Developing a comfortable and healthy relationship with our baby is perhaps the single most important role we can fulfil as a parent. Being with our babies in a relationship where we are present and attuned to their needs, helps them experience what it is like to feel safe and secure. This is the foundation babies need to develop positive feelings about themselves, thereby setting them up to optimise their full potential. As well, this first relationship with their parent serves as a blueprint for many future relationships in their lifetime. Feeling heard and understood and having emotional needs met helps individuals function productively in relationships.
It it safe to say that every parent has the best intention for an unblemished relationship with their child, yet this does not always go to plan. We can hit bumps in the early weeks or months of being a parent leaving us feeling doubtful about this new relationship. We may feel anxious, lost, even frightened of this much anticipated new arrival. For many parents, there can be feelings of aloneness or emptiness - a contrast to the joy they may have expected. What can follow are feelings of guilt, even shame, for not enjoying the parenting journey, compounded by crippling thoughts of being a bad parent. So powerful can this state of mind be that parents describe feeling stuck or frozen - caught between their internal turmoil and desperate attempts to care for the baby they so love and cherish.
Human beings are complex. Each of us carries a story about relationships, and it begins with the people we first formed them with – our parents. This very first relationship has significant impact on the way we view ourselves and our place in the world. We develop emotional and behavioural patterns from these relationships and they become a part of ‘who we are’. For example, we might find that we are sensitive to a certain look or a tone. A look or a tone that can seem harmless enough, yet is able to rouse an emotional response so powerful and strong within us. Why is that? It is possible that the look or tone is familiar to us somehow, triggering emotions associated with our very early experiences of being in relationship with significant adults when we ourselves were children. This unique experience does not live in our awareness; it is embedded deep within us. Sometimes these emotional reactions are positive - received like a warm blanket. Other times they are negative and we feel alone and vulnerable, unprotected, unheard or misunderstood. Either way, they are feeling memories arising from our early relationships.
Because of the closeness of the parent-infant relationship, our babies’ behaviour can inadvertently trigger old unresolved dynamics from our early relationships. Some parents experience feelings of anxiety or dread when their baby signals a need for proximity and comfort through crying or unsettledness. Others experience sadness, alarm or a feeling of rejection when their baby crawls away from them to explore the environment. Even though we may reasonably acknowledge that babies lack the sophistication to deliberately upset us, the emotions stirred up in us are so strong that it’s easy to think they are doing just that. What is not available to us at the time, is the knowledge that our baby’s behaviour is merely triggering our own experiences of unmet needs from our childhood - our parents’ own struggle with providing comfort when we needed it, or their discomfort with supporting our need for autonomy and independence. Making sense of our childhood experiences helps us to be more open to seeing our babies’ needs as separate to our experiences. It might give us the space to feel at ease with our babies, attending to their needs and connecting with them in the way we intend. It frees us up to have the kind of relationship with them that reminds them that they are special to us and that we can support them with both their need for comfort and their curiosity for learning about the world around them.
It is also important to remember that as much as we wish, we will never have the relationship running ‘right’ one hundred percent of the time. After all, experiencing pain and disappointment is part of the territory of being human. If we get it right enough of the time, we are doing a good enough job. Equally important to remember is that repairing the relationship with our child when we recognise we have missed the mark, is a powerful human gesture. Repairing and rebuilding teaches children important lessons of trust and hope. It gives them scope to be imperfect but still loved.
This article was written by Psychologist, Kanthi Sayers from the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network. Kanthi draws on the theoretical underpinnings of attachment theory and the teachings of Circle of Security. www.circleofsecurityinternational.com
Hoffman, K. Cooper, G., Powell, B. (2017). Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting can help you nurture your child’s attachment, emotional resilience, and freedom to explore. New York: The Guildford Press.
Worry strikes us all, particularly in the childbearing years.
Women who are trying to conceive can find the two-week wait interminable. A time when worry and fear can ramp up, out of control. The mind can become consumed by fearful thoughts. "What if I'm not pregnant?", "What if I'm going to need IVF?" "What if we can't have the family we've always dreamed of?"
When pregnant, waiting for a scan, can mess with your mind. "What if there's something wrong with the baby?" "How would we cope?"
