A year of lockdown

‘It took me months to love my son’: How lockdown left new mothers in a mental health abyss

For many women who became mothers in the pandemic, the isolation has led to rocketing mental health issues. As her baby – and lockdown – turns one, Cathy Adams reflects on a year she’d rather forget

Sunday 28 March 2021 12:46 BST
<p>‘I desperately wanted to see some friends or family to be able to share the crushing lows’</p>

‘I desperately wanted to see some friends or family to be able to share the crushing lows’

Most of us remember March 2020 for being the month that life stopped entirely in the UK. I remember that too, but for a different reason: I had a baby in the middle of it. In a swoop as quick as the surgeon’s knife through my stomach to evacuate my son, life as I knew it fell away, and this new locked-down maternal existence was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

Fag packet maths suggests that, since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic in mid-March last year, around 650,000 women in the UK have become mothers in times that are as unfamiliar to us as the babies we’re birthing. A year on, many women who gave birth at the start of the pandemic are either back at work or perhaps about to return following what has been called “a stolen maternity leave”. (A petition to parliament, to grant parents an additional three months’ paid maternity leave to cover what they’d missed, garnered over 200,000 signatures, but ultimately went nowhere.)

In some ways, I was one of the lucky ones. My partner was allowed to stay with me through the birth and we spent the days afterwards in hospital, a luxury not afforded to friends who gave birth mere days later when visiting rules changed. He has also been working from home since we had Samuel, now one year old. You could argue the newborn fug is not dissimilar to self-isolation anyway, given you can’t do much between the baby’s constant feeding and sleeping, although I found muddling through it for 12 weeks without seeing any friends or family was more like a jail term than a love bubble.

My list of complaints from last spring is long: no physical check-ups, which meant I had to inject myself with blood thinning medication after my cesarean section to stop blood clots and changed my own dressings; perfunctory phone calls with health visitors about my fragile mental health; having to email photos of my child to a midwife to check if he had jaundice. And that’s just the physical. Emotionally, I fell apart, just as society did. Normally resilient and strong-minded, I felt trapped, unfulfilled, wistful and utterly alone. I desperately wanted to see some friends or family to be able to share the crushing lows (and a few highs) of this new reality. To a first-time parent, I thought this was just How It Was.

No wonder, then, that a number of new mothers in 2020 have experienced rocketing mental health issues. The studies are numerous and frightening. One, conducted by the University of Alberta in Canada last summer, surveyed 900 women and found that depression among expectant and new mothers almost tripled during the pandemic. The number of women reporting symptoms of maternal depression increased to 41 per cent compared to 15 per cent before the coronavirus outbreak began, while the number of women experiencing moderate to high anxiety rose from 29 per cent to 72 per cent.

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An in-depth study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, surveyed 614 mothers who had a baby under 12 weeks old between 16 April and 15 May 2020. Researchers found that 43 per cent of the women met the criteria for depression, while 61 per cent met the criteria for anxiety. For perspective, in a “normal” year, around one in seven women will experience postnatal depression.

The research notes that “the early postnatal period is already a period of heightened vulnerability to poor psychosocial outcomes”, related to “new maternal identity; body changes and functioning; increased demands and challenges; and navigating new social roles, including relationships with partners, healthcare professionals, and wider family”. And when the isolation of lockdown is layered on top, the effect is magnified.

“Mothers and fathers are at the end of their tethers; a combination of the pandemic, lack of access to NHS perinatal services and support which is having a detrimental effect on their perinatal mental health,” Annie Belasco, head of charity at Pandas, a perinatal mental health charity, tells The Independent. She reports that Pandas has seen a 240 per cent increase in calls to the helpline since the start of the lockdown, due to the “overwhelming circumstances surrounding having a baby in a pandemic”.

It’s still too early to properly assess the full impact of the restrictions on maternal mental health and our babies, as we’re still living through it. I can only judge by my own experience, which I’m only able to properly understand a year after the birth. With the benefit of hindsight, I now understand why it took me many months to learn how to love my son, and why the feeling of being a mother left me feeling flat and empty in those early weeks, just as Covid-19 was taking hold in the UK.

Even a year on, it’s a relationship I have to work on, as I’m still experiencing tidal wave-levels of resentment for the way my life changed so dramatically last year. As it is for many mothers, the bond that is supposed to “come naturally” to women never happened for me, and due to lockdown, there was nobody to tell me (let alone show me via other people) that this was entirely normal given the world felt as lost as I did.

I now understand why it took me months to learn how to love my son, and why the feeling of being a mother left me feeling flat and empty in those early weeks

After the horror of those early spring months, things did improve for me. For three blissful months in late summer and early autumn, I had what passed as a “normal” maternity leave– baby sensory classes, swimming lessons, coffees with other parents in the neighbourhood where we discussed everything from disrupted sleep, feeding patterns and how we were navigating the stormy waters of motherhood. My mood increased, my child’s mood was lifted by meeting and playing with lots of other babies, and looking back, it was a joyous time for us all.

