The death of a baby brings profound sorrow, the depth of which can exist beyond words.
Throughout pregnancy, mothers are primed to nurture and protect their babies. A relationship has been formed. A future has been imagined. A woman’s identity has been changed.
When a baby dies, mothers can feel heartbroken, lost, empty, isolated. Bereaved mums can anticipate future milestones with trepidation, commonly wanting to hide away from the world.
They can feel that healing is impossible and that no one really understands what they are going through - except other bereaved parents.
Bereaved mothers often seek outlets to express their grief, share their grief, and mourn their much-wanted babies.
Anne Riggs is an artist whose PhD explored art practice for healing grief, loss and trauma. Anne developed Art for Soothing & Strengthening. She facilitates art-making for bereaved groups of people, clustered according to their specific shared experiences.
I spoke with Anne about her Bereaved Mothers Art Groups. “I run two Bereaved Mothers Art Groups. One group works with clay, and the other with mosaic. Each medium represents aspects of women’s grief in different ways. Clay is earthy and smooth. The stroking of the clay can feel like skin. The moulding is soft and gentle. The piece each woman creates can be about her grief, her hopes, her memories – the expressions are endless.
Mosaic on the other hand is a more brittle medium. There is cutting of tiles and crockery and a re-forming of the ‘broken’ into something beautiful - a meaningful piece that commemorates the woman’s loss. Both art forms provide women with something to take away and keep forever.”
Along with the creative expression, is the shared experience with other bereaved mothers. In these small groups, there is a deep knowing, an implicit connectedness – whether women choose to openly share their experience in the group, or not. A community is formed, and ongoing bonds can emerge.
In her gentle, affirming way, Anne guides and encourages each woman to draw out her creative expression. She takes care to provide a soothing environment in her garden studio – an environment that fosters nurturing and healing.
For further information on Anne Riggs and upcoming groups please visit www.anneriggs.com
To book a Bereaved Mothers Art Group
Written by Dr Renée Miller
The birth of a baby brings about significant changes to new parents - changes to their identities, their life-responsibilities and their relationships. The same can be said for new grandparents. At a time when they may be appreciating a new-found freedom, new grandparents face a re-orientation towards participating in their children’s and now grandchildren’s lives.
New parents are often exhausted, vulnerable, and desperate for practical and emotional support. They can hold expectations of their families based on assumptions they haven’t verbalised. As a result, new parents can feel disappointed when these expectations are not met.
Similarly, when a baby is born, new grandparents can hold their own ideas about their grandparenting roles and about the involvement they wish to have in the lives of their children’s offspring. Some grandparents can feel shut out of their grandchildren’s lives, and others can feel overly responsible to be available at all times.
What about when there are no grandparents?
Although family dynamics can be complicated, some new parents have no family support and can feel alone and isolated. For these families, the charity organisation, Caring Mums, trains older mums who volunteer their time to make weekly visits to families needing practical and emotional support. As part of their training, these volunteers learn to withhold their opinions, and to focus on fostering confidence in new parents, by supporting them to find their own way with their babies.
I was invited by Caring Mums to give a fundraising talk, entitled “Grandparenting in the 21st Century”. Drawing from many years as a perinatal (pregnancy and postnatal) psychologist, I had heard many stories about the ways in which grandparents become involved in families’ lives – in some cases providing invaluable support and fostering beautiful relationships with their grandchildren, and in other cases being uninvolved or even undermining the parents’ wishes. Needless to say, I had much to draw upon.
However, prior to the talk, I decided to do a little additional research. I posted a question on a mother-baby social media site asking mums to share their experiences regarding the “Dos and Don’ts” of grandparenting - "...what helps and what hinders?". Many mums responded, both publicly and privately. I collated their responses and shared this list with the grandparents who attended the talk.
• Call before coming over
• Only give advice when asked
• Ask what support is needed
• Just help, don’t offer
• Help with practical tasks such as cooking, shopping, washing
• Never do our washing
• When visiting, bring a meal
• Just do what needs to be done
• Ask before you do things around the house
• Don’t take the baby unless asked to. Let the new parents learn about their baby and develop good bonds
• When you come over, offer to take baby and let Mum shower
• Turn visitors away in the first 3 weeks
• If you had a similar problem, tell the parents what you did, not what they should do
• Get your vaccines done
• Give predictable times when helping with grandchildren
• Don’t compete with the other grandparents
• Remember things have changed since you had children
• Don’t say “we survived without….”, “we never did…..”