Women (especially those who have experienced a previous loss) can find themselves agonising over potential feared outcomes of something being wrong with the baby, of losing the baby, or of having a negative birth outcome.
Then, when we become parents, the worries can be endless. "What if he doesn't sleep tonight?" "What if there's a developmental problem with my toddler?" "What if my child doesn't have friends?" What if my child becomes a bully?"
The fact is that any thought that begins with "what if" is by its very nature, not true. That doesn't mean that bad things don't happen. They do. But more often than not, our worries don't end up manifesting. And when bad things happen, we attend to the situation, drawing from our internal and external resources to cope, and we deal with what is actually happening.
Worrying endlessly about things that could go wrong, is mentally exhausting. What people often don't realise is that we can manage our minds better than we think we can.
The first step is to recognise that our thoughts are not truths. When we worry about a future scenario that hasn't happened, we remove ourselves from the life we have right now. "What if" thoughts make us feel anxious and stressed. People typically look back at their worries and wish they hadn't wasted all that time fretting.
So how do we manage fear and worry? What do we do when "what if" thoughts intrude?
This short video uses a Mindfulness-based, visual approach to help you to manage your worry and tame your mind. It takes practice, but you can do it!
Click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWrTcLmj6yI
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Perinatal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Life feels hard. You’re feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed. You’re feeling flat, lost, unhappy. You’ve been through difficult life experiences that are weighing you down. Perhaps you’re not functioning as well as you’d like to.
Let’s face it, we all struggle at times in our lives, especially when it comes to becoming parents, and everything that goes with this tumultuous life stage.
You might be contemplating talking to someone, but also wondering “what would be the point?” “How could talking to a psychologist help me?”
Nowadays we rely on reviews to find out about other people’s experiences. As psychologists, we are prohibited from eliciting and publishing client testimonials, making it difficult for people to find out how therapy works for others.
However, the psychologists at the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network constantly receive feedback from our clients about their experiences of therapy. So we decided to pull together feedback we’ve received over the years, to bring to light the commonly reported benefits of therapy.
Please note that no identities have been revealed in the compilation of this list. The headings are written in the first person and are in no particular order.
Feeling heard, accepted and validated
Some people come to therapy reporting that when they were growing up, their feelings were not heard. With the best of intentions, parents can minimize or dismiss the feelings of their children, sending messages that their feelings are a sign of weakness, that they should just get on with things, or that their feelings signal catastrophe.
Clients have reported that therapy provides them with a safe environment in which to identify and share their feelings. Once a good relationship and rapport has been established with their therapist, clients value that their feelings are accepted, are encouraged to be ‘felt’ (rather than shied away from or feared), and that their feelings are valid (“it makes sense that you feel that way”).
Feeling ‘lighter’ by getting things off my chest
In some instances, a client’s therapist is the first person to whom they have disclosed past experiences, distressing thoughts, or shameful feelings. By simply getting this information out, clients report feeling lighter – less consumed by their self-criticism, shame or fear of being judged. Within a trusted client-therapist relationship, repair can begin with the acceptance, validation and non-judgement the therapist brings.
Learning that all feelings pass
Interestingly, many clients report that being allowed to feel and express their feelings, along with having their feelings accepted and validated, provides an environment within which they learn that feelings evolve and change over time. By talking things through, feelings shift, and the intensity of the original feelings (often shame) diminishes.
Understanding why I think and react the way I do
In exploring the past, people learn about the ways in which they experience, and deal with their feelings – both internally and in relationships with other people. With insight into why they think and feel the way they do, their responses can be de-automated, giving them more choice and capacity to respond more adaptively. Clients learn to bring self-compassion to what was once habitual self-criticism.
Recognising that my expectations and assumptions underlie my feelings and behaviours.
In exploring the past, people learn about how their expectations were formed and how their expectations cause them to feel and react in certain ways. In therapy, clients learn to challenge their expectations, and to defer to their values as their guide, rather than to their habitual internal narratives.
Examples of unhelpful beliefs:
As a mother, I should know exactly what my baby needs at all times.
If I can’t exercise 3 times per week, I won’t exercise at all.
Everything I do should be done perfectly otherwise I’ve failed.
