are loveable, or enough.
So how does this relate to motherhood? It relates in every way. It’s harder to make the faltering steps of any transition in life when we have this voice inside our heads telling us that we aren’t good enough. One way to start tweaking your internal dialogue is to ask yourself what would someone say if you spoke all these words out loud to someone who cares about you? What would they say to you in response? They would hopefully use kind, compassionate, encouraging responses, so this is how you must speak back to the critical voice.
Your good mental health and self-esteem is one of the biggest gifts you can give your child. Because to truly be able to ground, reassure and respond to them with compassion, we must be able to offer that to ourselves first.
When you joined us for The Virtual Meet-up in 2021, you spoke about how we can sometimes promote the basics to self-care. We tell ourselves that having a wee on our own, or taking a shower, or drinking a glass of water counts as ‘enough’ looking after ourselves. This is something you’re keen to challenge. How can we make sure we don’t slip into this habit – and how can we make sure we’re actually doing more of what counts?
I encourage mums to check in with themselves as much as they check in with their children! Consider now, three things that you need. Practical or emotional. Your needs and feelings matter too. In fact, they matter a lot. Think about the pilot of the plane, if she isn’t okay, tended to, fed, watered and grounded, then everyone else’s safety is in a quandary. We are the pilots of our children’s planes. If we are burnt out, depleted and wracked with guilt, it will impact our ability to enjoy and navigate the wonderful moments and challenges that arise.
I encourage you to increase your standard of what you see as self-care. If you think you’ve ticked the self-care box by drinking a glass of water, how might you step it up a little? Perhaps not waiting until you are parched, or nourishing yourself in another way too. Basic acts of self-respect keep us at a functioning level (even prisoners get fed and watered!), but taking it a step further to be kind to ourselves builds self-esteem. We want to nurture our kids with more than the basics so that they flourish and grow, knowing they’re worthy of kindness and rest. We deserve that too! Everything you do is a statement somehow, it sends a message to your mind and heart about your worth and your deservedness for love and good things.
We’re often led to believe that mum-guilt and anxiety is just part of the job description. What do you say to that? How can we combat this belief?
Guilt can easily become the background buzz to motherhood. Guilt about not doing enough, well enough…guilt for resting, for needing space, for feeling overwhelmed. Guilt for accepting support, for finding things challenging, for not loving every moment. The opportunities are limitless!
Unaddressed guilt causes the volume of your inner critic to soar and your self-esteem to plummet. Holding on to guilt is a form of self-bullying! Guilt is best seen as a little red flag that pops up to prompt you, and not a reason to criticise yourself. I encourage fellow mums to consider what guilt might be prompting them to do.
Might the guilt you feel actually be unjustified (e.g. you weren’t actually at fault in any way, it was more to do with the circumstances!)? Maybe you feel guilty about snapping at someone you love and the guilt is encouraging you to slow down, or rest to refuel and resource yourself. Maybe you did something wrong, because you didn’t know better, therefore the guilt is prompting you to find some great new tools or knowledge to lean on next time! Perhaps you recognise that you’re feeling guilty because your expectations of yourself are too high (remembering your friend’s birthday when utterly sleep deprived?). This guilt might be prompting you to go gently on yourself, and show yourself some kindness and understanding. Once you’ve acted somehow, that guilt has served its purpose, and you can keep letting it go!
You run a course called ‘Reframing Anxiety’. What is your number one tip for anyone who struggles with anxiety or intrusive thoughts to help them rework those when they appear?
When we become mums, it feels like our heart is walking around outside of our body! There is suddenly a whole new world of possibilities, both good and scary. Love and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin. The more love we have in our lives to enjoy, the more vulnerable our hearts are. But ultimately, loving is so worth it, right? Life would sure feel safer if we shut off our hearts, but it would feel lonely and lacking at the same time.
