As the Principal Psychologist of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network, part of my role involves communication. Communication to the public about specific help that is available for issues surrounding fertility, pregnancy, perinatal loss, the postnatal period, and the early parenting years. Communication about the importance of help-seeking at these vulnerable times in life. And communication that involves reassuring people that they will be met with acceptance, non-judgement, a deep caring for the fragility of the human psyche, and a belief in the capacity for human growth.
In my communications role, I made the assumption that inclusivity was a given. That without judgement, we see any woman, any couple, and any formation of a family. That people are people with similarities and differences, with every person being a unique compilation of their past experiences, temperaments, likes, dislikes, preferences, fears, aspirations, disappointments, and life challenges. I used to believe that a person's sexuality was just one of the things that makes them uniquely who they are, in combination with their past experiences, temperaments, likes, dislikes, preferences, fears, aspirations, disappointments, and life challenges.
With the therapeutic lens fixed squarely on the individual person in the therapy room (and the presenting issues at hand), I never saw the need to articulate that "we see same sex attracted clients", or "gender diverse clients". Indeed, I felt that stipulating this on our website, was in itself making a sexuality distinction where none was required - a potential discrimination in a back-to-front kind of way. In a similar way, I didn't see the need to state that we see people from all cultures, from all religions. Of course we do! It's our job to understand the unique aspects of the individual, who that person is, the formation of their identity, how they think, what they feel, where they've come from, what has influenced their past and current struggles, and what they want in life.
My rationale was that we see women, men, and couples, for issues surrounding donor conception, for support through IVF, single women, women with fertility issues, women experiencing reproductive loss, women struggling in pregnancy or the postnatal period, and parents dealing with parenting difficulties. So why did it matter if the woman, or the couple was same sex attracted, or gender diverse?
Then we invited Jacqui Tomlinson (from Rainbow Families) to talk at our Mental Health Professionals Network meeting about same sex attracted couples, IVF and loss. It was here that I appreciated the extent of the anxiety that same sex attracted/gender diverse people can feel when seeking a health professional (especially around creating a family in a heteronormative culture). When Jacqui spoke about the fear that LGBTQIA+ people can experience around not being accepted, or being treated with disdain (even by health professionals), I recognised that by virtue of their minority status, and the wounds they may carry from backgrounds of discrimination or lack of acceptance, inclusivity needed to be stated.
LGBTQIA+ people need to know that we see you, we accept you, we respect you, and we welcome you, with your human frailties, your identity wounds and your capacities for resilience. Like all people from all backgrounds your identity is central to your experiences of conception, pregnancy, perinatal loss, and parenting. Whether you are doing it solo or in a gender diverse relationship, whether you are using a known or unknown donor, or surrogate, we are here to understand who you are and what you are experiencing, without judgement.
We get the unique difficulties faced by LGBTQIA+ people including the prejudices of some people regarding the creation of rainbow families. We get that the sad irony of societal homophobia is that some queer people unconsciously internalise heterosexist ideas, believing that they do not have the right to be parents, that they won't be good parents or that they have to be 'perfect' parents. When there are difficulties in the childbearing years (which there are for many of us), these deep seated schemas can be sitting just under the surface of one's struggles.
We get that same sex/gender diverse couples can experience some of these difficulties:
So now, as the communications person for the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network, not only do we overtly state this inclusivity on our website, we ensure that our ongoing training and professional development includes LGBTQIA+ specific topics, and that LGBTQIA+ populations are represented in the topics we cover.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Conception, pregnancy, childbirth, the postnatal period, and the early parenting years can pose difficulties for many people. Researchers and practitioners need to stay abreast of the experiences people face to continue to update their understanding of how best to support people with such challenges.
Back in 2001, over 300 new mothers participated in my research study - for which I will be eternally grateful. As a result, the findings of this research furthered our understanding of postnatal anxiety, at a time when postnatal depression had received the preponderance of postnatal research, and anxiety was conspicuously lacking in research attention.
Ongoing research is vital for practitioners and policy makers to integrate people’s lived experiences into the work and support they provide.
The psychologists at the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network are passionate about facilitating the collection of data for researchers whose research studies support the mental health of perinatal women, men, couples and ultimately, children.