• Don’t stay all day or expect to be waited on
• Don’t force children to kiss/hug you
• Babysitting is a privilege not a right
• Listen without trying to solve problems
• Don’t criticize without giving a solution
• Don’t criticize!
• When we do things differently to you, don’t take it as a personal criticism
• Don’t judge a messy house
• Don’t talk about mum’s pregnancy or post-baby weight
• Don’t say “my baby”
• Stick to the same rules as the parents
• Don’t undermine the parents’ rules
• Don’t give junk food to children if parents have asked you not to
• Don’t say to the child “I’ll get into trouble if I give you that”
• Do special things with the grandchildren
• Tell the parents they are doing a good job
Two things struck me
1. There were obvious differences among mums about what constitutes support. Largely, the differences around asking about what can be done versus just doing it. Differences were evident between mums regarding the things they feel comfortable about grandparents doing for them. What is helpful and non-judgemental to one woman can be considered to be intrusive and laden with judgement to another.
2. When I shared the list of “Dos and Don’ts” to the grandparents who attended the talk, it was met with a resounding applause. The grandparents in the group agreed wholeheartedly with these requests. I was surprised. I was expecting to be met with some defensive responses about grandparents feeling used or misunderstood. But this was not the case. These grandparents agreed that the requests were reasonable.
Now it could be argued that the grandparents who chose to attend this talk were a group who had put a lot of thought into their grandparenting roles already - a group who had considered carefully how to best support their offspring and grandchildren. A group interested in doing the best they could as grandparents, hence their attendance at a talk such as this.
What I discovered
Notwithstanding that I may have struck a particularly supportive group of grandparents, a number of things became evident from my informal research across both groups:
Take home messages
There is an intrinsic complexity in these relationships, given the shared histories (joys and hurts) between grandparents and their children (the new parents). But what can we learn from what parents and grandparents told me?
1. Don’t assume
As was evident in the list, what is helpful for one person might not be helpful for another. Everyone is different. Similarly for grandparents, the role and the extent to which grandparents want to be involved differs from one grandparent to the next. It is not helpful for either party to assume that they know what the other is thinking, expecting or wanting.
It is vital to talk to one another. When grandparents ask the new parents what they can do to help, this communicates not only a willingness to offer practical support, but it allows grandparents to tune in to their adult children’s needs and to really be there for them at this challenging time. It is ok for grandparents to express their desires to help as well as their conflicts around not wanting to interfere. This may be better for new parents to know as opposed to grandparents holding back, leaving new parents to make assumptions (e.g. “they don’t care”).
Similarly, it is ok for grandparents to put limits on their time. In fact, many new parents have told me that they appreciate knowing what the grandparents feel is a reasonable amount of time spent with the grandchildren. Many new parents appreciate a predictable commitment of time so they can schedule breaks or time to get things done. And this can give grandparents precious time alone with their grandchildren.
Parents crave respect for their parenting choices, particularly when parenting opinions and judgements are rife in their everyday lives. They may ask for the grandparents’ opinions and they may not. This is their time to discover what works and what doesn’t. Remember, parents want to do what they believe is best for their child.
Sleep-deprived new parents can feel sensitive to well-intentioned comments or perceived judgements by grandparents. Many new parents grapple with defining the kinds of parents they want to be to their child. Their values come in part from what worked and what didn’t work for them in their childhoods. As this unfolds, closeness, differences, unresolved issues and stress can be triggered between new parents and grandparents.
Parents, tell grandparents what is helpful. More often than not they are wanting to do what helps, but they get can get it wrong when their actions are based on assumptions. Show them that you appreciate their efforts. Encourage them to forge special relationships with their grandchildren. Let them have some autonomy in their grandparenting without compromising the things that are really important to you. When you are not happy with something they are doing or not doing, express it in a calm, respectful way.