My advice to mums is that whilst having a mind buzzing with anxious thoughts sure is common, it doesn’t need to be your normal. If your anxiety is robbing you of enjoyment of motherhood, then there are an amazing number of highly effective tools that can help you lessen the buzz and power of anxiety.
One of my favourites is to count back from 100 in 3’s if you notice yourself spiralling into rumination, as it helps disrupt and halt the thoughts. I also recommend grounding techniques such as lengthening your out-breath, or listing 5 things you are grateful for, to help bring you back into the present moment when your mind is rushing ahead to possibilities and potentials. But most importantly, if anxiety is impacting you and feels unmanageable, or you feel that any level of trauma may be playing a part, please do seek support from a medical professional or therapist.
It’s also important to realise that you are not your thoughts. That the wild and sometimes awful thoughts that pop into your mind are not a reflection on who you are, or how good a mother you are. They are our mind’s way of considering risk, power and responsibility, and not a reflection of your sanity. If I get a bad one, I often think ‘eugh, that’s not nice’ and imagine blowing it away like a mouldy leaf on the breeze.
The more meaning and value we ascribe to them, the more they can impact us. If your intrusive thoughts are at all traumatic, or feel distressing, relentless or overwhelming, please do seek support via a medical or therapeutic practitioner.
What advice would you give to someone who is wondering if they need more support for their anxiety or mental health? How would someone know if they needed extra support?
If you are wondering whether you’d benefit from support, then seek it at this point! So often we wait until things feel really hard or unmanageable before reaching out for support. Keep an open dialogue with a close friend or family member, and encourage yourself to go beyond the ‘I’m fine’ response with those who are kind and supportive.
When you feel low, or are finding things tough, or are questioning whether you are okay, remember that you aren’t failing, you are feeling! Feelings change in time, and there is so much that can be done at any point to support and nurture your mental health. You are always deserving of support regardless of how easy it is to believe that. Ensuring that your mental health is good, is also a gift to your little child and a gift to yourself. For we can find so much more enjoyment in motherhood when we find ways to free up headspace from guilt, anxiety or fear. Where there is help, there is hope.
What’s your number one tip for mothers this Maternal Mental Health Awareness month?
I’m encouraging mums to address their standards and expectations of themselves, to make them more sustainable and achievable in light of ever-changing resources. However, I’d love to encourage you, reading this, to have a think about what, regarding your mental, emotional or physical health, are you just ‘putting up with’, accepting, or brushing under the carpet? Our focus is so often on the health of our children, but our mental health is paramount for our enjoyment of life, and parenting.
Do you ever find yourself just saying ‘well, my anxiety is just part of who I am’, or ‘mum guilt is just part of the job description’? If so, consider how, when your child is older, you’d feel if they just ‘put up with’ the things that were getting them down, or were acting as hurdles for their health and happiness. You’d want more for them! You’d want them to want more for themselves, right?
The most powerful way we can teach our children that they are valuable, worthy of love and good mental health, is by going on that journey ourselves, so that they can see. Actions speak more loudly than words, don’t they? So, up the bar for your own mental health. For you and for them, and watch yourself flourish as you do so.
Follow Anna on Instagram for more tips on looking after yourself this Maternal Mental Health Awareness month and beyond. Her advice is absolutely invaluable. Xxx
I’m already thinking about my next CoppaFeel! Trek! I’m doing two this year and so I’m sporadically dragging the kids out on little stomps with me. But with the British weather being as it is, they need to be prepped for every eventuality. That’s why I’m obsessed with Little Trekkers. They sell outdoor clothing for kids that stands up to absolutely everything they throw at it – and let me tell you, my kids can definitely throw a lot at their clothes. When it comes to my hiking gear, I’m relying on Regatta and they are not letting me down. NOT LONG TO GO til the first trek of the year! Who’s coming with me?!
After the Easter holidays, getting back into a routine was number one on our agenda, so I’ve been looking into Five Wild Ones’ Routine Cards. Fun and colourfully illustrated, they work for kids of all ages, but it’s the post box angle that I think makes this really interesting.