The Power of Mothering

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Two close friends of mine had a baby around the same time as me. None of us planned it, but our babies were all born over the summer of 2016, each 6 weeks apart. We were good friends before, but what pulled us closer was our shared parenting experiences.

It turned out that we all had a very similar style of motherhood – a dedication to breastfeeding and co-sleeping, a rejection of sleep training and we all deferred childcare as long as we could. (Again, a massive caveat here: no judgement on any other mamas for their choices and paths, this was just what felt right for all of us at the time). Our personalities differed, our babes were beginning to show their own stripes, but what we shared was a fierce, mama-bear like insistence that this was how we wanted to mother.

I held deep seated convictions over how I wanted to mother from the moment I knew I was pregnant – and, unlike many, I knew I was pregnant from the day after I conceived. Luckily/unluckily, I have a chronic condition that recedes with pregnancy, so I knew from how well I felt that a baby was on the way. It also allowed me to associate the period of pregnancy and breastfeeding with a feeling of whole health and wellness. The baby and I were looking out for each other, right from the start.

My friends and I disappeared into motherhood, allowing ourselves to change, probably beyond recognition some days, and slowly came back out seeing the world through new eyes. We were probably slower than most, allowing the intensity of that first year to really make its mark on our bodies, minds, souls, in a way that we didn’t necessarily see in other mother’s around us.

A lot of our peers, fought to regain their balance, to put a routine in place, to automate their days and re-stablise their relationship with their partner. This routine, the return to work, the sense of order needed to get through the week, reduced the sense of chaos and put other carers into the picture. Sometimes I was envious, sometimes it looked like my worst nightmare.

A few years in, I now realise there were two huge influences on how I parent: my own mother and then a book I had read before we tried for a baby.

I can’t speak for other regions, but here in the UK, a 2011 book by child psychologist Oliver James, called “How Not To F*** Them Up”  was widely read and made a huge impact on how mothers saw themselves. The core of his theory came down to this: how you parent is less relevant to the child than how comfortable you are as a parent. If you are forever trying to outrun your responsibilities as a parent, if you cannot be consistent in how you relate to your child and if you are not able to be true to how you want to parent (whatever end of the attachment spectrum you are naturally on), you will create an unsettled and confusing environment for the child. One way or another, you need to be honest with yourself so you can then create a stable environment that they can orientate themselves around.

James also introduced new terms to the UK parenting culture; those of Organiser, Fleximum and Hugger, clearly describing each and giving a breakdown of the pros and cons of each.

How easy it was to read before you were a parent! And then how easy it was to judge when you finally were a parent – looking for reassurance that your way was ok, seeing the style of other mums you knew reflected in these archetypes. Before I was pregnant, I assumed that I would be a Fleximum and until my girl arrived, it felt like the safest place to stake my ground.

The Fleximum is adaptive to their child, weighing up situations for what they are, still factors themselves and the broader family in and then, as a slight downside, can rationalise every and any decision to make it feel like their kid will benefit, even if that’s slightly stretching the truth. It sounds logical, rational and the best of both. A safe and stable place to be.

As it turned out, I fell into the Hugger category – a mum who allows their needs to collapse into that of their child, emotionally is tied to their child from the start and often sees the world through their child’s eyes, using that perspective to make their choices. The drawback to this is that these mums often find it hard to bring themselves back into the picture, to understand their needs and find it difficult when their child begins to separate from them as they naturally grow into their opinions and personalities.

Throughout the book, James emphasises that often, the parenting tribe we chose is not of our making, that it’s almost entirely as subconscious reaction, with most women either choosing to do the exact opposite of their own mother or do exactly the same.

I most definitely did the same. It’s now plainly obvious that so many of my convictions came from my mum and as a happy side effect, she has felt recognised and respected by how I have modeled her behaviour towards the younger me. That she is able to understand how I do things gives me this extra reassurance, a foundation and confidence that I badly needed when starting out.

My mum has been the person who has enabled me to feel that my Hugger-ish style and the choices that stem from that are not only ok, they can actually be good for my daughter. Her support through the tough and emotional times were the validation I needed to feel comfortable in my skin and stop pushing against how I assumed parenting should be.

