Practicing Mindfulness Can Ease the Stress of Being a Mom

Here’s a copy of a blog I wrote for the What to Expect website – linky here.

Becoming a mother for the first time is a unique experience, but for some women, the reality doesn’t live up to their expectations. Where was that instant rush of love, that bond, that moment of looking into your baby’s eyes and finally feeling “complete?” If you had a traumatic or protracted labor and birth, if you found establishing breastfeeding painful or impossible, if you hadn’t slept for the last few months of pregnancy and suddenly have a 12-hour-a-day screamer on your hands, the only “complete” you’ll feel is “completely awful.”

I was very fortunate in having experienced two home births, both very quick and “easy” (if incredibly painful!). But it went downhill from there. Both boys struggled to breastfeed, both had reflux (one mild, one so severe he was hospitalized for a month), and neither slept at all. The youngest, at two-and-a-half years old still doesn’t . Within six months of giving birth each time, I was diagnosed with postnatal depression.

I tried a lot of things to help me recover. SSRI antidepressant tablets really helped lift my mood in the short term. Exercise and time to myself also made a difference. But the single thing that made the biggest impact was discovering mindfulness meditation.

So many struggles with new motherhood are about wanting things to be different from the way they are. To “rediscover the old you.” To be in better shape. To be a better mother. To keep your romantic relationship alive. But in practicing mindfulness, you learn how to accept the present moment as it is — which is a precondition for change.

In the early days, the monotony can feel relentless. But in being completely aware of what is going on in the moment, you can break that state. So much of motherhood is about responding to another person’s needs. But mindfulness helps us be aware of how we are feeling. Reconnecting with our own bodies and minds makes us more relaxed, responsive and better able to deal with everyone’s needs.

You don’t need to do a course at the start — just Google “mindfulness exercises” and give them a try. You’ve nothing to lose but your anxiety!

Testing times for PND

Blimey, has it been a whole month since I posted? As ever, life (and, in this case, work) has got in the way. But I’ve been nudged out of my blogging torpor by this news, that apparently you can do a blood test that will show if you are likely to suffer from PND. According to the Telegraph piece, “The test spots two genes in DNA that may signal the onset of the condition, and could provide early warnings of the debilitating sadness, irritability, depression and loss of appetite that affect almost one in five new mothers within weeks of giving birth.”

This disturbs me for several reasons, in no particular order:

  • If you test positive for these genes in pregnancy, what implications will this have for your ante and postnatal care? Will you suddenly be under surveillance from the midwife, health visiting or social work team? Although the findings might be couched with the reassurance that “extra information will help support new mothers at risk”, is there not also the possibility that professionals may try and intervene, regardless of whether the mother is actually suffering, or indeed wants the help that is on offer?
  • Many women feel sad, irritable and lose their appetite within a few weeks of giving birth. For the majority, it’s part of the “baby blues” that accompany new motherhood, along with hormonal and lifestyle changes. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they will develop full blown PND. I am concerned that women who might otherwise find themselves coping well after a few weeks may overreact at the first emotional dip because a test has told them they are at risk. Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone? Leading to…
  • Would resources not be better used dealing with those who patently do have PND? I’m all in favour of improving ante natal education and the signs to look out for, but a medical test seems somewhat extreme, especially when so many of the symptoms are circumstantial. Yes, I’m sure there are people who are predisposed to suffering from depression, but you can’t test for a baby who has colic or reflux, relationship breakdowns or financial disasters.

Much as I wish I hadn’t experienced PND after both boys were born, I’m glad this test wasn’t available at the time. Pregnancy can make you even more sensitive than usual and susceptible to “expert” advice, and it might have made me more dependent on medicalised ways of treating depression.

Why toddlers are like empty boats

I’m holding myself back from delving too deeply into the “feral toddler” panic that certain media outlets have whipped up. But to paraphrase:  taking her cues from the French system (as she did regarding childcare ratios for the under-fives), Elizabeth Truss has decided that UK nurseries are too rowdy, and that small children should be more settled, calm, and taught more formally. I really can’t comment much on this as there is such a disparity between nurseries – some are overcrowded hellholes that I wouldn’t want to send my hamster to, while others are  kind, caring environments that alternate between “quiet time” and more boisterous playing. If you want to read more about it, there’s a good thread over on Mumsnet to read.

