Being a parent is challenging.
Change occurs in every area of wellbeing - physical, emotional and social - and the impact can be overwhelming.
Knowing when and how to speak up about the difficulties of parenting is difficult. Expectations define parenthood as something to be enjoyed, but sometimes these expectations don't match reality.
Myths of parenthood
Subtle messages from society can create a fictional image of parenthood. This image often denies the reality of parenting or the associated mental health challenges.
These myths can include:
- Mothering is intuitive and natural
- Good parents always have time to play with their children and the wisdom to guide and discipline them
- ‘Supermums’ have infinite loving feelings for their baby…and bond immediately after birth
The truth is that raising children is a demanding long-term responsibility for which parents are not trained. Like all jobs some enjoy it, others don’t. The myth of the Supermum or Superdad who has everything is just that, a myth!
What stops parents from speaking up?
Guilt and shame
Established strategies to manage mental health often lose effectiveness when someone becomes a parent. Suddenly finding yourself unable to manage your mental health and care for your baby in the way imagined can be a source of guilt and shame. Shame is a real obstacle to speaking out.
A parent’s fear of judgement or having their children ‘removed’ can delay help seeking. Sometimes members of the family or community suggest ‘positive thinking’ as the way to wellness. While having a positive attitude can be powerful, it should not be at the expense of acknowledging and supporting the difficulties faced by the parent.
Helpless and hopeless
It is not uncommon to hear a mum say ‘they would be better off without me’. This is sad and untrue. Mental illness is hard. Being a parent is hard. When the two collide a parent can feel completely alone: helpless and hopeless. This is not a safe space for anyone, let alone a parent of young children that need engagement and connection.
Who can help?
Just as an athlete needs to be in optimal shape to compete, parents with young children need to be well supported to run the parenting marathon. Anything that serves to boost wellbeing is a positive step, for example:
- Seeing a GP for physical or mental health concerns.
- Reconnecting with established supports upon noticing a decline in mental health: psychiatrist, psychologist, counsellor. It is important to talk through concerns before they become bigger.
- Supportive family, friends, community groups, spiritual leaders etc.
What can help?
Getting back to basics
Nourishment through food, water, fresh air and exercise. The tricky thing about exercise is that it is often the first thing to go when there is a drop in mood. At the same time it is helpful in lifting mood. Joining a support person for a walk each day, or engaging in a physical activity that involves connecting with others is a good start.
Withdrawing from family and friends may seem self-protective but it can create a sense of isolation and loneliness. It is hard being social when feeling a lesser version of yourself. But this is the time when others are needed most. As a parent one option is to join a supported playgroup or support group where the mask of coping can be dropped and both you and your child can safely connect with others.
Looking after yourself
People speak of the importance of ‘self-care’. Self -care doesn’t mean massages, shopping trips, a run, or a weekend retreat. Self-care is whatever provides space and time to reconnect with what matters to you. It is putting yourself first so you are then able to care for others. As a parent this is crucial.
Reaching out and speaking up
Be gentle with yourself. Be realistic with expectations. If you are worried your health (mental or physical) is impacting on your ability to be the parent you want to be, speak up and ask for help. We don’t have a choice in what we are diagnosed with, but we do have a choice in how we manage ourselves when we are struggling.
Opening up about these challenges, voicing your concerns or fears, allowing others to help and 'speaking the unspeakable' is brave and makes you a great parent!
Jenni Richardson is Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia's (PANDA) National Helpline and Programs Manager.