Parents, remember that grandparents have done their hard yards in parenting and working. Check in on how involved they want to be with the grandchildren. Respect this time in their lives by asking for help, not expecting it, and by showing your appreciation when you receive it. Indeed it could be argued that grandparents' care of your children is a “privilege not a right” - your privilege.
Grandparents, remember that parents won’t get it all right (they are human, just like you). They will be stretched physically and emotionally as parents. They need to know that you are there, and that you care. If they want your advice, let them ask for it. If you want to give advice, ask them if they would like to hear it.
Parenting and grandparenting are profound roles that shape families and leave enduring memories in children’s lives. Consider how you would like your children and grandchildren to remember family life. Share these goals with one another, express yourselves respectfully, show gratitude, and look after one another.
Written by Dr Renée Miller (Perinatal Clinical Psychologist)
Founder of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Thank you to the mums who generously shared their experiences on Babies Toddlers Kids Melbourne.
Thank you to the grandparents who attended the fundraising talk for Caring Mums, who shared their compassion and wisdom.
Further information about Caring Mums and donations to this important charity can be made here.
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
Four years ago today, the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network was formed. We began with 5 colleagues with shared backgrounds and a passion for perinatal mental health. It wasn't long before the demand for our service propelled us to join with other respected colleagues in the field. Practising in various locations around Melbourne and Victoria, this expanded collaboration meant that women, men and couples (often with babies in tow) did not need to travel vast distances to find the help they needed.
From there, our Network flourished into what it is today. A service of 16 highly qualified and experienced perinatal clinicians in 18 Melbourne locations (including the Mornington Peninsula and Ballarat). Our psychologists work tirelessly to ensure that clients are seen in a timely fashion with care, compassion, and the expertise this specialised field demands. We stay up to date with ongoing professional development - both teaching and learning, and we share valuable resources that enhance our work with our clients.
We work closely with services that support perinatal clients including Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE), PANDA, Sands Australia, and Caring Mums. We also work alongside the Perinatal Psychiatry Network to ensure that the full spectrum of perinatal care is provided.
Needless to say, we LOVE what we do. I feel so grateful to be surrounded by such talented clinicians who together, contribute to a caring and supportive collegial culture, and who share a deep-seated belief in the capacity for human growth.
Thank you to the psychologists in our Network for your commitment and endless enthusiasm. And thank you to the gps, obstetricians, midwives, Maternal & Child Health nurses, and other health professionals who support the emotional health of perinatal patients, and who continue to recommend our service.
Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Conception, pregnancy, the postnatal period, and the early parenting years can pose difficulties for many people. Practitioners like to stay abreast of the common challenges people face, and the treatments that may help their patients with such challenges. In order to do this, ongoing research is vital.
The Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network provides an online research portal for academic researchers (in the perinatal field) to post their studies to reach women in pregnancy and the postnatal period.
If you are pregnant or new mum, and you have the time or inclination to participate in a research study, your participation could further inform practitioners who work with hopeful parents, pregnancy, birth, the postnatal period, and early parenthood?
Click here to see if you are eligible to participate in one of the listed studies.
The latest listed studies explore emotional wellbeing in same sex attracted women, and 'baby brain' in pregnant women.
Emotional Wellbeing in Sexual Minority Women in the Perinatal Period
Same sex attracted pregnant women and new mums
Does late pregnancy affect women's cognitive functioning?
Women in third trimester of pregnancy and women who are not pregnant, have never been pregnant and are not planning to become pregnant in the next 12 months
Thank you for your consideration and potential contribution towards these important research studies.
With seventeen years' experience as an early motherhood Psychologist, Dr Renée Miller shares her insights into what new mums really want on Mothers' Day.
"No gift compares to words of appreciation, acknowledgement and love" says Renée. "There’s nothing quite like a beautiful card with heartfelt words". So Dads and partners, looking for ideas for Mothers' Day, this is what mums want to hear:
Thank you for carrying our child, enduring the changes and discomforts of pregnancy, and for your tenacity and strength in giving birth to our baby. You were amazing.
Thank you for thinking of our child’s well being 24/7, and for constantly anticipating what he/she might need ahead of time. I can only imagine how tiring this must be.