But I read an article by Leo Balbuta today (regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan) which prompted something of a lightbulb moment. I’m going to copy some of the article here as he describes it beautifully:

“In her book Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck tells a story that I’ll paraphrase here:

“Imagine you’re rowing a boat on a foggy lake, and out of the fog comes another boat that crashes into you! At first you’re angry at the fool who crashed into you — what was he thinking! You just painted the boat. But then you notice the boat is empty, and the anger leaves … you’ll have to repaint the boat, that’s all, and you just row around the empty boat. But if there were a person steering the boat, we’d be angry!

“Here’s the thing: the boat is always empty. Whenever we interact with other people who might “do something to us” (be rude, ignore us, be too demanding, break our favorite coffee cup, etc.), we’re bumping into an empty boat. We just think there’s some fool in that boat who should have known better, but really it’s just a boat bumping into us, no harm intended by the boat.

“That’s a hard lesson to learn, because we tend to imbue the actions of others with a story of their intentions, and how they should have acted instead. We think they’re out to get us, or they should base their lives around being considerate to us and not offending us. But really they’re just doing their thing, without bad intent, and the boat just happens to bump into us.

“When we see things with this lens, they suddenly become emptied of anger and stress. Our boss was rude? Empty boat, just respond appropriately, don’t imbue with a story. Kid throws a tantrum? Empty boat, just breathe and find the appropriate, non-angry response.

“This is detachment. It’s seeing the actions and words of others as just phenomena happening outside of us, like a leaf falling or the wind blowing. We don’t get angry at the wind for blowing, and yet the blowing does affect us. Let the actions of your kid be the wind blowing — you just need to find an appropriate response, rather than being stressed that this phenomenon is happening.

“So when your kid is doing something other than what you’d like, let go of that desired outcome that’s stressing you out, and let go of the story you’ve imbued into their actions. Just think, “Empty boat, wind blowing.”

“And then give them a hug. Let love guide your actions. Teach, don’t control. Set an example of how they should behave with your compassionate response. They’re watching you, not listening to your words, and that’s how they learn.”

I absolutely love this – and of course, it’s applicable to all life situations, not just when the kids are driving you mad. It’s so easy to attribute negative intentions to other people’s actions – the word “thoughtless” is used as a pretty damning description of someone’s behaviour. But taken literally, it means the other person wasn’t thinking of harming you – knowing this, your reaction may be less hostile, more muted. My young children push my buttons all the time, but I will try to keep this in mind when they’re doing something I think they “shouldn’t’.

 

Wherever you go, there you are

Just picked up this brilliant book - “Wherever you go, there you are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the follow-up to his fantastic, but complex, “Full Catastrophe Living”. I love the title, and it brings home how the jobs we get, the things we buy, and the ways we fill our days are so often an attempt to escape ourselves. And yet, even with that great new job, that new pair of shoes, that new partner – we are still fundamentally the same person inside.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aspire to greater things for ourselves, or enjoy identifying and achieving goals. But we won’t become a different person when we get them, and life won’t suddenly be simple and happy all the time. It will still be messy, difficult, interesting, frightening, disappointing and joyful. We just get better (or we don’t) at handling our circumstances.

It’s very accessible and easy to read – and each chapter has a “try” section, with practical applications of the issue discussed. I’m going to share a few of these (quotes directly from the book) in a series of blog posts as I find them really helpful and inspiring. Try:

  • Stopping, sitting down and becoming aware of your breathing once in a while throughout the day. It can be for five minutes, or even five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment, including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening. For those moments, don’t try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go.
  • Reminding yourself from time to time, “this is it”. See if there is anything at all that it cannot be applied to. Remind yourself that acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what is happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgement that what is happening is happening…You might try acting out of a deep understanding of “this is it”. Does it influence how you choose to proceed or respond?
  • Work at allowing more things to unfold in your life without forcing them to happen and without rejecting the ones that don’t fit your idea of what “should” be happening.
  • Looking into impatience and anger when they arise. See if you can adopt a different perspective, one which sees things as unfolding in their own time. This is especially useful when you are feeling under pressure and blocked or stymied into something you want or need to do.
  • Recognising the ways in which you meet obstacles with harshness. Experiment with being soft when your impulse is to be hard, generous when your impulse is to be withholding, open when your impulse is to close up or shut down emotionally…Allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling.

Selenium “lowers risk of PND”

There’s some new research that’s been published today that seems to point to food supplements protecting against symptoms of postnatal depression (PND). The article on the Neal’s Yard Remedies website refers to a study of 475 women, and observed:

“What they found was that amongst women with a higher overall nutrient intake from supplements, the risk of depression was lower. Specifically, the study published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth found that higher average intakes of omega-3 and especially selenium appeared to be the most protective.”

