Parenting in the pandemic has had a huge impact on thousands of new parents. Feelings of isolation and loneliness have been heightened. And, for many it has a negative impact on their mental health. Dr Kerri Walster, from Gentle Journeys, wanted to share some current themes amongst parents embarking on motherhood and suggest some ways of overcoming challenges.
A ‘double-lockdown’ for new mothers
Becoming a parent under the most optimal conditions can raise feelings of loneliness, identity loss, and uncertainty about how to care for this little life in front of you.
Embarking on maternity leave, with friends perhaps in different life stages, we can naturally become more isolated. A walk in the park or a trip to the shops may be a weekly highlight. You may breathe a sigh of relief when your partner returns home in the evening to assist with bath time.
Here we are faced with parenting in a pandemic. We are being told to ‘stay at home’, bombarded with news headlines on the dangers of contracting Coronavirus, and perhaps it all feels a bit overwhelming and stressful.
The common feelings women experience when having a baby are inevitably intensified in the current context. One way to think about this is it has been a ‘double lockdown’ for new mothers – with the confinement that pregnancy may include, alongside the national rules and restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus.
This increases the number of parents struggling with mental health difficulties and loneliness.
The impact of Covid-19 on new parents
The Children’s Commissioner (2020) released a paper citing approximately 1,688 babies are born in the UK each day. Over one hundred thousand babies have been born during lockdown and many parents are adjusting to the psychological, emotional and physical challenges.
A decrease in support
Services that were once available to support women are being facilitated online, paused or reduced. Typically one in five mothers and one in ten fathers can experience perinatal mental health difficulties (Bauer, et al., 2016).
Redeployed midwives, online health visiting appointments and closed children’s centres have restricted typical discussions and opportunities for reassurance.
According to a new UK study of six hundred women with babies up to twelve weeks old, forty three per cent met criteria for clinical depression and sixty one per cent for anxiety (Fallon & Harrold, 2021). This is in comparison to twenty per cent of women meeting criteria for anxiety and depression in typical circumstances.
An increase in loneliness
Figures from a study in lockdown found parental loneliness was more common in deprived locations, with 13% feeling lonely often or always, nearly three times more than the 5% indicated in the least deprived areas (Guardian, 2020).
Hospitals adapting to keep wards safe has meant many partners have not been allowed to be present until the end of the labour and the first few hours of the baby’s life.
As such, women have been left to labour without their birthing partner for many hours, making childbirth a very different experience to the one they had hoped for. Parents giving birth have reflected on reduced or overwhelmed staff, unconsidered birth plans, delays to discharge, and less support post birth such as with breast feeding.
Working clinically as a psychologist, it is notable that there has been an increase in post-traumatic stress relating to birth experiences. Researchers have previously described the negative impact traumatic births can have on the mother-infant relationship, including feelings of rejection from the mother towards her baby increasing over time (Ayers et al., 2006; Kendall-Tackett and Barnes, 2014).
From Alloparenting to Alone Parenting in the pandemic
There is a term, ‘alloparenting’, which captures how as humans we have evolved to raise children in groups, such as with immediate or extended family, friends, and local communities. ‘Allo’ has greek roots in meaning ‘other’.
In the study of Hadza, a hunter gatherer group in Tanzania, in times of food shortages children were likely to survive when they had grandmothers on hand, as mothers could leave their infants to forage for food and return to breast feed (Hawkes and Coxworth, 2013).
It takes a village to raise a child
Societies vary in the amount of alloparenting used, but in some form it appears to be universal. In Efe society, babies are said to be transferred between eight people in an average hour (Tronick et al., 1987). Studies have identified that for first-time mothers, social support has a significant impact, particularly for those affected by low parental self-efficacy (Shorey et al., 2013).
Self efficacy is of huge significance as it is the belief or confidence in one’s own capacity to carry out behaviours or perform as required. Peer support groups, or problem solving with family members, help to boost confidence and normalise experiences. Here, comments like “my baby only sleeps three hours at night too” can be natural remedies for over coming low moments in parenting.
The pandemic has heightened our instinct to protect our babies
The presence of Covid-19 jars with the maternal instinct to protect. Seeing people with masks and adhering to social distancing triggers an adrenaline response, eliciting fight, flight and freeze reactions.
Many women may have struggled to leave the house. We know that when a mother holds, feeds, or has skin to skin contact with their baby, oxytocin is released; this is partly how parents love and bond with their babies. This is reciprocal, leading to mutual feelings in the baby (Music, 2017). The capacity to bond with a baby is increased when mothers feel emotionally safe and cared for, reducing the chance of postnatal depression (Sockol et al., 2013). It is worth noting that bonding is not a linear process – it is a gradual, circular process, helped by supportive others.
When partners return to work, it is typically overwhelming and daunting, but this is now coupled with limitations on other support systems. Spending a lot of time at home and enhanced emotions may have triggered relationship tension.
Mums have been feeling guilty
Guilty feelings about your baby’s first few months of life not being as they should may also be commonplace. For those women coming to the end of their maternity leave, there may be grievances about the lost time, outings and family contact. Because of this context, it might be harder to connect with resentment and frustration that can come up in relation to parenting. For instance, breast feeding can be idealised as a time of closeness and intimacy, but it can also be a sacrificing and relentless process that women do have to do alone.
