As my maternity leave flies by and work gets horrifically close, I’ve been thinking about the parallels between my job and having a baby. I think being a therapist prepared me for parenthood.
I thought I’d miss work but I haven’t at all. I arranged only to take 10 months off, thinking I’d be keen to get back, but at the moment all I want to do is kiss the baby’s head and make cakes. Of course, in London, we can only just afford a tiny house with both of us working full pelt.
I had always been passionate about my job, but I’m feeling no pull to go back. I think it’s because everything I got from work, I’m getting from the baby.
I loved helping patients to feel better, I loved learning about psychology and I loved meeting new and interesting people. At the moment, I get to make the baby feel better, I’m learning about the psychology of babies and I’ve never had so much access to new friends.
I used to love it when a patient and I would have a lightbulb moment in a session and we’d suddenly understand their problem in a new way. Now, I get that when the baby is crying and I correctly guess what the problem is and manage to fix it.
I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I think a lot of that is because the baby is such a good one but I also think my job helped prepare me.
Not expecting the airbrushed experience
So many new mums say, “No one tells you what it’s really like!” or “they should tell you how hard it is.”
To be honest, I haven’t completely got this, because I feel like ever since my friends started having children, their only two topics of conversation are how hard it is, and why you should definitely do it.
I do kind of get it though. I think motherhood is idealised or fetishised. I’m not on Instagram but the filtered lives parents put on there probably make it worse. You can feel like it should all come naturally and be this dream-like, perfect experience.
I had some really good training about perinatal mental health at work. One thing they said was that for some people, it’s love at first sight with the baby, but for other people it’s like falling in love, and that’s fine too. I did feel like, “of course, she’s my baby!” when they handed her to me, but I had been mentally prepared for any kind of reaction.
I’ve had so many patients with birth trauma and post-natal depression that I was expecting the whole thing to be really tough. It has meant that most of the time I’m pleasantly surprised but when I have a bad day with the baby, I think, “seems about right,” rather than thinking I’ve failed or that I’ve ruined my life.
Recently, I saw Flatmate Joe, who is also a therapist. He was asking about whether I’ve been anxious about COVID, with the baby.
I said I get anxious about all kinds of different things but COVID, or illness in general, is not really one of them. We think she had COVID last Christmas, when we both had it. She did go to hospital on Christmas Eve, when her breathing went a bit weird and I called 111 (the non-emergency medical advice number in the UK). An ambulance was called and we went with her to A&E but it was fine. At every step of the process, everyone said, “We’re sure she’s fine but it’s our policy to take babies to hospital in this situation, to be on the safe side.” It was a bit full on but I felt OK really, throughout (except I always cry on the phone to 111, I think because it reminds me of the miscarriages).
I got onto telling Joe if the baby drops food on the floor, I have no qualms about picking it up and giving it back to her. I can’t bear wasting food, and if she only ate things she hadn’t dropped, she’d only eat about a tenth of her food.
I think of it as an opportunity for her to develop her immune system, introducing it to lots of different dirt and germs. Apparently there is research about how being too overzealous with disinfecting things can lead increases in levels of asthma, eczema and allergies.
It is also less effort just to pick things up and give them back to her rather than sterilising everything and having to make more food.
Joe said, “you’re very much a Mum who’s also worked with maternal OCD.”
Having a baby is a common trigger for obsessive compulsive disorder, because of the sense of massive responsibility for keeping the baby safe from harm. (There’s great information about it here, written by a psychologist who had it really badly.)
Because I know how awful OCD is, I’m keen to push myself to do things anxiety-provoking things, like stretching out the minutes between unnecessarily tiptoeing in to check she’s still breathing when she’s asleep, or playing with her in ways that feel a bit rough, like turning her upside down, because it’s good for the development of their balance.
And to feel impunity about not bothering to do things I can’t be arsed to do, like cleaning.
Working with people with social anxiety and agoraphobia has made realise how little strangers notice or care what you do. I’ve done embarrassing things in public so the patient could see no one reacts in the ways they feared. I put chocolate spread on my skirt so it looked like I’d shat myself and walked around a supermarket. No one noticed. It’s not unusual to pretend to collapse in the street, if someone is so afraid of fainting that they never leave the house, or to go out with cheeks covered in blusher, if someone is scared of blushing. No one ever cares, or if they do, they’re usually nice.