The foods most naturally rich in selenium, according to Neal’s Yard Remedies, are:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Fish (tuna, halibut, sardines, flounder, salmon)
  • Shellfish (oysters, mussels, shrimp, clams, scallops)
  • Meats (beef, liver, lamb, pork)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms (button, crimini, shiitake)
  • Grains (wheat germ, barley, brown rice, oats)
  • Onions.

Obviously, PND is more complex than a simple nutritional deficiency – I’m the first to bang the drum for proper diagnosis, and a holistic approach to treatment. But it’s interesting to see how the food we eat can influence our mood – and that there is now some credible research to support this.

 

Thank you!

Lovely blog post this morning from Live in The Present entitled “Gratitude is the key to happiness”. It reminded me of the importance of appreciating circumstances as they are, rather than as we may like them to be.

It’s easy enough to be thankful for life when things are going well (although we’re often so busy having a nice time that we forget to stop and appreciate them). But when times are tough, if we’re facing difficulties in our professional or personal lives, it can be difficult to see the silver lining. Indeed, it can be cathartic to have a rant and a rail about the unfairness of existence, but as a way to then get out of our funk, nothing beats conscious gratitude.

As someone who has written about personal development and coaching for the last ten years, I always recommend “thank you” lists as a very powerful exercise for moving forward and effecting change. But, as in many other areas of life, we tend to teach what we most need to learn. So I am grateful for the blog for reminding me, for all the readers of this blog…I’ll save the rest for my private journal :-). Happy Easter!

 

How does this blog make you feel?

Not a question I would have dared pose my readership before. But I have now come across a rather strange sidebar on a website (Fembuzz.co.uk) which poses the question to readers at the bottom of a piece and gives them the following options: inspiring, weird, scary, funny, amazing, important.

I don’t know whether to be more bemused by the fact that it exists at all, or that apparently 7% of people reading an article entitled “Felicity Kendal: ‘I regret losing touch with Richard Briers’”, found it “scary”. I hope they were mocking the whole ludicrous exercise – otherwise there are some very easily frightened people out there who need more help than a celebrity website can provide.

Imagine if readers of mainstream newspaper websites had to rate articles in the same way? Right now, the top story on the Guardian website is, “Cyprus government says deal may come in hours”. What would it say about the people who judged the news “weird” or “funny”? Would it affect the judgement of the editor? Almost certainly.

The weight of the general public’s judgement already holds too much sway. I blame Pop Idol, back in the day. The idea that by phoning to vote for your favourite act would affect not only the career of the individual but also the course of the TV series gives people a false sense of their own power. I understand that voting in its original sense is important. But not everything in life is worthy of judgement. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter we can “like” and “favourite” – a pastime that takes a matter of seconds, but gives us a temporary status boost. We have judged ourselves important enough to pass judgment on others and their activities.

Do we have to have an opinion on everything? I long for the days when you actually needed to have some experience or expertise about a subject before your view was taken seriously. What do you think? Do you find that idea: a) old-fashioned b) terrifying c) hilarious d) pathetic or e) What are you talking about? I only clicked on this page to read about Felicity Kendal.

 

Reasons to be cheerful

Several chapters into my book, I can conclude that swearing off Twitter and Facebook for the weekend has made me able to concentrate more on the static printed word. Am I a better, more cultured person for it? Unlikely (it was a Peter James thriller, didn’t want to totally alienate myself at the start of the experiment) – but I have definitely carved out a little more mental space in my social media-free zone. In the same way that I feel better for a few nights without wine, I can only enjoy such abstinence in the knowledge that I can return to it at will. So expect to see me all over Facebook again tomorrow – but it’s nice to know I can leave for 48 hours and not be missed (actually…<humphy face>).

Other things that have made my weekend more enjoyable:

  • Spending some time overhauling my career plans (self-employed people could do a lot worse than check out some of Bernadette Doyle’s videos on getting out of the time-for-money trap)
  • Doing something I hated that my children loved. Specifically spending two hours going up and down the flume at the Triangle in Burgess Hill. One of the seven circles of hell for the over-12s.
  • Highlighting things I like the look of in the Brighton Festival guide, Radio Times at Christmas-style. I might not go to see any of them, but anticipation is half the fun.
  • Battling through Saturday with a hangover, as a result of a Friday night out in the local pub. Reminds me that  it’s nice to have people to go out and drink too much with, even if the kids decide to wake at 5.10 and get out the accordion and drum kit to emphasise their pleasure at seeing me.

What made you :-) this weekend?