Maternity leave sometimes gets confused with “time off”, or even “a holiday”. God forbid you might actually enjoy your 10 months out of work by going out for lunch – or in my case, the pub garden – but these small activities provide some much-needed structure to a week spent with a small person who demands everything and gives little back.

Anxiety and depression among new mothers has spiked during lockdown

Fortunately, I’ve made some brilliant friends locally who think nothing of walking the same lap around our local common where no subject is off-limits: maternal ambivalence, periods and middle-of-the-night misery, which has gone some way to provide the structure I need in my week. They all have tales of woe to share about their missed maternity leaves.

My friend Roisin lives locally with her husband and 16-month-old son Christopher. She had 16 weeks of “normality” before life stopped in March 2020, and she panicked that she couldn’t look after him on her own. “The things that helped most were getting out of the house for walks, and talking to other mums who understood,” she says. “Even if we haven’t been able to go to baby groups together, they have been really important to me.

“By October, I was going back to work and felt scared that because Christopher only knows me and his dad, he would be sad without us. This feeling was on top of the typical return to work guilt parents feel. I also felt guilty that I had spent so long during the pandemic feeling sorry for myself that we couldn’t have a ‘normal’ maternity leave and not enough time cherishing what we did have, which was loads of protected time just the two of us.”

Crushingly, one friend who has an 11-month-old, said if she knew she’d spend her maternity leave in lockdown, she would have chosen not to get pregnant

Crushingly, another local friend, Clementine, who has 11-month-old Louis, said if she knew she’d spend her maternity leave in lockdown, she would have chosen not to get pregnant. Her French parents have only met Louis twice in almost a year, thanks to the huge backlog in registering a birth, which you need to do to be able to get a passport – which eventually arrived months and months later. “I have also found it stressful not to be able to do more baby groups because it’s a nice bonding time with the baby and just to get out of the house. Instead, we endure grumpiness and fussiness in our one-bed-flat,” she says.

Eleanor, who has 11-month-old Felix, tells me that not being able to see other people during lockdown sucked all her energy, and made her feel like she “had less to give, including to my son”.

“Of course, I can’t tell if I would have felt exactly the same about motherhood if there had been no pandemic, but It does make me wonder if I would have had different feelings about the experience if we had had a more ‘normal’ time.”

Read more: Pregnant pause: How the pandemic dashed hopes of starting families and left fertility in limbo

Eleanor adds: “Parenthood is made up of small triumphs and a lot of dispiriting repetition of mundane tasks. Without the little moments of joy you get from sharing your baby with friends and relatives and the reminder of your former self that old friends give you it has felt more of a slog and harder to hold onto a sense of yourself as someone who does more than parent, and that often resentfully.”

“Being able to meet up with another mum for a walk has been a lifeline,” says my school friend Sophia, who lives in Yorkshire with her husband and seven-month-old Emily, “but it comes with the rather unpleasant task of breastfeeding in the cold or subjecting your baby to an alfresco change of nappy.”

For Sophia, the loneliness was the most striking element of her early months of motherhood. “Suddenly being entirely responsible for another person’s life and wellbeing involves a huge change in identity, and new mums are plagued by doubts about whether they are doing a good enough job, is what they are feeling is normal, is their baby normal? The loneliness often associated with the postnatal period has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

An ultrasound examination under Covid safeguards

For the women who gave birth last spring, those difficult first months of motherhood cannot be returned, but things are finally looking a little bit brighter for new parents and their babies. Since the second lockdown in November, park walks have been permitted with at least one other person; early years settings, like nurseries and child minders, have stayed open since January; and from 29 March six people can gather outside. From 12 April, soft play centres open and kids’ classes will start once again.

Dr Rachel Mycroft, consultant perinatal clinical psychologist at Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust and chair of perinatal psychology at The British Psychological Society says that “the impact on mum and her mental health and the impact on the baby go hand-in-hand”. She explains that the imbalance of our lockdown existence makes things all the more difficult. “Balance is so important. The problem with the pandemic is that it’s pulled us all away from balance.”

I’m still struggling to find that balance. Although going back to work has helped my mindset immensely, I’m not the same woman I was before I gave birth. I still feel ambivalent about my role as a mother, and the struggle of a life spent in lockdown with a baby means I have to conjure titanic amounts of enthusiasm to do not very much at all.

Then there’s my son, who has just blown out the candles on his first birthday cake after a year most people want to forget. He howled for three solid weeks when settling into nursery – oversensitive, perhaps; but also, because he’d only spent his entire time alive with a small handful of people. Two months on, he loves it there; and I get weekly photographs of him playing in the sandpit and climbing into water trays to bang containers about. Thankfully babies are adaptable, and I hope he will appreciate the long months spent getting to know me and his dad, even if I’d rather forget the year entirely.

If you have been affected by the issues in this article, you can contact perinatal mental health charity Pandas via their free helpline on 0808 1961 776 or visit their website.

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