Yesterday I was in a cafe with the baby and thought she might need a feed, so I got my breast out, but then realised I needed to unstrap her from her high chair first, which lead to me leaning over her with my nipple poking out, while I fiddled around with the straps.
I wasn’t bothered as I knew everyone in the cafe would be too busy with their own thoughts, food and conversation to notice, and if they did, they’d have forgotten about it within a few seconds. No one gives a shit about my nipples.
I’m not saying I’m immune to overthinking texts I’ve sent to New Mums WhatsApp groups. In the same 24 hour period, I’ve worried about seeming too together in comparison to one mum, and then too much of a mess compared to another. But, life is easier when you’re regularly covered in bodily fluids, if you know how little headspace other people have for noticing or judgement.
One of things that can make or break how therapy goes, is our beliefs about emotions. If someone feels anxious and thinks “I feel anxious, that’s understandable!” it will pass a lot more quickly than if they think “That means I’m weak!” or “The anxiety could kill me!”
Sometimes I have patients who I have several sessions with and realise we’re stuck. The therapy isn’t helping. One or both of us is getting pissed off. They’re not doing the homework in between sessions, or testing how much I know about everything, or changing their mind every week about what they want to work on. When this happens, it almost always turns out they have unhelpful beliefs about emotions getting in the way.
I had a patient who (we eventually realised) had the belief, “if I allow myself to feel anxious, or even to think about anxiety, I could die”, which came from having collapsed, and some of the symptoms of anxiety felt the same as the feeling right before he collapsed. This meant every week, he had no memory at all of what we discussed the previous week, because he spent every session with one foot mentally outside the door.
People have beliefs that it’s dangerous or humiliating or morally wrong to feel certain emotions, so every session, when we start getting towards the stuff we really need to talk about – the emotionally hot material – part of them says “nope!” Then they might say, “I’m not sure I even need therapy really,” or change the subject.
Once I realised the importance of beliefs about emotions, I got so much better at therapy in these stuck cases. These beliefs can come from their early experiences, obvious things like seeing a parent smash things up when angry, making them think emotions are dangerous, or subtle things like emotions being dismissed. Society also plays a role in how acceptable we think certain emotions are. Once we figure this out and they learn to make room for the feeling, it gets a lot better.
These days a lot of parents seem to think their job is to prevent their child from having negative emotions. For example, I saw on Facebook someone’s child’s favourite toy had gone missing. It was limited edition and she was seeing if anyone had one they could sell. Then she posted a follow up saying she had found it and was considering spending huge sums on a tracker to attach to the toy in case it got lost again.
It made me think back to losing things as a child. I remember losing a red, furry octopus and my parents not seeming particularly interested, but I had only had it for a few weeks and wasn’t that attached to it.
This was before the internet, so it was unthinkable, being able to type a lost item into a search bar and find someone selling one at the other end of the country. I suppose you could have phoned around toy shops or charity shops but back then, if something was lost, it was gone forever.
I remember once, my parents’ car broke down when we were going on holiday. We spent hours in this portacabin at a garage, while the car was being fixed. There were some toys, a coffee machine and magazines. I played with a blue and white cuddly toy – it was an owl or some kind of bird.
When the car was finally fixed, I cried because I would never see the owl again.
I guess if that happened now, my parents could’ve searched online to find something similar so I could be reunited with the owl. But I don’t think they would have bothered, and I don’t think that makes them bad parents.
I don’t think my job as a parent is to stop the baby from feeling bad.
I think my job is to teach her that’s OK to feel sad or scared or angry and to teach her how to cope. Losing toys could be a chance to learn about loss, sadness and even, at the right age, about keeping track of belongings. If a child learns that every time they lose something, it magically comes back, adulthood will be a shock.
I’m sure when the baby is old enough to remember what toys she has and is inconsolable after losing one, I’ll be eating my words, and will be the first in the queue to buy a tracker. At the moment, though, I’m planning to use things like this as an opportunity to show her sometimes we lose things, bad feelings pass, it’s OK to feel bad and that she is loved.
It wasn’t a huge thing, but as I grew up, I subtly got the message that it’s not OK to feel bad. I’m not sure exactly where this came from but I can see bits of it from teachers and my friends at school. I was an oversensitive child and I always cried at sad stories. One day, I cried at school because I was just thinking about the book the Railway Children. I cried when we watched the Snowman (animated wintry snuff film), the BFG, any Disney (at least one dead parent per film). Everyone’s reactions gave me the message that it’s embarrassing or unacceptable to cry, by laughing or getting exasperated. One teacher (who, on reflection, was actually a bit of a bitch) really pointed it out to everyone else.