If I don’t get enough sleep tonight, I won’t be able to function tomorrow.
I am uninteresting to others, so I avoid meeting new people.
My child should know to behave well when we go out.
Examples of assumptions:
She thinks I’m a terrible mum because she uses cloth nappies, and I don’t.
My partner won’t know what to do if I leave the baby with him.
The mothers at mothers’ group think I’m a bad mum because my baby cries more than the other babies.
No one cares about my grief after my miscarriage.
I’m a bad person because I had that awful thought.
Learning to see another person’s point of view /emotional experience
It can be enlightening when people realize that they have been making assumptions about other people’s behavior or responses to them. They learn that there are many potential explanations other than the ones they were subscribing to. When people learn about their own projections onto other people, they also learn that other people project their fears too. When clients see that everyone sees things from their own perspective, they can come to recognize that trying to please others is futile, and that even if theyarejudged by another person, this is tolerable.
Learning how to live in the present and not engage in ‘what if’ thoughts
Clients learn the value of living in the present moment, of asking themselves “what’s required of me now”, rather than entertaining a litany of catastrophic thoughts about what could go wrong in the future. With practise, recognizing and stopping “what if” thoughts can liberate clients from worry.
Learning to accept what I can’t control
Clients can become practised at recognizing what’s not in their control. As a result, they can develop more confidence about acting on what isin their control, and accepting what is not controllable.
Learning of skills
Skills learnt in therapy include
Overall, clients have reported becoming better versions of themselves - more tolerant of their own and others’ imperfections, feeling worthy of being cared for and seeing the value in caring for themselves. And, as a result, clients have reported an improvement in their moods and relationships, and a strengthening in their sense of selves and their meaning in life.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
We live in a world where striving is seen as thriving. But is it?
We can become attached to the mindset of striving for more, striving to be better, striving for perfection. But at what cost?
We develop expectations and desires that set us up to feel unfulfilled if things aren’t a certain way. We can hold high expectations of ourselves, our partners, our children, our parents, and our friends. We can feel disappointed and let down when people don’t behave in the ways we want them to.
We can believe that if we don’t hold on tightly to our high expectations, we will in some way fail, our lives will be out of control, or that we don’t stand for much.
Reflecting on two decades of working as a Psychologists with pregnant women and new parents, it struck me that much of people’s growth and happiness comes not from what they strive for, but from what they let go of.
I turned my attention to my clients (no identities disclosed) and to our Facebook followers to find out what people have let go of for a happier life. This is what I found:
As a parent
I let go of striving to return to my pre-baby body, and decided to just maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I let go of needing to clean and tidy my house before I'd have visitors, and now I don't care.
I let go of apologizing for the mess in my house and now I say “you can see a lot of fun has been had around here.”
I let go of expecting my child to get dressed by himself, and kept dressing him to get out of the house without shouting. Then one day, he said “I CAN DO IT!”
I let go of comparing my house and my clothes to other parents.
I let go of worrying about how other parents see me as a parent. I learnt to recognise that everyone is different and that everyone does what works best for them.
I’ve let go of all the guilt I used to feel when failing to adhere to parental “shoulds”.
I let go of expecting my kid to be like other kids or to fit the expectations I had of her based on my own interests and experiences.
I let go of thinking I’d be happy when my daughter got through the present phase and into the next phase.
I let go of trying to do so much. Once the kids are asleep I watch TV or read a book. I need some time on my own to relax.
I let go of a high stress really well-paying job - working 12 hours a day every day even weekends to take a much lower paying job where I am just a regular worker rather than the boss and it’s made me the happiest I have ever been. I don’t even miss the pay cheque.
I let go of feeling guilty for doing things I enjoy.
I let go of trying to meet everyone’s needs before my own family’s. Now I tell the broader family what works for us and what doesn’t.
I let go of the urgency I had felt to find my ultimate job when my babies were small. Now I say to myself “all in good time”.
I let go of all the stuff around the house that I hadn’t used for a while, but was keeping just in case.
I let go of ‘beating myself up’ if I said something inappropriate. We can all do that sometimes. If I offend someone, I apologize.
I let go of worrying about the future. That was big!
I let go of checking social media through the day, and I’m now more present with my children. This makes me SO much happier.