 

Thanks to Twitter I can no longer read a book

It’s a situation of my own making, I’ll be the first to admit. But I have tried to read a book (fiction) at bedtime for the last few nights and just can’t get beyond the first few lines. I’m impatient at having to concentrate for so long and reach for my iphone on the bedside table to check my email/Facebook/Twitter account once more before going to sleep. The book will be exactly the same as I left it in the morning, but the world will have moved on. If only we didn’t need sleep, I could really keep up to date.

I am aware of how bad this is, and it has got exponentially worse since a) I bought a smartphone and b) began engaging seriously with Twitter. My gnat-like attention span has been even more corroded by these two factors, and I have started forcing myself out of the cafe (free wifi) and into the library to work as I can’t get online. If I stuff my phone right into the bottom of my bag, I can usually do at least 20 minutes’ work without checking it.

Like all addicts, I pretend I’m in control. “It’s not the technology itself, but the abuse of it that’s the problem” I declaim, making promises to my future self about ensuring my boys won’t have screens in their bedrooms when they’re teenagers. Other than the fact that in 10 years we’ll probably have screens sewn into our eyelids, I realise what a hypocrite I am – and also how annoying to be with. I would hate someone to be with me and constantly checking their phone – but I have become that person.

There is (some) justification – as a self-employed person, I need to be “out there” promoting my wares and I don’t want to only tweet my products and services (it’s dull and I tend to quickly unfollow people who do this). But this means engaging with other people and reading stuff – and there just aren’t enough hours in the day for it.

But this being unable to read a book situation has made me look twice at my online behaviour. This weekend, at least, I am going to stay off Twitter and Facebook, and see if I’ve managed to finish a chapter of a book by Sunday night. Granted it’s not a very long time (and not very scientific), but worth doing nonetheless. I just hope nothing really important happens during that time. Or at least that people don’t talk too much about it until Monday…

The house of silent tearaways?

Just seen this piece by the psychologist and parenting expert, Tanya Byron on how sleep deprivation is affecting the behaviour of today’s children and teens. Actually, she says it’s “ruining their lives” – but I suspect that may have been a bit of poetic licence on the part of the journo, rather than a direct quote as I can’t find it anywhere in the article.

As any regular reader of this blog will know, sleep is a subject very dear to my heart – although one very unfamiliar in recent years. Her argument – that parents are doing children no favours by letting them stay up late, allowing screens (mobiles, laptops etc) in bedrooms and giving them snacks, leading to behavioural problems – is sound. I can totally understand why ensuring children have a calm bedroom routine and aren’t allowed to stay up until they want to makes sense. And yet, I suspect it’s not as easy as she says. None of this parenting lark is.

I imagine that if I read about my children’s sleep habits in a newspaper, I would be appropriately shocked and disapproving. Your two year-old has milk from a bottle? In the night? And a dummy? And gets to share your bed? Shall I book his place in borstal now, or would you like to wait a little? Are you some kind of weird martyr to motherhood?

I’m actually pretty far from it, but it has only been until now that I’ve felt confident that I could approach my youngest son’s sleep issues in a “traditional” manner. 10 days ago, I started a “gentle” version of controlled crying with him at bedtime, as I knew he wasn’t in any pain from his reflux at that stage. He now goes to sleep on his own every night, and only wakes during the night about one night in three.

Do I wish he had done this earlier? Of course – the last two years have been a blur, with plenty of undesirable consequences of his poor sleep (PND, etc). But I genuinely don’t feel I could have intervened sooner as I wouldn’t have felt comfortable about the cause of his crying. Now he can tell me if he’s in pain – or if he just wants a cuddle.

The point I am trying to make is that sometimes circumstances get in the way. Yes, I have an “excuse” for the way I have approached my child’s sleep issue (his reflux). But I’m sure plenty of parents of older children have legitimate reasons for the “crimes” Tanya Byron accuses them of. In the current economic climate, people don’t always have the luxury of working near their homes, and this often means parents arriving home late and, quite understandably, wanting to see their children before they go to bed.

Or what about other extra curricular activities – I’m sure most people would approve of young children going to Brownies, Scouts or doing some swimming or music lessons if that’s what they enjoy. But these are often timetabled in the early evening, and parents have to make the choice between their children doing something healthy and character-building – and having them tucked up at an “acceptable” hour.

Of course, we shouldn’t let kids completely rule the roost and choose their own bedtime if they can’t sleep in the next day. And it is good to aim for early nights and predictable routines. But this just feels like more scaremongering for publicity (yup, she’s got a TV show out) – and yet another stick wielded at (mainly) mothers for not getting things “right”.