I remember watching something sad and getting a lump in my throat and thinking Oh no! and the Oh no! was about other people.
When I was a bit older, a friend invited me to see Beauty and the Beast on ice for her birthday. I remember on the way there, the friend’s Mum said they had only invited one child as it was a bit expensive and they had chosen me because “you like a good cry”. It was alien to me that having a cry at something could be a good thing, but that’s definitely how I see it now. I remember watching Romeo and Juliet and being disappointed I didn’t cry (because I’d seen it so many times already).
I wonder if things would have been any different with the course of my depression and PTSD as an adult, if I had heard more of, “it’s nice to have a good cry, isn’t it” or “it’s a good thing to be a sensitive person.”
When I had counselling aged 16, we realised I was self-harming because I was angry but didn’t know how to express it. I think whereas society tells men they are powerful and strong when they are angry, it tells women they are crazy or unlikeable if they express anger. I don’t know where I got this so deeply ingrained, as we did occasionally get angry in my family and it seemed OK. I remember one time I snapped at a friend when we were doing this group project at school and had a short amount of time and we were all a bit stressed and it went down really badly and I thought I should never do that again.
So, with the baby, sometimes she cries when I’m trying to wash her face. I initially I found myself saying “don’t be sad!” or “please don’t cry!” but after thinking about it more, now I try to say, “ahh, it’s rotten when you don’t want your face washed and someone does it anyway!” I try to empathise but not teach her that it’s bad to be sad.
Having deep and meaningful chats
When I was single and going on dates, I found it hard to keep the conversation light, because my conversations at work are about such heavy topics, such as suicide, child abuse, war and torture. I’m not very good at shallow-ending.
Mums often complain about being made to feel bad by other mums – going to baby groups and coming away feeling like everyone else is doing better and they are failing. I’ve only really felt like that once. I went to a coffee morning which I usually enjoyed, but this time someone new was there. Her baby was almost exactly the same age as mine, but she seemed to know so much more about topics I had only just started to think about, like swimming lessons and childcare. It was subtle so I wasn’t sure why I was gradually feeling worse as the morning went on. Then I went to change the baby’s nappy and realised I had run out of nappies. Normally, I would’ve just asked the other Mums if anyone had a spare I could borrow, but that day I didn’t want to admit I had run out.
I wrapped a big muslin around the baby’s bottom and left. We went into the supermarket so I could buy some more, and she started screaming. I think she was hungry but I assumed it was the nappy so I took her into the toilet. I was trying to put a fresh nappy on when she weed all over the changing table and her clothes, and then someone started hammering on the door and shouting at me to hurry up. Then I knocked the toilet roll dispenser off the wall. I bundled her, screaming and half-dressed, back into the pram and hurried out of the shop, and then completed the nappy change inside her pram, on the pavement outside the shop and burst into tears.
I met the new Mum a few other times and realised I always came away feeling like that. Whenever we compared notes on things, she always had a reason that she was better. When I talked about selling my flat, she said, “We’re renting, so we’re not so tied down.” Her high chair was more expensive than mine. Her book about weaning was more up to date (by a single year) than mine. I remember seeing the panic in her eyes, when I said, “I just wanted to get the gist from a book and then use my own judgement,” until she was able to think of a reason that not relying on her own judgement was better.
If I see her now, I avoid her or conjure up a mental forcefield around myself and remind myself it really doesn’t matter, and the competitiveness probably comes from her own issues.
A friend went to a toddler group, and was giving her child some malt loaf. Another child asked what it was, and the child’s mum said, “We don’t eat packet foods.”
I was relieved that these were really just isolated events and it was almost always, a warm, supportive and fun vibe when I met other mums. Most of this is probably just luck or that I only went back to things that made me feel good about myself, but I wonder if some of it was also that, because I can’t shallow-end, we would always end up talking about the real side of things.
I never went into any of these things planning to ask people about how they were really doing or talk about my own stuff, but I just found we got onto those topics. Maybe being so at home in a serious chat made it easier for me not to think everyone is finding everything easy.
On Monday, at 9am, instead of settling down to do the Wordle in bed with a cup of tea, while the baby snores beside me, I’ll be trying to remember the code for the office door and turning on my work laptop for the first time since August 2021.
I hope being a mum for the last 10 months has reminded me how to be a therapist.