A few weeks ago, arm deep in cleaning up toddler vomit at 3am, it finally dawned on me what a sweaty, full bodied, all encompassing experience parenting is and that I was more than cool with it. I actually I relished it. I’m sure the parents of more than one will read this with a wry smile on their face knowing this already. The blood, the sweat, the tears are exactly what you sign up for, and actually are representative of the magnitude of motherhood. You’re in the experience, fully immersed, for the rest of your life, whether you try to out run it or not.

Our experience as a family is tight, full on, emotionally intense and powerful. We shape each other daily. I influence my daughter and she influences me right back. I’m a stronger, richer, deeper person for being her mama.

But here’s the rub, the question we never expected to waiver on… Can we cope with two? Physically, probably. Emotionally, we’re not so sure.

I didn’t realise until recently, just how much my conviction around parenting has shaped this family and established our rhythms, habits and relationships. It’s completely fair and accurate to say that my husband almost didn’t get a look in. I started doing my thing and it’s only recently that we’ve started to question if all my quirky ways have been the right thing for the family.

Clearly, I think co-sleeping, refusing sleep training and being emotionally expressive is good for our daughter. Except now I’m not so sure that it’s been as good for my partner and I as individuals or as a couple.

The conversation over whether to have a second started at least two years ago and we disagreed: I couldn’t imagine not having another and my husband couldn’t imagine having one. For the last few months, I’ve been assuming that my desire to have a second would prevail, that my partner would change his mind. But then all of a sudden I had my doubts too.

Do I have the emotional capacity to keep guiding this family? Can I take the pressure of raising another small human? Can my body physically take the pressure of on demand feeding and vastly reduced sleep? I will probably never be able to make a logical, rational call; I’m sure it will be pure emotion.

I can’t help but look back over the decisions I made on how to parent, I now wonder if I should have chosen to be a bit less hands on, whether I could have detached more and worried less – might this have led to a less intense, more laid back experience for all of us? Might it have made having a second an easy forgone conclusion?

But I’m in the business of raising a small human as well as I can and if I only get to do this once, I will be glad I did it my way.

All of a sudden, now more than ever, I’m realising she’s mirroring me. I’m a hands on mum, hugging, soothing, sitting together constantly. If she replicates this, I know I’ll look on proudly. Even now when she mothers her dolls, I can’t roll my eyes, mention gender bias or feminism, she’s doing what I’m modelling for her. And how can that be a bad thing?

We may not be able to repeat the experience but at least I have given my daughter a template of strong attachment and emotional literacy to follow. If I could choose any position of power to be in, that feels like the pinnacle. I’m literally laying the ground on which she will base her expectations of other relationships and also how she will mother. That is a responsibility and power that matters so much more than sleep.

Photo by Micah Hallahan on Unsplash

Even wonder women need support

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I’ve spent the last 4 or so years of my life training to become a Naturopathic Nutritionist – in other words, someone who uses nutrition, herbs and lifestyle changes to support greater wellbeing.

Whilst I was doing this, I held down a 4 day a week job, tended a marriage, stayed connected to my family and friends and raised my baby. But I’m not saying this to brag. I’m also not looking for sympathy. I’m referencing it because in my relationship circles here in London, it’s a perfectly normal way to behave. People normally congratulate or celebrate you for having a life like this, even though it could be viewed by some as pretty extreme. When I look back, it seems foolish, but I was there doing it, motivated by a desire to look after my daughter, my husband, my family, my friends… and me I suppose. Somewhere long down that list.

Over these past four years, to be awarded my diploma, I’ve studied biomedicine, illnesses and diseases, read papers on the latest research into new drugs to treat us, understood how these drugs interact with supplements but most of all, I’ve seen clients. 200 hours of clients.
Some wanted to improve their appearance, their fitness, their general wellbeing; others were taking on cancer, infertility, diabetes, multiple sclerosis. They all at some point had reached the end of the list of solutions that they could imagine for themselves and somehow had landed on nutritional therapy as an option. For many, going through the process of spending an hour telling their story, was the first time they had been able to take the time to digest and consider it, and to feel heard by someone, even a relative stranger like me.

Over these 200 hours, patterns appeared. The clients I saw were either younger people, battling as hard as they could to keep their head above water in this big city, worrying about being successful at work to make rent, often far away from their family. Or they were women. These women stuck in my mind the most as they, without fail and without complaint, led these incredibly complicated lives where, for them, it truly was difficult to find the time to shop for food differently or take an hour or two each week to focus on themselves.