Positives about parenting in the pandemic
Some women have reported positives relating to the pandemic. For instance, partners working from home are able to spend more time with the baby, and relatives not working can help in significant moments. The new formats of online classes may have allowed women to attend a postnatal yoga class whilst their baby sleeps. Although online baby classes may have limitations, such as reduced opportunities for socialising with someone other than a baby, some have enjoyed the convenience of not having to travel to join baby massage and sensory time. Some have appreciated the slower pace of life during the pandemic. It could feel a little too early to think of the light at the end of the tunnel, however, vaccination programmes, and talk of reduced lockdown measures glimmers a sense of hopefulness.
6 top tips to support mums in a pandemic
1. Keep in mind there is no such thing as perfect parenting
You are learning as you go. Try not to compare yourself to friends or others, who may have had a very different set of circumstances and a baby with a different temperament to yours. Aim to be a good enough parent in those early few months. Being a parent is a huge learning curve particularly in a pandemic with reduced support. Feelings of loneliness and uncertainty are bound to come up
2. Trust your instincts
if you notice a problem, try not to put off seeing the doctor, phoning the midwife, or going to the hospital. Your needs, and your baby’s, are important and you may need to advocate for these. Sore nipples or breasts, or reductions in your baby’s weight are important to check out. You are never wasting professionals time, they are there to help.
3. Look after yourself in order to look after your baby
Eating and drinking plenty, taking a moment of self care when your baby sleeps to have a cup of tea or a bath are ways of replenishing. This is so you have that needed strength to tend to your baby. Try and be open with friends, family and partner about how you feel. Sharing can help even if the context around you has not shifted remarkably. If you had a difficult birth experience, like many women in the pandemic, it helps to process this through talking about it, reflecting on your feelings and what the significant moments were for you. If this still feels challenging after talking, do seek some professional advice
4. Make the most of outdoor walks and online activities
It is helpful for both to go out for a walk to break up the day. You can say hello to other parents or smile – this may invite socially distanced chatter or feeling shared parenthood in passing. Delaying going out may invite a cycle of avoidance where it becomes even harder to go out in the longterm. Online classes can add variation and a structure to the day until those valued in-person classes resume. Make use of your social bubble with friends/relatives and if they come over, don’t feel you have to look after them, allow them to look after you.
5. Limit your time scrolling social media
Try not to spend too much time on social media or googling headlines. Anxiety can have a rippling effect and excessive internet scrolling can enhance rather than alleviate feelings.
6. Practice positive affirmations
Develop some positive statements to tell yourself which can help you in new parenthood e.g. “I am doing everything I can to nurture, care for and look after my baby”. “I am strong, calm and confident”. Even if you do not feel this way at the time, these statements shape the stories we hold about ourselves and can reframe how we feel.
Where to turn for help
If you would like more support with how you are feeling, or in processing your birth or early motherhood experiences, please get in touch with Gentle Journeys. We offer support with parental mental health and well being and have specialist training in this area. You can follow Gentle Journeys on Instagram.
Ayers, S., Eagle, A., & Waring, H. (2006). The effects of childbirth-related post-traumatic stress disorder on women and their relationships: a qualitative study. Psychology, health & medicine, 11(4), 389-398.
Bauer, A., Knapp, M., & Parsonage, M. (2016). Lifetime costs of perinatal anxiety and depression. Journal of affective disorders, 192, 83-90.
Fallon, V., Davies, S. M., Silverio, S. A., Jackson, L., De Pascalis, L., & Harrold, J. A. (2021). Psychosocial experiences of postnatal women during the COVID-19 pandemic. A UK-wide study of prevalence rates and risk factors for clinically relevant depression and anxiety. Journal of psychiatric research.
Guardian, Hill, A. (2020, November 27). Kate warns of impact on children of parents’ lockdown loneliness.
Hawkes, K., & Coxworth, J. E. (2013). Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity: a review of findings and future directions. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 22(6), 294-302.
Kendall-Tackett, K. (2014). Birth trauma: the causes and consequences of childbirth-related trauma and PTSD. In Women’s Reproductive Mental Health Across the Lifespan (pp. 177-191). Springer, Cham.
Music, G. (2017) Nurturing natures: Attachment and children’s emotional, sociocultural and brain development. Psychology Press.
Shorey, S., Chan, S. W. C., Chong, Y. S., & He, H. G. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of a postnatal psychoeducation programme on self‐efficacy, social support and postnatal depression among primiparas. Journal of advanced nursing, 71(6), 1260-1273.
Sockol, L. E., Epperson, C. N., & Barber, J. P. (2013). Preventing postpartum depression: a meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 33(8), 1205-1217.
The Children’s Commissioner (2020, May). Lockdown babies: Children born during the coronavirus crisis.
Tronick, E. Z., Morelli, G. A., & Winn, S. (1987). Multiple caretaking of Efe (Pygmy) infants. American Anthropologist, 89(1), 96-106.