‘It takes a village to raise a child.’
I have long believed in the ancient African proverb, that it takes a village to raise a child. This has become even more evident recently, with the Covid-19 pandemic removing overnight our access to family, friends and groups that as new parents we may have reached out to for advice and support.
Especially in the early weeks of the pandemic in 2020, when many women faced the prospect of appointments, labouring and in some cases even birthing on their own without a partner or chosen support person present, the fear was real!. However, it is common as new parents that the scariest prospect of becoming a parent is birth. ‘How will I cope, what if I can’t cope and what if I change my mind????’! These overwhelming thoughts escalate as your bump grows and that day comes closer and closer.
What happens after the birth?
Many mothers I have worked with over the years will say ‘I was so worried about the birth, I didn’t really stop to think what happens after it! So many say they felt unprepared for what came next. That ‘being pregnant was an amazing experience’ but they hadn’t given as much thought to what happened after the birth as they now wished they had! The arrival of parenthood was a bigger shock than anticipated. However well we prepare, its fair to say for most of us it’s a shock!
The evidence tells us...
Evidence has demonstrated that parents often find NHS run antenatal groups have a large focus on the birth and even some professionals themselves feel underprepared when helping expectant parents to focus on other aspects of becoming a parent. Although little evidence exists relating to antenatal education, what we do have tells us that, focused antenatal preparation, involving the parents, can help to reduce maternal anxiety and depression during both pregnancy and in early childhood. This can lead to improved coping, greater partner support and a better birth experience. We also know that group interactive sessions on breastfeeding, that cover key issues such as attachment and positioning, how to prevent nipple trauma and involves breastfeeding peer support in the process, is an effective way of supporting mothers to initiate and continue to breastfeed.
For parents in 2020
So take 2020, we are all thrown into this pit of isolation and fear by a pandemic, something quite frankly none of us or anyone else around us has had any experience of before and gladly hope to never again! It was scary, it is still scary!!!!
We know that parents need support to help them prepare for parenthood and we know that the outcomes for their mental health, well-being and confidence as a parent are much better with access to a good support network afterwards. Lots of parents in 2020 had no access to either of these things!!! Studies during this last year have shown that new parents experienced lower self confidence during this time!
So what has this meant for you? What has this meant for your baby?
Firstly, having to figure it out mostly on your own.
Becoming a parent is one of the most overwhelming experiences of your life! Throw into the equation that for many of us the birth has not been what we had hoped for, a zen moment sat on a lily pad listening whale music to calm us, but a physical and emotional roller coaster that we are then expected to forget just happened and look after this tiny human that needs us 24/7! (case in point, how many of us didn’t realise it would literally be 24/7?) Having had some idea this was coming does at least soften the blow slightly!
Missing forming your village
During the early weeks of having a baby, new parents are often inundated with visitors, cards, gifts and basically attention. If you are super lucky this comes in a useful form of hot meals, help with the washing and someone to watch the baby whilst you try and get at least 20 minutes shut eye! Sometimes though we get the ‘other’ type of visitor. These are the baby worshippers that turn up, (the worse kind come even without an invitation!) they need feeding and watering, want to just cuddle the baby and then leave again. So many times I thought, ‘I could be sleeping right now!’
Many 2020 parents have not had either of these experiences, you were on your own. You missed this first vital part of forming your village.
The right kind of support
We all have visitors, friends or family that mean well but quote endless lists of ‘with my baby this worked a treat,’ as if they are a parenting guru or ask you ‘are they a good baby’. As if this is an actual thing! Yes of course they are a ‘good’ baby, they haven’t got an ASBO yet! Technically, this ‘good baby’ means do they sleep all night, only feed when it’s convenient and don’t need any attention. These are actually all completely unrealistic developmental expectations of your child. At this newborn stage they are programmed to want to be close to you to feel safe, need to feed every few hours to encourage your milk supply and not sleep for long extended periods as this is biologically not the norm at this stage and increases the risk of SIDS (Sudden infant Death Syndrome, please see Lullaby Trust information on Newborn sleep and safety).
But thinking or the inference that they should be, doesn’t half make you feel like you are doing something wrong! You are not!
Those guests that turn up and help, listen and just be there for you, often turn out to be the very first people we do start using for actual advice or sometimes even more importantly the emotional support you really need.
Learning to be responsive
Although it isn’t fair that you missed out on this experience, there is actually a bit of a silver lining here. Something that can make those first few weeks easier, is having that time together. The not going out, rushing to look like you’ve got it all together and be back in your skinny jeans, but living in your pjs and spending all your time cuddling your new baby, is just what nature intended. The more time we spend cuddling our babies, the more we get to know them and start to work out what all the subtle little and easily missed cues mean. You were given the time and society’s approval for once that it was ok to be doing this! You were learning the first part of how to be responsive and in tune with your baby without all of the distactions that can make this more difficult. This is such a precious time that actually outside of 2020 often gets ruined by well meaning guests, or pressure that you should be back in your jeans, or have a ‘good baby’ which is so unrealistic! It just would have been nicer if this could be the norm but without the reason that caused it in 2020 ( and so far into 2021 to be fair!)
Finding your village now
Figuring it out on your own cannot have been easy and if you have found the experience of becoming a new parent hard, you are right, it is hard!!! But you have had to do this in the midst of a global pandemic!
You and your baby have missed out on baby showers, people meeting your baby for the first time, family cuddles, mum and baby classes, making new mum friends, access to groups and advice when you needed it most. Being able to get out of the house and show off this little human being that you made is great. People tell you how cute they are and that makes you feel fantastic as you did this!!! It also means you don’t have to be inside the four walls of your house you can go somewhere else, and not be on your own with this person all day, every day. You have lost the village you need to make the step into parenthood not so ‘’boom in your face you are a parent!!!!!
So what now? We cant get back that time and babies grow, and ‘You are doing this!’ But maybe now is the time to start thinking about how you can begin to build that village that was delayed by Covid, because parenting being hard doesn’t actually stop! Sorry to say that, the challenges just change and it still makes it much easier to have others around you to help. Finding those great understanding friends, others in the same boat as you, that amazing health professional that you actually really like, that one person that just gets what you need without having to ask, is invaluable!
Real support, not just stuff!
Online groups, parenting forums, zoom meeting with friends, the novelty has all worn off a bit now and what we all really need and want is some actual face to face human contact. Its coming but its still going to look different for a while. Surround yourself in the ways you can, take support in the ways you are allowed. If someone asks what you would like as a gift, or if there’s anything you need, don’t be too proud to say, ‘a delivery of a hot meal would actually be great’ or ‘could you come and take a load of washing for me’ because having that one less thing to worry about may just make you feel a bit lighter. Having that village, even at a distance will help you get through this. We can all hope there is some light at the end of this tunnel that means you can start doing some of the things you have missed out on, just because you became a parent in 2020!