I’ve let go of connecting ‘likes’ on social media to my worth as a person.
I let go of looking at my phone in bed. I’m enjoying reading books and talking to my partner instead.
I recognise that what people post on social media is what they want others to see or think. I let go of letting other people’s ‘fabulous’ lives impact the way I see mine.
Once I became a parent, I realised that my friends were busy with their children, and I let go of my expectations about how often we should catch up.
I let go of needing my friends to be there for me when I was struggling, and realised that some people can be there, and other people find emotions hard to deal with. I accept now that some of my friends are just fun friends.
I’ve let go of friendships which felt really hard to maintain or would leave me feeling exhausted afterwards (and they too have let me go).
I let go of needing my partner to notice the mess, and just asked for what needed to be done around the house.
I let go of trying to change my partner to mould him into what I wanted. I try to focus on all the positive things about him.
I let go of needing things to be done in MY time (i.e. NOW) and recognise that people have different time lines.
Parents and In-laws
I stopped waiting for my mum to ask how she can help, and now I ask for help when I need it.
I let go of needing my parents’ approval. I feel so much lighter and no longer worry about how they see me.
I stopped wishing my parents could be tuned in to my feelings. I now realise they are both emotionally damaged, and don’t have the capacity to hear me or to validate me.
Relationship with myself
I let go of being unkind to myself. Self-critical thoughts were the most unhelpful and damaging thing I ever did to myself.
I stopped comparing my life to others’ lives: My house, my car, my children, my husband.
I let go of trying to prove myself to others. I’m honest about not knowing about certain things (like politics).
I let go of thinking I had to constantly please others.
So is all striving bad?
Letting go for a happier life, does not mean letting go of all striving. It’s about letting go of the striving that comes at a cost.
It’s about checking in on whether the expectations we hold are helping or hindering our happiness.
It’s about letting go of the unhelpful ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ that we’ve mindlessly accumulated over time or that 'belong' to other people.
It’s about treating ourselves with kindness and compassion and measuring ourselves according to our values – what really matters.
What have you let go of for a happier life?
Written by Dr Renée Miller (Perinatal Clinical Psychologist)
This article has been written in the first person to reflect the individual views of people whose identities have been protected.
The problem with perfectionism is that there is no end to it. We may continue to strive to be better, but the goal posts keep moving, and perfection eludes us. Some people say that perfectionism has been a good trait in the workplace, something that has helped them to progress in their careers. Perfectionism shouldn't be mistaken for conscientiousness, drive, hard-work, commitment, care, or attention to detail. These qualities are certainly helpful in the workplace and in other settings. What this article is talking about is the extreme nature and bottomless pit of perfectionism. The kind of perfectionism that involves unrelenting expectations and standards for self and others, criticism of self and others, associated stress and anxiety, and commonly feeling dissatisfied or 'not good enough'.
Time and time again, we see new mums who with the best of intentions for their babies and families, are striving to be ‘perfect’ mothers – to parent in the ‘perfect’ way. The reason they are struggling, is often because this bottomless pit of striving sets them up to fail, and this perceived failure feels intolerable. There is typically a lifetime of layers beneath the surface of this striving, which is certainly worthy of exploration.
Striving for perfection can seriously limit our capacity to enjoy life. Perfection-striving is often associated with all-or-nothing or black-and- white thinking. For example, the mum who won’t go to mother’s group if she is going to be late, misses out on the building of relationships with other mums (who are often late themselves). The mum who won’t exercise if she can’t exercise three times per week, misses out on the benefits of some exercise and a little time-out. The mum who won’t invite people over unless she gets the time to make the house look immaculate, misses out on the fun and spontaneity of having other new mums and babies around for her own and her baby’s social well-being. The mum who won’t let her partner settle the baby because he/she won’t do it like she does, misses out on her partner’s support and her partner's growing bond with the baby.
The bottom line is that there is no one way, and there is no right way. When your hard and fast rules about how things should be, get in the way of the things that give your life meaning (i.e. the things that you really value) ask yourself if there is a middle ground?
