Preparing for the birth of your first child is an experience like no other. People approach you on the street to rub your belly and smile in a warm and friendly way rarely seen in busy cities. There is a buzz in the air and a woman is often (though sadly not always) surrounded by love and excitement about this new life on the way. Though any parent knows that this isn’t the whole picture.
Nothing prepares mums (nor dads for that matter, but I’ll focus here on mums) for the emotional rollercoaster that comes along with pregnancy and of course parenting. The highs and lows of parenting can lead the most calm and steady person along a course with feelings they didn’t know were possible. Children, it has to be said, and often has been, are a huge source of joy and wonder and, let’s face it, pain and frustration!
The first kick during pregnancy, the first smile, little words being uttered and tiny steps taken are all such memorable moments. And then comes all the less pleasant experiences. There are the frequent trips to the loo during pregnancy, the nausea that lasts way beyond morning for many of us and the exhaustion and irritability that take up residence in one’s life once the baby arrives.
Babies have such a way of pushing our buttons. A baby’s cry is carefully designed by mother nature to get our attention. The anxiety and frustration, and perhaps even anger, that are likely to surface when a baby cannot be soothed can feel so overwhelming. Many mums feel pretty helpless at times, probably several times a day if they are being honest. And tears may be a regular visitor for mum as well as the bub.
Gosh, perhaps this all sounds a bit negative! It isn’t supposed to! There has been plenty said about how wonderful parenting is and that for those fortunate enough to be able to have children it is usually seen as their greatest life achievement. And yet it is so important that parents can be kind to themselves and understand the huge adjustment that takes place in their life once two becomes three. (Or one becomes two in the case of single parents). Self-compassion is so important to practice at such times.
During the pregnancy with my bub I read all the books and eagerly prepared myself for all possible outcomes. The most helpful books for me were not the ones telling me what to expect at every week along the way but the ones that reminded me how to deal with my head and heart during this incredible and challenging journey. As a clinical psychologist with 15 years experience I know a bit about how to work effectively with emotions and yet, as a pregnant woman and new mum I needed all the skills I could muster to manage the sleepless nights, difficulties with breastfeeding and baby tantrums that started way earlier than I had anticipated!!
Two books that have been invaluable to me are “Mindful motherhood” by Cassandra Vieten and “Buddhism for mothers” by Sarah Napthali. There is a beautiful question that the author of the latter book suggests that has saved me on days when my patience was in short supply, “What is required of me in this moment?”. By pausing for a moment this question can bring us back to consider what kind of mother we want to be, how we wish to raise our children and what we need to do so. The most frequent response to that question for me is “patience and love” – and within a few moments I can settle myself into remembering that my baby needs me to stay calm and in the present moment. Often when a baby cries we race off in our heads to unhelpful places such as “when will the crying stop?”, “If he doesn’t sleep now we will have another terrible night” or much darker and more distant destinations, “how will I handle having a teenager?” and the like.
As well as those two wonderful books the skills I have developed using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) have been a life raft in a choppy sea of emotions. With ACT you can learn skills to handle difficult thoughts and feelings more effectively, so they have less impact and influence over you. The “commitment” part is about clarifying your ‘values’ – i.e. what matters to you; what personal strengths and qualities you want to develop – so you can choose how you respond to your challenges, and behave like the person you want to be.
Louise Shepherd, Clinical psychologist from The Sydney ACT Centre