They came from varied backgrounds and lifestyle: some were older, their kids had already flown the nest; some were supporting their young families, a few were preparing or trying to start a family and some had chosen to be childfree altogether. The red thread was that they were all nearly single handedly running the show, with very little support and very little care for themselves, and slowly but surely it was making them unwell.

Poor attention to their own needs – the food they ate, the sleep they got, the rest they took, they exercise they did, the hobbies or passions they pursued – had become the norm, their way of coping with all the demands, their way of saving time. But as I heard their stories, it became really clear it was a false bargain. They were tired, they were run down and then they started to feel guilty. Guilty that they could no longer reach the high bar they had set themselves, that they had lost enthusiasm for their kids, their partner, and they were often annoyed with themselves that the iron will that had been seeing them through was starting to crumble. As if they would cope better if only they had better resolve or stronger self control.

The very first thing I always said was: “You are doing a wonderful job of managing. But now we need to try to stop coping as well. You need to give yourself permission to be looked after, by me and by the people around you”.

The process of deconstructing the routine that has helped you hold everything together can be a long one, a battle against your perceptions of how much you can ask for, how much you can advocate for your needs versus how comfortable (or not) you feel with reaching out to people and risking your just-about-holding-it-together system collapsing like a pack of cards.

Interestingly, I had to challenge my own perceptions of my role as a nutritionist and as someone who was determined to be holistic and naturopathic. This naturopathic slant on my understanding of health alters how I support people, meaning that I’d find myself casting a net out wider and taking on a greater responsibility for the overall picture of wellness than a straightforward nutritionist or dietician would. I found myself being asked to paper cracks with vitamin supplements (when rest was what was required), to support a client in operating to a crazy caffeine fueled schedule (when it meant they slept only 4 hours a night) or to effectively be complicit in disordered eating (rather than address why controlling food had become a clients only way to cope with their day to day).

So now, here I am, at the end of 4 years of clinical education and finding empathy, having been handed a mission that I didn’t expect to find. In a roundabout way, I found this gap and lack of support work for people like me – the women stretching themselves too thin, trying to juggle everything and never drop the ball.

To help you take your first footsteps on a more balanced path, I’m sharing the 5 things I decided to do to help me reframe what mattered to me and begin to challenge my wonder woman complex.

Decide what to own and what to drop

Be real. The answer cannot be “I can do it all”. Not only is that not a laudable goal, you’re also ruling out the possibility of deepening connections to other people. Being a solo queen is an isolating, perhaps lonely, role to hold. Over the past few years, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my mama tummy is here to stay, that my house will never be fully clean, that my hair will never be coiffed and that my husband and I just won’t have that much alone time. For now, these all have to be optional things. Ones I can’t manage to fit in with the compulsory things, like putting food on the table, keeping people clean and healthy, keeping connected to my family despite the mayhem. And then I had to give myself permission to not worry and not berate myself. If and when the time is right, I will pick up the ones that still matter to me.

Be clear about who is your priority

Hint – it has to be you first. I learned this the hard way more than a few times. The cycle of having just one more coffee, just one more meal that you know isn’t great for you, watching one more box set that’s keeping you from sleep, taking on one more assignment or doing one more favour is hard to break and it all adds up to you not having time to make sure you are looked after. Speaking from experience, everything else will just seem like fluff if you ever do truly do become unwell.

Ruthlessly support your health and mental well being

You must be your own advocate and become better connected to your own body and mind. So many of us see our bodies as the machine that acts on our mind’s commands and wishes, ignoring symptoms of hunger, tiredness, thirst and pain, effectively removing our chance to understand much more about what would make us healthier and happier, about what balance we need to strike and how we can flex our limits at legitimate times of pressure to make sure we can call on our reserves and be resilient when we need it. We can’t be always on.

Emotions are signposts. Valuable ones.

I’m an ex emotion hater. For the longest of times, emotions were useless to me. Pointless signals that made me feel bad and worry about my choices, complications that I didn’t have time for. Needless to say that after 4 years of studying how thoughts and feelings affect the chemical make-up of our bodies, I view them a little differently. Treat these messages from your self as precious and use them accordingly. These connections to your inner wisdom and intuition need respect and acknowledgement or they will just keep trying to reach you. Even worse, if you suppress them long term, they might become quieter and your inner compass will be lost

Lose anyone who isn’t a cheerleader for you

It’s fair to say that most people’s lives are complicated. It’s also right to say that relationships represent our greatest joys and frustrations.They are big, complicated, emotional things (wince – see previous point) that take a lot out of us. Many of my friends and many of the women I met are empathetic to the point of being like a sponge, ready to give and take until there are very few boundaries left. The result? A difficulty seeing in what’s working for you and what isn’t. A slow and gradual acceptance of relationships that aren’t balanced and take too big a part of your all too precious energy. If you don’t feel lifted up by a relationship and positive when you leave them, it’s time to reconsider.