The middle ground is a place where we strive for being ‘good-enough’ mothers. Perfectionists usually see this term “good enough” as meaning mediocre. However, ‘good-enough’ means good enough. For example, getting to mothers group late is better than not going at all. It can be a good laugh and a supportive environment. Exercising whenever possible (despite wishing to achieve three exercise sessions per week) is better than nothing, and is likely to become easier to achieve over time. Inviting friends over, even if the house is untidy, shows them that you are human after all (very comforting for most people), and demonstrates that you value friendships more than your domestic high standards. Letting your partner settle the baby even if he/she does it differently to you, knowing that this is their chance to discover what works, and to establish a good bond.
The middle ground is a much kinder place – a place of acceptance, and openness to experience. Try it. You’ll see. You might even find that not only can you be a 'good-enough' mum, you can be a great mum!
If these tips are not enough, and your striving for perfection is causing you distress, it may be worthwhile to seek help.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Perinatal Clinical Psychologist
Founder Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Co-founder The Perinatal Loss Centre
Children love to win. But what happens when they lose? Children are inherently inept at managing their emotions. Losing a game, a race, or a sporting event, can feel overwhelming. One of our roles as parents is to teach our children how to lose with grace. Emotional regulation and good sportsmanship are vital skills in life.
So how do we do this?
Be mindful of what children observe in us
It begins with what we model as parents. What do we demonstrate to our children about winning and losing? What do we say in front of our children about winning and losing? Children absorb our behaviours and our commentary, so we need to be mindful about what they see and what they hear.
First and foremost, our children need to see us lose with grace. They need to see that if things don’t go well for us, we learn from our mistakes, and we don’t blame.
Our children may see us barrack for our sporting team, but they need to see that we can commend the opposition if they win. They need to see us praise the effort of the losing team. They need to see that we don’t blame umpires. Everyone makes mistakes, and umpire decisions need to be accepted.
Children need to see that when we (or our sporting teams) lose, we can learn from our losses, and we can move on...
Deal with winning and losing in family games
Don’t fall into the trap of constantly letting your child win. Children need to experience losing in an environment where losing is just part of the game.
They need to be reminded that “sometimes we win and sometimes we lose”. They need to hear us say “it’s only a game”. They need to learn that it’s not okay to lash out at others or to quit if it looks like they are not going to win. Everyone plays till the end, and everyone gets congratulated for a good game. The goal is the fun of playing together, rather than the win.
Validate their feelings
Children need to learn that it’s ok to feel frustrated, disappointed, or upset when they lose. Labelling and validating their feelings can help them to understand their feelings before they can move on. Once their feelings are heard, we can talk to them about being a good sport.
Overt the narrative of good sportsmanship
Our children need to see us praise sports people, tv contestants and public figures, who lose graciously. They need to hear a narrative about what it means to be a ‘good sport’. They need to see examples of sporting heroes who are gracious losers. When we value good sportsmanship, and highlight the associated commendable behaviours, our children learn about the value of these qualities, over and above the transient feeling of winning.
Children generally need to hear us praise their effort and encourage their learning and growth. This narrative is far more helpful for a child’s sense of self and sportsmanship than the one around winning, or being ‘the best’.
Children need to hear that different people have different strengths. Some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things.
Children need to understand that trying something (even though they may not be good at it) is a show of bravery.
Children need to learn that when we practise something, we can improve.
Children need to learn that they can be happy for the successes of others.
Ultimately, children need to learn to appraise themselves according to their own benchmarks for success, rather than by comparing themselves to the performance of others. This is more likely if children are raised in an environment where competition is fun, winning is a bonus, and good sportsmanship and humility are qualities that are valued.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
New parenthood changes our relationships with our parents and our parents-in-law. How do you navigate the underlying (often unexpressed) expectations and assumptions about the role of grandparents?
Clinical Psychologist, Dr Renée Miller talks with Sarah Morrissey on Little Rockers Radio about some of the challenges parents can face with their children's grandparents.
What can we let go of, and what's worth raising when our parenting philosophies differ?
How do we not take personally some of the things grandparents say?
What's happening between grandparents and grandchildren during COVID lockdown?
To listen to the interview, click here.
Read more on this topic here:
"What New Mums and Grandparents Want Each Other to Know"
"The Mother-in-law Trap"
Pregnancy can be a stressful time. It is common for a woman and her partner to have some degree of stress and anxiety during their pregnancy. The expectant couple can typically worry about the mother’s health and more often, the health of their baby.
