At my 10-week post-baby check-up with my GP I was asked how I was doing. I paused and took a deep breath and instead of smiling and faking a sunny reply, I looked down at the floor and said: “Well actually, I’ve not been feeling so great. I’ve felt quite low, I’m overwhelmed and I’m stressed out.”
We chatted for a couple of minutes before moving on to weighing my baby and talking about how he was doing, and then I was sent away with a link to Headspace. Which if you’ve not come across it before, is a meditation website and app that uses the tagline: “Live a healthier, happier, more well-rested life in just a few minutes a day.”
I know – I know – that it helps thousands, maybe even millions, of people feel better every single day, but I left her office, strapped my sleeping newborn into his car seat and then sat in the drivers seat and cried… hysterically. I felt alone, and desperately so.
I found out I was pregnant with baby number two in January 2020. And, when I peed on that stick in my bathroom, Covid-19 was still just a whisper on the news. Something which was happening thousands of miles away. In fact, Public Health England were yet to even move the UK’s risk from ‘Very Low’ to ‘Low’.
I’d found the newborn days with my eldest son excruciatingly hard. So, when it came to trying for a sibling for him, I knew I wanted to be better equipped than I had been the first time round. I wanted to set up a home/work/life/support system that made the transition not just easier on me, but on my partner, son and new baby too.
Of course, as we now know, the world had other plans, and in March 2020, life as we knew it was completely flipped on its head and the global pandemic forced us into lockdown (or what we now know in England as Lockdown One).
Even then, I had no idea of the implications that coronavirus would have on my pregnancy, birth and post-partum experience (you can read my birth story here). I saw my midwife (alone) a few weeks later, and she said: “All this will be over by the time you have the baby in September.” And we both believed that, we honestly did.
Whilst there’s very little data to go on just yet, early reports and case studies are finding a not-entirely-shocking surge in new mums reporting mental health problems following the birth of lockdown babies. The NSPCC last month revealed that between April 2020 and January 2021 they had over 3,000 phone calls about parental mental health – that’s up 44% compared to the previous year. Whilst a survey undertaken during the pandemic by Parent-Infant Foundation, Best Beginnings and Home Start found that 60% of new parents shared significant concerns about their mental health because of the additional stress caused by Covid, and that only one third of those felt they could find suitable mental health support for themselves.
In fact, a quick Google of the term ‘perinatal mental health’ (perinatal: women going through all stages of pregnancy and new motherhood) brings up UK news stories published everywhere from the Wirral to Wolverhampton about a rise in new mum mental health referrals. In some areas of the country, NHS data shows the number has in fact doubled since the start of the pandemic.
Why? Well for starters – we’ve been shut off from crucial adult company. Naomi Magnus, a psychotherapist based in north London who has a special interest in perinatal mental health, says that the pandemic has made it harder than ever for woman to get the emotional support they need during the post-partum period. She says: “With mum and baby groups, playgroups and coffee shops closed (places where new mums could typically come into contact with other mums and the outside world in those lonely early days) my impression is that new motherhood during the pandemic has been particularly isolating.”
It’s also been harder than before to seek help when we need it. Pre-lockdown, Naomi offered home visits to new mums, meaning they could receive emotional and psychological support around feeding their newborn and changing nappies. Now, she can only offer her services via Zoom which she says is “not exactly an easy format for new mums” due to the set-up of sitting in front of a screen for 50 minutes at a specified time. Many of her clients have struggled to attend sessions reliably due to childcare challenges.
So what then, are the biggest red flags when it comes to maternal mental health? Naomi says: “With an over-stretched mental health service, we tend to look for the simplest ways to classify people’s mental wellbeing in order to get the most immediate support, whereas new motherhood can present more subtle and slow-burning mental health challenges. In my experience, those can present as: difficulty sleeping (being so exhausted you can’t sleep straight yet unable to switch off or relax when sleep may be possible), increased weepiness that goes beyond the first few weeks and persists beyond the mum’s understanding, uncontrollable rage that feels unfamiliar and out-of-character, feeling isolated and alone (despite having a good support network) and changes in close relationships.”
Between my best mates who’ve also had lockdown babies, and the ‘Fake NCT’ Whatsapp group I created last summer with friends and friends of friends who had due dates close to mine, we’ve voiced every one of those symptoms. There’s been voicenotes and middle-of-the-night texts about weepiness and rage, loneliness and isolation, sadness and anger. But are those feelings more present and frequent because of the pandemic? It’s hard to say.
But what there is in every single chat is an unspoken solidarity in what having, and looking after, babies during this turbulent time has been like. There is constant checking in, and a refreshingly honest sharing of emotions and feelings, without glossing over the tough stuff. One thing I have really noticed is a mourned loss of the maternity leave we had all expected and planned for.
And, it’s only as I’m finding my feet with a seven-month old, that I’m able to gain some mental space to navigate and process all the emotions that have come from having a baby in 2020. I left that doctor’s office feeling as though I didn’t want to push the NHS for help – I felt like an unnecessary burden in the midst of everything else going on. The logical part of me knows that is ridiculous, but the part of me that needs the help can’t help but distort things. I have spent the majority of the time since tip-toing the line between holding up OK and needing to book another appointment. Some days I reach the bottom of the washing basket and I am wearing make-up and we’ve all eaten vegetables and I feel as though I have smashed the day, as if we are through the worst of it. Other days I feel as though I cannot breathe.
I have leaned into my community hard, both the virtual one and the physical one, and I will forever be in debt to the women who have held me up and supported me when I needed it more than they probably ever realised. The ones who have sent memes and 11-minute voicenotes, and the ones who have walked laps and laps of the same parks over and over again with me.
What do I think the lasting effect of covid-19 will be on the mums and babies who experienced pregnancy, birth and those early days in lockdown will be? I have absolutely no idea. Only time will show the true difficulties endured. But for me, it finally feels like maybe, just maybe, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The good days are growing and the feeling of hope and optimism is lingering in the air. I have to believe that there are better days coming, days which are full of relief and sunshine and the ability to catch my breath.
For more info on Naomi Magnus’s psychotherapy services, please find her website here.