How you can help
Do you have some time to participate in a research study that could further inform practitioners who work with hopeful parents, pregnant women, birthing women, women and partners in the postnatal period, and early parenthood?
The Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network provides an online research portal for academic researchers (in the perinatal field) to post their studies, giving visitors to the APPN site the option of supporting research, and striving for further meaning from their personal experiences.
Studies requiring participation
Under each listed study, you will see the participants being sought. If you meet the criteria for participation, you will find links to the study on our website here.
RMIT Perinatal Well-being Study investigating challenges in pregnancy and the postnatal period.
Participants required: Women who are pregnant to 24 months postnatal.
Griffith University investigating the acceptability and outcome of an exercise intervention using a telehealth app for mothers with Postpartum Depression (PPD).
Participants required: Women in the postnatal period who have been diagnosed with PPD or who are willing to seek a diagnosis.
University of Tasmania investigating women's experience of pregnancy and the postnatal period.
Participants required: Pregnant women living in Australia.
University of Adelaide investigating the experience of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) men who have experienced the loss of a baby.
Participants required: 1) Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) men with experience of perinatal death. 2) Healthcare professionals who have worked with CALD men following perinatal death. 3) Community Leaders from a CALD community.
Monash University investigating how a music-based intervention supports the quality of parent- and caregiver-toddler relationships and toddler and parent/caregiver mental health.Participants required: Parents or primary care-givers of toddlers.
Latrobe University investigating the effectiveness of a new program that aims to enhance parents’ support and understanding of their baby’s early social and language developments.
Participants required: Pregnant women with a family history of autism, ADHD or intellectual disability
Parent-Infant Research Institute investigating the benefits of psychological treatment for depression in pregnancy, for both mother and baby.
Participants required: Women up to 30 weeks pregnant who are feeling low.
Charles Sturt University investigating childbirth experiences and trauma in first time mothers.
Participants required: First time mothers over 18, who have given birth over one month ago at 37+ weeks gestation.
University of Queensland investigating resilience to stress, in families following preterm birth.
Participants required: Parent of a preterm infant, child, or adolescent who is now 0-18 years of age.
QUT Investigating how mothers use social media and what effects social media use can have on mothers. Participants required: Mothers of children aged between 0-4 years.
Melbourne University undertaking Delphi expert consensus study: Establishing expert consensus about interventions for preventing and ameliorating the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
Participants required: Health practitioners, educators, policy makers, researchers or program managers whose work relates to family or child health and well-being in Australia.
Royal Women’s Hospital & Monash University evaluating different approaches to improving sleep for first-time mothers who currently experience sleeping difficulties.
Participants required: First-time mothers who are less than 32 weeks pregnant and currently experiencing sleep difficulties.
University of Adelaide investigating experiences of Secondary Infertility: Emotions, Support and Coping Strategies.
Participants required: Women and/or their partners who have tried unsuccessfully to conceive for at least 12 months after having had a successful pregnancy/pregnancies.
University of Adelaide LGBTQI+ Experiences of Pregnancy Loss: Perceptions of Formal and Informal Support and the Impact on Mental Health.
Participants required: People who identify as LGBTQIA+ who have experienced pregnancy loss more than 6 months and less than 10 years ago.
University of Melbourne investigating women’s and men’s experiences of miscarriage, with the ultimate goal of ending the silence around miscarriage.
Participants required: Women, partners and family members affected by miscarriage more than 3 months ago but within 2 years.
Monash University. This study aims to understand how the brain changes in the transition to motherhood. Participants required: First-time mothers 10-14 months postpartum with or without a diagnosis of postnatal depression.
University of the Sunshine Coast exploring the impact that fertility issues have on Australian's women's quality of life whilst trying to conceive.
Participants required: Women currently trying to conceive, experiencing fertility difficulties.
Deakin University investigating whether late pregnancy affects women's cognitive functioning.
Participants required: 20 women in their third trimester of pregnancy and 20 women who are not pregnant, have never been pregnant and are not planning to become pregnant in the next 12 months.
Latrobe University aiming to understand factors associated with well-being in same-sex attracted women during the perinatal period, to improve services for this group.
Participants required: Same sex attracted pregnant women and new mums.
Curtain University aims to establish a set of clinical guidelines for health professionals on the assessment, treatment, and management of individuals with perinatal OCD.