The Coronavirus pandemic has added further unknowns with respect to health implications for pregnant women and their babies. According to Dr Renée Miller (Perinatal Clinical Psychologist), “recent media attention on the possible increased incidence of stillbirth during Covid-19, has resulted in a further surge of fear in pregnant women and their partners. This is particularly confronting for parents who are pregnant after a previous loss.”
The present article aims to address the increased burden of worry faced by expectant parents. I address general concerns surrounding the impacts of Coronavirus during pregnancy. I also highlight limitations associated with the study referred to in the media regarding increased rates of stillbirth during the pandemic. Finally, together with Professor Mark Umstad and Dr Stephen Cole, we provide tips on how to keep you and your baby safe.
I’m pregnant. Should I be worried about catching Coronavirus?
From the limited evidence to date, pregnant women do not appear to be more severely affected by COVID-19 than the general population. The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) states that pregnant women do not appear to become more severely unwell if they develop COVID-19 infection than non-pregnant women of the same age. Most pregnant women will experience mild or moderate symptoms including fever, cough, loss of smell, headaches and fatigue. Most of these women will make a full recovery without need for hospital admission (RANZCOG, 2020).
I’m pregnant. Will my baby be harmed if I catch Coronavirus?
Women should remain reassured, that there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 will harm your baby or cause abnormalities during pregnancy. There is also no evidence to suggest that there is an increased risk of miscarriage with COVID-19 (RANZCOG, 2020). The risk of Coronavirus to a baby appears very small (Stillbirth CRE, 2020).
Should I be worried about the reports of increased rates of stillbirths during the pandemic?
A recent study in the UK found there was a 4-fold increase in stillbirths during the pandemic period (from February to June 2020). Understandably this finding is frightening for pregnant women. However, it should be noted that there were limitations to this study.
These limitations include:
Obstetrician, Dr Stephen Cole emphasizes that none of the fetal deaths in utero occurred in women with known COVID-19. He stated, “it is possible that increased stillbirths may be due to indirect effects such as a hesitation for women to attend the hospital for check-ups, to come in when they are concerned, or due to a reductions in antenatal visits”.
While more stillbirth research clearly needs to be done, the UK study also points to possible indirect causes for the rise in stillbirth rates versus a direct link due to Coronavirus.
Indirect effects include:
According to Obstetrician, Professor Mark Umstad “It is important to understand that it is still safe to continue attending your care provider during the pandemic. They will have all of the appropriate precautions in place to protect you, including when you attend hospital. While it can be challenging to attend without your usual support team and may be confronting to see clinical staff in their personal protective equipment (PPE), these precautions will keep you and your baby safe during this pandemic."
In summary, studies conducted to date have limitations. Clearly more research is needed.
What can I do to keep my baby safe?
The next section outlines what Midwives and Obstetricians are advising their patients who are concerned about the health of their babies during the pandemic.
Please note: this list is not exhaustive. Please always refer to your health care provider and the advice they give you during your pregnancy.
The Coronavirus pandemic has understandably added an extra layer of uncertainty and stress for expectant parents. Try not to jump to conclusions in your own bubble of worry. Trust your healthcare provider. Ask your questions and voice your concerns. Focus on the facts, not on the media. You are not alone in this.
Article written by Eliza Strauss, Bereavement Midwife, Perinatal Loss Educator, and Co-founder of The Perinatal Loss Centre, Melbourne, Australia.
Dr Renée Miller, Perinatal Clinical Psychologist, Founder of Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network and Co-founder The Perinatal Loss Centre, Melbourne, Australia.
Professor Mark Umstad AM, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Frances Perry House, Melbourne, Australia.
Dr Stephen Cole, Consultant Obstetrician & Specialist in Maternal Fetal-Medicine, Epworth Healthcare and, Melbourne, Australia.
Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE): www.cope.org.au
Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Association (PANDA): www.panda.org.au
Gidget Foundation: www.gidgetfoundation.org.au
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network: www.antenatalandpostnatalpsychology.com.au/covid-19.html
Khalil A, von Dadelszen P, Draycott T, Ugwumadu A, O’Brien P, Magee L. Change in the Incidence of Stillbirth and Preterm Delivery During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA. 2020;324(7):705–706. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.12746
RANZCOG (2020). A message for pregnant women and their families. Retrieved from https://ranzcog.edu.au/statements-guidelines/covid-19-statement/information-for-pregnant-women
Still Aware (2020). Safe Sleeping. Retrieved from https://stillaware.org/yourpregnancy/safe-sleep-in-pregnancy
We left the paediatrician's office feeling shocked, gutted, and numb. We were told that our child's delayed development could be an indication of Autism Spectrum Disorder. We were barraged with names and details of specialists who could continue assessing Henry and provide therapeutic support. What? Autism?
In the days that followed we watched Henry's every move, his every expression, the way he played, ate, and interacted. The way we saw our beautiful boy had changed since the excruciating hour and a half we spent answering questions, completing questionnaires, and trawling through our memories of Henry's developmental milestones (or lack thereof). With each milestone he appeared to have 'failed', our hearts sank further and further.
We were reassured about the services that could help Henry to learn some of the skills he would need in life - a life we now imagined playing out in the bleakest of ways.
We began contacting the names of the practitioners we had been given. Dying inside that our boy was now going to be scrutinised, assessed, and labelled. Putting one foot in front of the other, we followed directions to implement assessment and support services for Henry.
But who is there to support us? Who can help us to cope with the grief, the trauma, the rising panic? How do we parent our boy now? Who are we now? What does this mean for our other children?
When a child is diagnosed with a developmental disorder such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, there are a multitude of services to support the child. But parents often feel out at sea themselves. Where do they turn to understand their role as parents? Who do they see to recalibrate their views and expectations of their child? How do they manage with the challenges their child brings to the family?
Dr Alison Wilby is a Clinical Psychologist who supports parents facing developmental concerns in their young children (under 8 years old). Alison understands the trauma, the profound disappointment, and the fear that parents can feel when they are told there is 'something wrong' with their child.
Integrating over 20 years of working with new parents and young children (particularly where there are significant developmental challenges), and with a PhD on the role of parenting in early social emotional development, Alison is well placed to support parents traversing the multidisciplinary landscape of the Autism Spectrum.
Alison is a warm and caring practitioner who helps parents understand how their child thinks and behaves within the challenges and strengths each child displays. Alison provides assessment and support for parents who are concerned about the development of their infant or child, and she provides tools to manage difficult behaviour while helping parents to gain clarity on the underlying causes.
Alison has a particular interest in Autism Spectrum Disorder and anxiety disorders in early childhood, including young children with selective mutism.
With her background in parent-infant settings, Alison works with children who have been affected by a parent’s mood disorder. In situations where mothers have been hospitalized, Alison supports children who are struggling with the distress of separation.
Irrespective of the diagnosis a child might receive, Alison assists parents to build confidence in their parenting, working with couples to help them to determine optimal strategies for parenting their particular child. Alison's ultimate aim is to help parents to parent with love and acceptance of their child, and to see the unique capabilities that every individual child possesses.
Alison is located in Melbourne’s south east (Caulfield North, Hampton and Glen Iris).
Read more about Dr Alison Wilby here: https://www.antenatalandpostnatalpsychology.com.au/dr-alison-wilby
Article written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
When we imagine having a baby, our minds create narratives about the hoped-for child. Along with the child we envisage raising, we hold scripts about the kind of parents we hope to be.
Then we become pregnant, and these fantasies intensify.
The narratives we hold are formed by our past, and by the meaning we derived from the relationships we’ve experienced and observed. We unconsciously amass information and draw conclusions about parents and children, family compositions, siblings, and the meaning of gender within these relationships.
When we find out the sex of our baby (whether in utero or after birth), this intricate web of preconceived ideas springs to the surface. Stories about ourselves, our relationships, our fears, our regrets, and our desires. Some or all of these things can be wrapped up in our perceptions about the sex of our baby.
Not everyone has a strong preference for the sex of their baby, but for some women (and less commonly, men), the gender of their baby is steeped in personal meaning. When the baby is not the hoped-for daughter or son, some people experience mild to extreme disappointment, grief, and even depression.