For a wonder woman, I know just how hard it is to admit that old ways of working aren’t right, that maps for the future need to be redrawn, that the wheels may have come off the one woman road show. The clincher for me, as ever, has been my daughter. Acting as a mirror to me, she helps me see just how unstable and unsupportable my deals with myself have become. I’m fervently hoping she won’t ever need to unlearn the doctrine of ferocious self support. It’s up to me to show her a different way.

Photo by Mona Eendra on Unsplash

You can follow me online via Instagram @hannahmearns or @wonder_women_nutrition.

From woman into mother: the real meaning of baby brain

Now my little girl is approaching three, I’ve finally had the space, time and curiosity to look back and wonder just what has changed for me and what triggered those changes. I’d spotted some really big differences in myself and had never thought deeply about it – I mean who has time? I was busy thinking about my thin hair and wondering why my girl is only eating pear today.

And then a whole load of new writing and podcast content broke through into my media space and finally the penny dropped. The hormonal changes that took place in pregnancy and the first two years of motherhood, have done their intended job. My brain has been rebooted to ensure survival of the species.

Yes, we all know the jokes about baby brains, and if you’re mum, you’re probably aware that your brain doesn’t quite operate the way it used to – although any parent of young kids can testify that a good few years of sleep deprivation can leave you feeling wooly to say the least.

Although recently there has been renewed interest in the changes that motherhood brings in the cultural zeitgeist, mainly triggered by Alexandra Sacks MD when she gave her 2018 TED talk “A new way to think about the transition into motherhood” and brought the term matrescence back into modern awareness.

She describes that in her practice in the US, she would see mothers assuming that they were suffering from postpartum depression. They had such mixed emotions and reported feeling so unstable, so not like themselves, that there had to be a medical diagnosis that fit their condition. But no Sacks says, it was ‘just’ matrescence.

The term was first coined in the 1970s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael (who also introduced the term ‘doula’ to the world) to describe the developmental transition that mothers go through and the similarity to adolescence is no accident – it’s just as whole body as puberty: hormonal, emotional, physical and your brain is permanently changed as a result. You lose control of how you look and how your body is behaving just at a time when your emotional state would make it really helpful for you to be able to appear in public without feeling a wreck.

The really interesting thing is that for adolescents, perhaps because all of us have to go through it, there’s still a lot of social empathy for that difficult time. We understand that your teenage years might not be the best of your life and many people report their 20s being better. We refer to it as a phase, society adjusts it’s expectations and there is good knowledge out there that means that although it’s tough, it’s supported and understood. A slightly cynical part of me wonders that if men had such an extensive second adolescence, we could be sure we would all know about it.

I’ve been reading a scientific paper, published early 2019, by a group of Spanish researchers who mapped the changes to the human brain in pregnancy and beyond. They found and could unequivocally show that pregnancy leads to significant and long lasting reductions in the amount of cerebral grey matter mothers have. They then compared these brain changes to those of girls undergoing adolescence and found them to be essentially the same. The hormones that drive the changes are different (oxytocin, oestrogen, progesterone and prolactin for mums; oestrogen and progesterone for girls) but they drive incredible neuroplasticity, a state under which our brain can undergo massive change driven by the needs of our daily environment. The huge amount of interaction women have with their babies during this state of plasticity sets lasting change in motion: we literally reshape our brain to become better adapted to caring for a little one.

Teenage girls experience the same neuroplasticity, causing the changes to behaviour and perhaps eventually personality, if this pruning and regrowing moves far enough away from the old brain structure.

Interestingly, the average time it took the teenage girls to pass through their adolescence was 24.2 months. For mothers, it was 15.5. This caught my eye. At first glance I thought that teenagers must have it harder, their transition period takes longer and they have this period for hormone driven instability for 8 months more. But then I thought about it a bit more. Maybe the correct way to look at it is that mothers have 8 months less to complete this monumental change. It’s compulsory too: we must complete it in order to come out of our post partum period.