Participants required: Parents with personal experience of perinatal OCD, and clinicians/researchers with expertise in perinatal OCD.
Swinburne University explores the potentially different postnatal experiences of First-Time and Experienced Mothers, including well-being, feelings about motherhood and perceptions of Maternal and Child Health Nurse support.
Participants required: All mothers who have had a baby within the last 2 years, are over 18 years of age, living in Australia, and speak fluent English.
University of Liverpool is looking at how infant feeding attitudes change from pregnancy to the postpartum period.
Participants required: Women in the third trimester of pregnancy (over 35 weeks).
University of South Australia is looking at whether what you eat in pregnancy affects your mood during pregnancy and after.
Participants required: Women who are 8-15 weeks pregnant at the start of the study (now).
Bond University is conducting research on couples experiencing infertility in order to contribute to the development of helpful fertility related psychological support programs.
Participants required: Couples experiencing infertility.
CQ University's study Experiences of Pregnancy and the Year After Birth, is being conducted to further improve screening and treatments for perinatal mood disorders.
Participants required: Women over the age of 18, who are currently pregnant or have given birth in the last 12 months.
Please click here to check your eligibility to participate in one of the listed studies.
Your experience could make an enormous difference to the experiences of others.
Thank you for your consideration and potential contribution towards these important research studies.
Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network and The Perinatal Loss Centre
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
"I feel like I have no control over my life"
"The 'to do' list never ends"
"I can't seem to finish anything I start"
"My toddler is ruling the roost"
"I'm trying so hard to be a good parent but I'm worried that I'm not"
Parenthood is stressful. The responsibilities and demands of a baby, toddler (or both), the sleep deprivation, the loss of freedom, the loss of control, and the never-ending 'to do list' can be overwhelming and stress inducing. Not to mention the emotional investment in wanting to parent a child who will feel safe and secure in the world, with a high emotional intelligence and a resilience to facing life's challenges. It's a big gig!
Some new parents seek help to manage postnatal depression and/or postnatal anxiety. However many new parents seek help simply to manage stress. Often motivated by wanting to be the best parents they can be, parents recognise when they are operating in a revved up state. Their sleep can be affected, and they may notice symptoms of irritability, being overly touchy or sensitive, snappy, and generally not being able to wind down. Parents often report that their stress is most apparent in their relationship with their spouse, and/or in an increasing impatience with their children.
There is a vast literature and much media attention educating the public on postnatal depression and more recently, postnatal anxiety. However for parents who are stressed this focus on depression and anxiety can result in a hesitation towards help-seeking in the absence of a depressed mood or an anxiety disorder. Postnatal stress can cause significant upset in families, and evidence-based treatments for stress can bring about welcomed symptom relief.
So what is the difference between depression, anxiety and stress? According to the authors and researchers of the Depression, Anxiety Stress Scales (Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995) depression, anxiety and stress can co-occur, however each state has its unique symptoms. Depression symptoms include feeling negative, down-hearted, gloomy, unmotivated, dispirited, and a loss of enjoyment in things once pleasurable. Anxiety includes physiological symptoms of panic, pounding heart, shakiness, fear of losing control, and apprehension. Stress includes nervousness, jumpiness, tension, getting easily upset or irritated, and difficulty relaxing.
The Psychologists at the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network (APPN) commonly use the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS-21) - a well validated screening tool that helps new parents to understand their particular symptoms. In our experience, new parents like to understand their symptoms using the DASS-21, and they find it useful to track their symptoms over time to see how they are progressing with therapy. Although scores on the DASS can delineate symptom severity and a measure of progress over time, clinical diagnoses (if relevant) require further assessment by the psychologist to ensure that appropriate treatment strategies are implemented in therapy.
Treatment for stress typically involves a combination of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness based therapies. These approaches give parents tools for understanding how their thinking - expectations, appraisals and worry - contribute to their difficulties (thinking being a modifiable component in managing stress). In addition parents learn to manage their responses (physical and behavioural) in relation to life stressors and to their own fears. Practical strategies for managing daily routines can form part of the work, as well as sorting through family of origin dynamics that may underly one's problematic thinking and stress levels in the early parenting years. Learning how to wind down and relax is fundamental to this therapy for stressed new parents and parents of young children.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Having a baby. It feels like a big decision. A decision that affects all aspects of your life. For some people, there's not much to weigh up. They've always known they wanted children; they just need to figure out when. For other people, the decision to have a baby involves a more active process.