Before you judge with “surely a healthy baby is all that matters”, let’s make it clear that a healthy baby is the wish of all parents. But for some parents, the meaning of their baby’s sex is so deeply-rooted in their psyches that the loss of their hoped-for child can be devastating.
To truly understand gender disappointment and the grief women can experience, we need to respectfully understand the particular meaning for the individual. People’s reasons and stories differ uniquely. However, there are some common themes.
From the vast response I received to my Facebook post (both publicly and privately), there were some noteworthy themes.
1. Gender disappointment appeared to be more commonly experienced by women. A small proportion of women spoke about their male partners’ gender disappointment (equally in relation to wished-for boys as compared to wished-for girls).
2. The majority of women’s gender disappointment was in relation to the preference for a girl. This was followed by the preference for one of each sex. And less commonly, by the preference for a boy.
The wish for a girl was associated with the following narratives:
The wish for one of each was associated with the following narratives:
The wish for a boy was associated with the following narratives:
“Why can’t you just be happy to have a healthy baby?” (A common judgement)
As indicated by the women who responded to my post, gender disappointment does not negate their appreciation and gratitude for a healthy baby. Nor does it (in most cases) preclude loving the baby who was born.
The disappointment and grief is about the baby who was not born, the baby who had been yearned for and mentalized, in some cases from as far back as a woman can remember.
Extrapolating from the many reasons women offered for their gender disappointment, I propose that these feelings can be understood by three types of projections:
Women seek to replicate what they experienced or witnessed, because it was positive.
Women seek to repair what they experienced or witnessed, because it was negative.
3. REFLECTION OF SELF
The wished-for child is a reflection of the woman’s perceptions of self (identity, regrets, hopes, fears, dreams).
The grief associated with gender disappointment is real, and can run deep.
When the sex of one’s child is opposite to that of the wished-for child, and the family composition differs from the imagined picture, there is a loss of a strongly held ideal. An ideal that may sit alongside one’s self-identity (including one’s cultural identity) and one’s amalgamated past. When this is the case, the depth of grief may be intense.
Sadly this grief tends to be disenfranchised. Most women believe that other people don’t understand their distress (and indeed, many people do not), so they grieve alone or minimise their feelings to reduce cognitive dissonance.
Women often feel ashamed and guilty for their feelings of disappointment. They judge their feelings as unjustified because they haven’t lost a ‘real’ baby. And when they have lost a baby or have experienced fertility difficulties, the guilt and shame can be worse.
Beneath their shame there may be questions like these:
The grief from gender disappointment needs time for reflective processing to acknowledge and work through the feelings and layers of loss.
How does therapy help?
In some cases, the feelings can be overwhelming and may affect a woman’s mental health and her capacity to bond with her baby. Therapy can be a helpful way to learn to see and appreciate the arrived baby for the unique individual they are, whilst recognising that it’s okay to mourn the loss of the idealised baby.
Therapy can also help women to examine their assumptions and biases about gender, and the meaning they’ve attributed to it through the lens of their past.
The truth of the matter
The truth is that our narratives are not truths. Our narratives are stories we’ve compiled over the course of our lives. These stories are based on subjective conclusions we’ve drawn about boys and girls, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, in the context of our own history.
As we parent the children we have, we grieve many idealised images or expectations along the way. There are all sorts of things parents wish for in their children that may not come to fruition. Who they are, how they think, what they do, can differ considerably from what we had hoped for and from who we are.
Once again, our unconscious wishes to replicate, repair and reflect ourselves, stem from the experiences and meaning derived from our pasts.
In essence, parenting is a constant process of recalibrating what we wished for in accordance with what we have. Ultimately, when we are not blinded by our projections, we free ourselves to accept and cherish our children for the unique individuals they are.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have pangs of sadness, wondering what life would be like with that dreamed for little girl or little boy. But when we acknowledge our grief and accept our reality, we can more readily foster the kinds of relationships and experiences we value with our children, irrespective of their assigned sex.
This article was written with stories shared both publicly and privately on the Facebook page of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network.
Compiled and written by Dr Renée Miller, with gratitude to the many women who shared their feelings and experiences on this deeply personal topic.
Principal Perinatal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Posted by Dr Renée Miller