Lonely, but not alone: Why is no one telling the whole truth when it comes to motherhood?

Childbirth is a long celebrated life event for women. Surrounded by smiling mums, sleeping babies and helpful partners in pop culture, it can be easy to think this is what motherhood should look like all of the time. While yes, these moments do indeed take place, oftentimes it’s anything but.

Feeling alone, sad and isolated even when you’re surrounded by supportive partners and family is more commonplace than you’d think. It may not be clinical postnatal depression, but new parents withhold their struggles more than we, as a society, realise. Judgement, criticism and divided camps on how to be a good mum make it all the murkier especially for those navigating uncharted territory.

But it isn’t called a ‘miracle’ for nothing. It is one of the most incredible, life changing experiences. It’s beautiful and painful all at the same time. Every woman’s experience is different. What may come easily to one, can be a lot harder for another. In a society obsessed with ‘perfect parenting’, why do we feel so pressured to pretend like things are always peachy? Why is no one talking about what it’s actually like? Here are some of the parenting truths I wish we talked about more openly.

Pregnancy pretences and birthing misbeliefs

When women find out they’re expecting for the first time, thinking about the birth can be extremely overwhelming and all consuming. Drugs, no drugs, caesarean… the list goes on. They may have even endured a long fertility battle that has been shrouded in shame and secrecy. A woman’s first prepartum journey is a lot to take in which isn’t helped by everyone’s opinion about what they think is best for her. And the unsolicited advice comes from all angles — even other women.

Throughout pregnancy, some of the things women deal with include swollen feet, hair loss, stretch marks, cramps, heartburn, even miscarriage — not everyone ‘glows’. For some, it can be really tough.

Miscarriage is not talked about nearly enough despite one in five women[1] having one. A lot of women don’t discuss that they’ve lost a baby, or babies, as for some it comes with a lot of guilt. It’s another form of parenting guilt. It’s a silent pain that some women feel that they must endure alone – a dagger to the heart that even a partner can’t measure or feel. To all mothers out there who have lost a child, I’m so sorry. Nothing will ever replace what you’ve lost.

When it comes to the birth, many women have the ‘perfect plan’, but if I’ve learned anything in my time it is that babies aren’t fans of plans. What’s more, if the woman has a traumatic birth, it can have lasting effects that continue for some time postpartum.

If a pap smear is traumatic, you can only imagine the trauma mothers experience when giving birth. From day long labours to giving birth in one hour – every woman’s experience with trauma is different. One of the most important things you can do after giving birth, is to debrief afterwards with a healthcare professional or even a trusted loved one. ‘How was your birth experience?’ is the first question I always ask a new client and I learn a lot about that new mum’s state of mind then and there.

But birth is but one milestone of many. After it, she’s likely sleep deprived and no doubt sore, plus she’s probably just realised she’s still only at base camp with a long uphill journey ahead. Baby brain? I don’t think so. More like ‘brilliant bae brain’. The term ‘baby brain’ puts women down, and makes new mums feel stupid. She hasn’t had a proper sleep in months, and she’s just finished growing a new human and is now responsible for its life. There has been a seismic hormonal shift in her body, with energy dedicated to getting through three trimesters, the birth and then keeping a little one alive. Women don’t become forgetful or confused for no reason. Their brains are literally rewiring to accommodate their new maternal instincts[2].

All the gear, and no idea

She’s prepped, she’s padded, the nursery is all set up and all it needs now is her little ray of sunshine to come home. Then, everything changes. When the crying starts, all the plans she made once again fly out the window. Losing 44 days of sleep[3] in the first year? If she’s lucky. Feeling judged for feeding in public? She’s not imagining it. Society presents this image that we need to be happy and grateful that we’ve had a baby, but not everyone is. When the baby is crying, everyone turns to the mother to be able to make it all better – and when she can’t, that’s when the guilt engulfs her.

Year zero of motherhood is a year of firsts. Like the first time her baby gets sick and she doesn’t know what to do. Her first consecutive sleepless nights, or the first time she fights with her partner. Let’s be honest, new motherhood is bloody hard. I’m a professional, and when I had my son, I found the first year very trying too.

Every baby is an individual with its own personality and quirks. When it comes to the first year of its life, some will stick to a sleep schedule, others will not. The sleeping patterns of newborns is not a reflection of her parenting ability. We always ask how the baby is sleeping, but rarely the exhausted mother. And, if someone were to ask, would she tell the whole truth? When she’s meant to be in new motherhood bliss, admitting defeat so early on in the race may feel like something she can’t share. But it’s not defeat, and she shouldn’t be made to feel that way.

With feeding, there are so many journeys. When not adhering to the ‘status quo’, women can start to feel like they aren’t enough. Some babies will immediately latch, others will not. There really is no ‘normal’ experience.

It’s when women are up late at night feeding alone that they feel the most vulnerable. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and the baby just won’t fall back asleep. That’s when the self doubt starts. ‘Why didn’t it all go to plan?’ ‘Why did I wait so long to get my epidural?’ ‘Why did the nurse look at me like that when I was feeding?’ ‘Should I have done it all differently?’

This kind of negative self-talk fills the nursery and it can be hard to see that there are actually millions of mums just like them feeling just as alone — they just aren’t talking about it. To new mums out there who may be feeling like a failure — you aren’t. You’re just one of many struggling with the rollercoaster that is new motherhood. At the end of the day, whatever your journey, it’s your journey, and it’s both beautiful and unique.

The Truth Is…

I’ve been a midwife for over four decades and have delivered thousands of babies in my time. Take it from me – there are so many different ways to be a good mother. We need to stop pitting women against each other for their individual choices. We have to make the effort to bond through shared experience — the highs and the lows.

We need to start telling it like it is. Not half-truths, whole truths. Labour can be for a day or two (sometimes more!), but parenting is for life. We all have a part to play in making sure new mums don’t feel the pressure to pretend like everything is fine during those moments when it’s not. When women feel confident to tell the actual truth about their experiences in an environment that encourages it, suddenly she is made to feel a lot more supported.

If there’s one piece of advice I can share, it’s to talk more openly about the truth behind your path to parenthood. Trust me, it helps. Get it off your chest! For the non-mums and partners out there, take a moment to realise the amazing journey they’ve been on, that while shared with many, is also entirely their own.

The truth is motherhood isn’t easy, but you’re not alone. Cancel the critics. Celebrate the wins. And connect with others. You’ll more than likely be surprised to discover the new mum you thought was crushing it, is also facing the same challenges as you.

If you or anyone you know needs immediate support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or via lifeline.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

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