Home Lifestyle A stranger’s remark made me feel like a terrible mother

A stranger’s remark made me feel like a terrible mother

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I was in a well of shame and self-pity (Picture: Rose Stokes)

As I was sitting in a café trying to breastfeed my six-week-old son, I felt extremely self-conscious.

As a first-time mum, this was obviously partly because I wasn’t used to getting my breasts out in public. But it was also because I had been almost constantly breastfeeding my baby all hours of the day and night since the moment he was born – and it wasn’t really going very well.

He was still struggling a lot with it, and so was I. This fact made me feel extremely anxious – not to mention like a total failure as his mother

Just at this precise moment, a woman older than myself approached our table with a look of nostalgia that is common to those whose babies are all grown up. ‘I remember those days,’ she said with a warm smile. ‘Isn’t breastfeeding just such a wonderful, natural thing?’

I smiled politely and nodded my head, swallowing back a lump in my throat that was beginning to form. She then proceeded to tell me how important it was for my baby’s health that he breastfeed, how it’s a mother’s duty to do so and how when her babies were born, all she had to do was ‘show them a nipple’ and they were guzzling away endlessly. 

I didn’t say much and eventually she left; leaving me with the parting gift of: ‘You’re doing the best thing for your son!’

While I know with all of my heart that she had nothing but lovely intentions, the reality is that I left immediately after she did, went home and sobbed into my husband’s arms because I felt like such a terrible mother.

A lot of anxiety is triggered by loved ones’ remarks or perceptions (Picture: Rose Stokes)

Breastfeeding and the intense challenges my son and I faced while trying to establish it (as well as having to give up before I was ready) were the main catalyst in my subsequent spiral into postnatal depression.

Against this backdrop, it should be easy to imagine just how sensitive I was when on the receiving end of well-meaning comments such as these. 

So I was unsurprised to see that PANDAS Foundation – a charity offering mental health support to parents – released survey results earlier this month finding that 70% of those surveyed who had experienced mental illness postnatally were triggered by loved ones’ remarks or perceptions. Similarly, 76% were triggered by societal expectations, including those of other parents (64%).

I know this is true for me.

One thing no one really mentions to you when you get pregnant or have a baby is how much the world opens up to you.

Walking around the neighbourhood where I’d been living for nine years until I had my baby, I was suddenly met with knowing smiles and eyerolls from other pram pushers. People would ask me how I was doing apropos of nothing.

Other mothers would say ‘hello’ warmly as I stomped the pavements with my son in his baby carrier, willing him to sleep. Or sitting in the park, trying to pass the time, they’d strike up conversations about how I was finding it all. 

Mums feel too much guilt (Picture: Rose Stokes)

It is a wonderful thing to feel automatic kinship with strangers, and I wish it was a behaviour not solely reserved for those with kids.

But this sort of natural familiarity with those around you isn’t always a positive thing. And in my case, the wrong comment at the wrong time from a well-meaning stranger was the puff that knocked down my whole house of cards. 

It turns out, my early mental health difficulties in the postnatal period were not just a blip, but the start of a very challenging period for me emotionally. 

And — as anyone who has experienced mental ill health during the precious first days, weeks and months of their children’s lives knows — this experience carries with it an almost insurmountable load of guilt.

Guilt that you should be enjoying it more, that you’re not being a good enough parent, that your illness is stopping you from being fully present with your child, or even guilt in the absolute certainty you feel that others are finding the transition much easier than you.

Above all, guilt in the knowledge that you have the thing many others desire but are unable to have. So why aren’t you making the most of it?

As I battled these feelings myself, I couldn’t tell you how many well-intentioned but ultimately pretty damaging remarks were made in my direction, particularly from those close to me who would be mortified at the idea of causing me harm.

Rose has issues with ‘well-meaning’ advice that makes her feel worthless (Picture: Rose Stokes)

In response to me discussing my postnatal mental health difficulties, ‘I don’t remember feeling stressed at all after my babies,’ and someone describing the experience of early motherhood as only ‘pure joy’.

While discussing the idea of leaving our babies for the evening for a drink with a breastfeeding pal, she said: ‘I don’t judge those who do but I would NEVER give my son formula’.

On my issues with breastfeeding at 12 weeks when my mental health was in the sewer: ‘you just have to keep trying, it’ll work eventually’.

And conversely: ‘Breastfeeding doesn’t matter babe, just give him a bottle, why do you care so much?’

Now you might say that I was overly sensitive, and that no one could have said the right thing. And you’d be correct.

I was in a well of shame and self-pity. I felt like someone had peeled off a layer of my skin and that every sensation I experienced was louder, bigger and scarier. All I could tolerate being told at that point was that everything would be OK, that we’d survive and that things would get easier.

And who could possibly have known just by looking at me that I was so raw, so vulnerable and so fragile?

Nonetheless, as this research and my own experiences so clearly show: what you say to prenatal and postnatal women matters a lot and can leave a huge imprint, whether you intend it to or not.

I have countless friends who have recounted real suffering they’ve experienced off the back of well-intentioned comments from family members and friends — or even random people in the street — about their parenting. 

There’s no denying that matrescence (the physical and biological process that women’s bodies and minds undertake once they become mothers) is a pretty vulnerable stage of life, when we are perhaps more emotionally porous than we would otherwise be.

I obviously cannot speak for everyone and I’m sure there are others that wouldn’t find the assault of unsolicited advice we so often lob at new parents triggering, but helpful.

But according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), in the first year after birth, up to 20% of women will experience depression and anxiety. 

So maybe it’s time for us to revise our approach when it comes to offering comments and advice to prenatal and postpartum women. Maybe we should check in with where they are at before launching into a manifesto, or simply ask them how they are or what they need.

It’s not a huge change, but I can assure you it could go a long way to supporting new mums who often simply need reassurance that they are doing great and that everything is going to be OK.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

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