Psychologist, Dr Shikkiah de Quadros-Wander from the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network was interviewed by ABC News, and she suggests some helpful questions for couples to ask themselves.
Read the article here.
The children are asleep. The house is quiet. You're exhausted. Time to sleep.
But you can't.
Your mind is rehashing the day. Thoughts come up about tomorrow, next week, the future.
And then you start worrying about not being able to sleep. You look at the clock. Time is moving.
You think "how am I going to get through tomorrow?"
You try deep breathing. That helps. But your mind is still going.
You say to yourself "stop thinking and go to sleep".
You put on relaxation music, but your mind is still going.
You start to feel anxious.
You count sheep, but your thoughts creep back in.
The more you 'try' to sleep, the more sleep eludes you.
Sleep onset difficulties strike many busy parents. Dr Luc Beaudoin, is an adjunct Professor in Cognitive Science at Simon Fraser University. He says that when our brain's executive function is 'firing', we are accessing memory, evaluation, planning, scheduling, and problem solving. He refers to this as "mental peturbance". When these mental actions are in play, our brains are too active to settle to sleep.
Dr Beaudoin has developed a simple cognitive tool that interrupts and counteracts these processes. It's called "cognitive shuffling".
The approach moves you from of a high state of alertness, towards drifting off to sleep. Cognitive shuffling scrambles your thoughts so that your brain can't try to make sense of things. It interrupts the processes of memory, evaluation, planning, scheduling and problem solving.
Here's how it's done.
Sleep deprivation is a harsh reality of parenthood, but there's nothing more frustrating than not being able to sleep because of your own mind. Dr Beaudoin's cognitive shuffling technique, may be the answer to settling your busy mind, and optimising your sleep.
If you need a little help, Dr Beaudoin has translated cognitive science into a sleep app called mysleepbutton.com®.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Perinatal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Pregnancy is a time of great uncertainty - a time when horror stories are rife and fears about harm befalling one’s baby, common. Anxiety can be particularly significant for women who have experienced pregnancy losses (or vicarious losses through family or friends); been through the ‘roller coaster’ of fertility treatment; received diagnoses of fetal anomalies; or who have experienced a previous traumatic birth. In addition, an anxious temperament can pre-dispose women to heightened anxiety in pregnancy, especially in the face of stressful life events.
Although anxiety tends to be seen as the 'normal' emotional landscape for pregnant women, elevated levels of anxiety can be debilitating, and can contribute to emotional disturbance in the postnatal period. Symptoms of antenatal anxiety might be overlooked by common symptoms of pregnancy such as increases in heart rate, shallow breathing, and sleep disturbance (Wenzel, 2011).
In order to identify whether symptoms are problematic, the questions for women to ask themselves and/or their health practitioners are 1. "Are my symptoms interfering with my life (e.g., avoidance of usual activities for fear of feeling anxious, relationship problems, sleep disturbance, constant reassurance seeking)?" and 2. "Are my symptoms causing me distress (e.g. upsetting or intrusive thoughts and/or distressing symptoms in the body)?" (Wenzel, 2011)
Women do not need to experience high levels of anxiety and worry in pregnancy or the postpartum. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help women to learn how to manage both the physiological (body) symptoms, and the mental worry, which can contribute to a calmer pregnancy, birth, and adjustment to new parenthood.
Perinatal Clinical Psychologist, Dr Renée Miller shares a useful video: Managing Your Mind: Taming Worry
Wenzel, A. (2011). Anxiety in childbearing women. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Wenzel, A. & Kleiman, K. (2015). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for perinatal distress. New York: Taylor & Francis.
The ‘mental load’ of motherhood is a hot topic at the moment. Mums find themselves managing a heap of hidden tasks that involve researching, planning and organising for the family. Remembering to buy those thoughtful birthday gifts for little friends, meal planning that caters to the health and idiosyncrasies of the family; organising, researching, scheduling and booking after school activities and play dates. Reading countless social media parenting posts with their children’s emotional well-being in mind. And this is just a snapshot of a mother’s brain.