Mothers battle this huge developmental shift, as momumental as changing from an teenager into an adult, not knowing it would happen, while society isn’t allowing for it, on nowhere near the amount of sleep teenagers have and all in 8 months less time than the average period of puberty.

It made me think about the mothers that Sacks described, battling this huge developmental shift, as momumental as changing from an teenager into an adult, all the while not expecting it themselves, while society isn’t allowing for it, on nowhere near the amount of sleep teenagers have and all in 8 months less time. Is it any wonder her mothers reported feeling like they did? That they wondered if they had tipped into depression?

I for one can tell you that I’ve changed. Hugely. The centre of my world has moved as I knew it would, as I knew it should, but other things, unrelated to our daughter have changed too.

I’ve become much more outspoken and I’ve become much more likely to defend my daughter or myself from what I see as injustices. Be it inconsiderate people on public transport (a fair few here in London) to the current politics (let’s not even get started on Brexit) or how women are still unfairly positioned in our society (hello capitalism and patriarchy), I’m quicker to jump in. Perhaps I’m much less tolerant now I have to consider the world she will inherit. Maybe I’m less patient. Maybe I care much less about what people think of me. Perhaps shades of the teenage me have returned.

But it’s other things too. Things I think my pre-pregnancy self might even have mocked.

I can’t cope with violence on TV or in movies, not even a little bit. My music tastes have done a u-turn with the french electro house I used to stay up to 5am to listen to, now firmly off rotation. Folk and indie now are on Spotify as we play.

Now I crave greenery, not the city. I’m much more about a cabin in the woods with a herb and vegetable garden, maybe even an orchard, than a small but cute top floor Camden flat. I dress differently too. A less glossy version of me has come out. Where previously I was all about slick grooming, straight hair and minimal outfits, I’m leaning now towards natural curls, full skirts and sheepskin lined birkenstocks. Honestly, I would have laughed at myself only five years ago.

It’s often felt to me that the force of change was so immense, so all encompassing, so unexpected, that so many aspects of my personality disappeared for a bit. So many of the things that I used to value (hobbies you might say) just ceased to be. I think it’s fair to say that it’s only been recently, perhaps not even after 15.5 months, maybe 28 months, that I’ve been starting to feel anything like myself again. How reassuring to know that I wasn’t gone forever.

I’m so interested in these changes, that I plan to keep following this type of work and thinking. How much more fascinating insight into this previously unstudied area is there still to uncover?

I’ve now started to wonder whether the variance in how women manage their matrescence and how they then adjust to their brain changes factors into the choice to have a second child, the if as well as the when. It feels as if you need to come back to a sense of self and find a new sense of normal before you can consider making another change, before you can consider another shift.

Now, looking back on it, it doesn’t surprise me that this concept, this phenomenon isn’t widely known. Like so much else that would help mothers, this information isn’t out there: it’s not taught and it’s not spoken about. This all too common feeling of disconnect, the feeling that it must only be you, the worry that it really is only you who is experiencing it, could be so easily avoided.

Like so much else that would help mothers, this information isn’t out there: it’s not taught and it’s not spoken about. This all too common feeling of disconnect, the feeling that it must only be you, the worry that it really is only you who is experiencing it, could be so easily avoided.

How crazy is it that we don’t give women the chance to understand how momentus this time of matrescence could be for them and how they could embrace this rebirth? I too felt like I was losing myself and losing the plot. If someone had told me the best parts of me would resurface and that it might be a two year period of change that would rival my teenage years, I might have been able to trust the process. I hope that I could have been less controlling, that I could have gone with the flow – although knowing the old me, I might still have tried to manage it.

One interesting question: who will I be if we go for two or three? :-)

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Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

Reference: Carmona, S., Martínez‐García, M., Paternina‐Die, M., Barba‐Müller, E., Wierenga, L., Alemán‐Gómez, Y., Pretus, C., Marcos‐Vidal, L., Beumala, L., Cortizo, R., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García‐García, D., Soliva, J., Tobeña, A., Peper, J., Crone, E., Ballesteros, A., Vilarroya, O., Desco, M. and Hoekzema, E. (2019). ‘Pregnancy and adolescence entail similar neuroanatomical adaptations: A comparative analysis of cerebral morphometric changes’. Human Brain Mapping, [online] 40(7), pp.2143-2152. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hbm.24513 [Accessed 7 Feb. 2019].