How can psychotherapy help me after having a baby?
If you're reading this, it may not be news to you that every day, not just during Covid, a significant percentage of women experience emotional difficulties giving birth. This is sad and regrettable because giving birth can, at its best, be a meaningful and joyful experience for couples - and thus for their baby growing up in a loving home with a feeling of stability.
During Covid, many women have been giving birth, ‘in very alien environments’. In the recently published Healthwatch West Berkshire Maternity report, 25% of women felt their birth needs were not being met even before this time, and 9% felt their overall experience of childbirth was traumatic.
Over years of providing arts psychotherapy in schools and privately, with social service referrals, in the NHS and in a private hospital, I've worked with several mums who've talked of having a traumatic birth. Sometimes they and their husband/partner have never found time to talk of this after the event. Some mums have told me this years afterwards; sometimes couples attend therapy because there are difficulties for them with attachment with their young child, or their older school child.
So the general lack of provision for a mother's mental health is of concern. Psychotherapists such as myself are passionate about providing for this client group. Attachment between baby and parents or carers is most important. If you’re a new parent having difficult feelings, what does this therapy offer?
How to help you form precious attachments with your infant and partner, especially at this time of Covid
Short-term psychotherapy in the parent-infant psychotherapy and family therapy field can help new mums and dads/partners. Firstly, psychotherapy provides a safe therapeutic space (on Zoom presently) for the new family - mum and her partner, sometimes with your infant too, to be reflective, to sit together, without outside pressures or interference from other family members or the TV or IT. Baby can cry, gurgle, or sleep.
When each parent feels more acknowledged, when couples feel stronger together, the baby can become a more joyful focus.
This space you're in with the therapist enables you to begin to think about the joys - if there are any - and the difficulties of your situation. Safe boundaries are agreed by you both before the work begins to keep the work safe and supportive for you both, so safe for baby. As the psychotherapist I'm not there to judge: I'm there to 'hold the space' and to enable the time and the opportunity to be fair to you both.
How long does this postnatal therapy last? What can parents expect from it?
Therapy can be short-term (six - 18 sessions weekly or bi-weekly) to make a difference and to give enough emotional and psychological support and helpful pointers for you. Endings are always important, and we work towards them right from the start.
At the appropriate time the therapist enables you to begin to recognise and not only get in touch with something of the pleasure of parenting but also, gently and without judgement, helps you 'smooth out' some of what may at times have built in your mind into painfully acute emotions: resentments, disappointments, feelings of inadequacy, fear, shame and jealousy associated with the pregnancy, birth and your little one's early months.
The most stable households can feel rocky...
When we bear in mind that the most stable household can feel rocky at the introduction of a new infant who takes his or her place in the family, we realise judgemental attitudes are unhelpful and that gentleness is important.
The pace of life today
Many working couples have been living highly pressured lives, although in some respects now, paradoxically, Covid's safety measures have enabled working from home, and lessened some of the rushing around in cars, work deadlines, etc. However, in many families now, financial problems are a looming focus.
As an arts therapist, I work with the concept of 'me', and 'not me', which enables you to feel a little more 'distanced' from your difficult feelings. 'Standing back' together from the baby's birth in this safe psychotherapeutic space helps you air and acknowledge your own personal difficult feelings as well as your hopes.
When Mums feel bogged down and confused, beginning to feel a sense of knowing your own choices and feelings and firming up your boundaries can help you feel listened to. Each parent can begin to feel heard and more understood by the other. Sharing feelings of inadequacy can bring couples closer. Skilled psychotherapists are used to working with the necessary sense of timing and acceptance.
When each parent feels more acknowledged, when couples feel stronger together, the baby can become a more joyful focus. Sometimes for the first time, delight in baby's development can be enabled. A tv programme many years ago comes to mind in which a group of young fathers featured. One new dad had never realised his baby son - who he thought a dreary trial - could be fascinating.
There was a certain amount of unacknowledged jealousy in him because his wife spent so much time with the baby, and this is common. But as dad and baby began to relate to one another the joy on the man's face became reflected in his infant son's face. The development of this precious relationship was immensely moving. The viewer knew this could not be reversed: that it was a lasting attachment.
Attachments are the stuff of life. Society, professionals and families who provide gentleness and enough space, especially at this time in history, can help families reap richness. Psychotherapy's specific focus, nowadays on Zoom, begins to provide understood boundaries to ensure the work is safe and directed. Psychotherapists working alongside and in tandem with maternity teams and health visitors can add under-recognised, underused skills.
- Bowlby, J. A Secure Base. Routledge 1988 reprint 2010.
- Gerhardt, S. Why Love Matters. How affection shapes a baby's brain. Routledge 2004.
- Winnicott, D.W. Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis Collected Papers. Karnak 1958 reprint 2003.
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