The work that goes on in our minds is invisible. You might see mum buying and wrapping the birthday gifts, shopping for food and cooking meals, driving to after school activities, going to play dates at friends’ houses. What you don’t see, is the thinking that goes on behind the scenes.
Many of my clients struggle with this load, especially when their expectations of themselves are overly high or unrealistic. Many modern women say that they thought their partners or husbands were ‘modern guys’, men who valued gender equality, equal rights, in some cases even espousing the virtues of feminism. Then the children came.
It can take women some time to realise the inequality that slips in behind the scenes. The default to traditional roles embedded in the psyche of their partners, and ironically, of themselves.
The unfortunate result can be overwhelm and resentment. Resentment at their partners for happily allowing the load to fall on their shoulders, resentment at their partners for not understanding the extent of the load, and anger at themselves for enabling this inequity.
Dr Gwyn Rees, psychologist at the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network, makes the following suggestions:
You are parents now, and things have changed with your mother in law.
As a psychologist who specialises in working with new parents, I often hear stories about fractured relationships with mothers in law once a baby comes along. Here are some of the reasons why.
I feel constantly criticised by my mother in law. She often says "when MY kids were little...
You can finish that sentence with any number of things her children did perfectly (compared to mine).
My mother in law makes snide remarks about how uptight we are as parents. It seems that anything we do with our baby - that differs to what she did - is about us being anxious parents.
I'm exhausted, and doing my best to manage the house, parenting and work. But somehow, I always fall short in my mother in law's eyes. In her recollection, her house was perfectly organised, and her children were perfectly behaved at all times.
My mother in law runs a commentary about me through my children. "Oh, no, look mummy has made you cry again". She buys their affection by undermining me. It's infuriating. All I'm doing is setting boundaries for my children, and their grandmother tries to collude with them against me.
My mother in law tells me I'm pandering to my son, and that he's going to grow up being a weakling. My partner and I are parenting consciously. We are aware that our son has a sensitive temperament, and we are showing him that we understand his difficulties, while empowering him to try new things. My mother in law thinks we should push him more. She says things to him like "come on, don't be a cry baby".
We are a same sex couple. My mother in law constantly comments on how much our child looks like her daughter (the biological mother), and how lucky our daughter is to have her family's genes. I find this insensitive and cruel.
The thing that drives me crazy about my mother in law is that she thinks she's the expert on feeding, sleep and safety. With no knowledge of current practices, she harps on about how things were done in her day. My wife and I pride ourselves on being informed about these things, and of course, we want what's best for our child.
My mother in law competes with my mother. It's at the point that I have to hide and lie about some of the things I do with my mum. It started with my mother in law wanting to be in the birth. We said "no". Since then she has demonised me and blamed me for leaving her out of things. My own mother was not at the birth. She now calls my husband at work to complain about how little time she gets to see her grandchild.
The difficulties I'm having with my mother in law are causing problems in my relationship.
These are just some of the example of what people say.
Can you relate?
Part of my role as a psychologist is to help new parents to do three main things:
1. Differentiate your sense of worth from the comments or judgements made by your mothers in law.
2. Understand what your mother in law is saying about herself through her comments, rather than personalising her comments to mean something about you.
This can be hard when you're a sleep deprived parent who is trying your best to manage the demands of a new baby, and determine how you want to parent. When there is a mother in law offering gratuitous advice, you may feel disempowered, feel like avoiding her, or quite frankly, enraged.
Even if your mother in law is overtly critical of what you are doing as a mum, REMEMBER THIS:
Take a deep breath. It's your turn to parent now. You get to choose how you want to raise your child/children. To do this, it's important to be clear on your values as a parents, and for you and your partner to be on the same page.
3. Learn how to communicate assertively with your mother in law. This means respecting her view (recognising where it may be coming from). Then, confidently thanking her for her advice, while stating how you and your partner are choosing to parent. This may be different from her 'pearls of wisdom', but it's your child, your family. Also, be sure to thank her and let her know when her advice is helpful, bearing in mind that she does have experience as a mother, and we as parents, will never stop learning.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
The Perinatal Loss Centre
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.
Posted by Dr Renée Miller