Thank you for nourishing our child with food, love and tenderness.
Thank you for the countless hours you’ve been barely awake tending to our baby alone at night.
Thank you for playing games and entertaining our child even though there are so many other things you’d like to be doing (like sleeping).
Thank you for pushing through your exhaustion and for being there when things aren’t easy.
Thank you for diligently inquiring or reading about parenting practices to be the best mum you can be.
Thank you for guiding me in my parenting (even if it comes out a little impatiently sometimes). I know you have our child's interests at heart.
Thank you for the mammoth adjustment you’ve made to becoming a mother, for letting go of so much of the old you, and for going through re-defining yourself as a woman and a mother.
Thank you for all that you do to make our house a home.
[Words of love…..]
[Pledge to give Mum time-out to rejuvenate, time to catch up on sleep, and time together to nurture your relationship.]
[A gift won't go astray. Just not one that's related to housework, cooking, caring for others... you get the idea]
Dr Renée Miller is the Principal Clinical Psychologist and Founder of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Mothers’ Day can be tinged with sadness and pain. For women desperately wanting to be mothers. The agonizing torment associated with assisted reproduction and infertility. Hopelessness. Self-blame. Isolation. Fear about an unfulfilled future. Mothers’ Day can accentuate this despair.
For women who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, or the later loss of a child. Mothers’ Day can be torturous.
And for women, who have lost their mothers (or other loved ones), a myriad of mixed emotions may be present whilst experiencing a ‘celebration’ of their own motherhood.
Whatever your pain on Mothers’ Day, wishing you the self-love and compassion to nurture yourself, and to allow yourself to be cared for.
With the warmest of thoughts
Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Sometimes, research confirms what we already suspect. Time out is good for mothers’ mental health.
Perinatal Psychologist and researcher, Dr Hannah Woolhouse, has worked on the Maternal Health Study for nearly 15 years. This study was conducted in Melbourne Australia, by the Healthy Mothers Healthy Families research group at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. Over 1500 women joined the study in early pregnancy, and were followed up with questionnaires after the birth. Hannah describes for us what the study found about time out in the early postnatal period.
What did the study find?
At 6 months postpartum, around 1 in 6 women reported that they NEVER had time for themselves, when someone else looked after their baby.
There was a strong connection between time for self, and the prevalence of depression. The rate of depression steadily increasedas the frequency of time for self decreased. The lowest prevalence of depression was 6% for women who had time for themselves once a week or more.
Comparatively, the prevalence of depression was 15 % (almost three times higher) in women who neverhad time for themselves.
Even after taking into account other associated factors (such as having a supportive partner),women who had time out at least once a week were less likely to report depressive symptoms at 6 months postpartum. In other words, whether women are in a relationship or not, and whether or not they have good emotional and practical support, getting weekly time-out appears to improve mental wellbeing
What sorts of things did women do when they had time for them self?
In the Maternal Health Study, the most commonly reported activity was doing the supermarket shopping – not something you would necessarily think of as relaxing! Other activities commonly reported were going out with their partner, having a long bath or shower, going to the hairdresser, or putting their feet up and watching TV. We suspect that what women do when they have time for themselves may not matter so much as that someone else looks after the baby for a period of time – meaning that women get a break from that responsibility, and a chance to recharge their batteries.
What’s the take-home message?
We know that the majority of childcare responsibilities still fall to women. The more equally partners canshare the demands of looking after a new baby, the healthier mothers will be. Ensuring that women get regular and frequent time out from the demands of caring for a new baby is a simple and effective way of promoting good maternal mental health.
While this is a simple option, it is not necessarily easy, as it requires the support and input of others. Partners, family and friends play an important role in encouraging women to take time for themselves, giving them permission to take time out from being with their baby, and helping to look after the baby for a period of time.
A common block for mums is the belief that they “should do it all” and cope with the demands of caring for a new baby on their own. These beliefs make asking for help difficult.
In my clinical work, as part of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network, I strongly encourage women to challenge these beliefs, as looking after their own emotional health is one of the best things they can do for themselves and their children.
Dr Hannah Woolhouse is a Perinatal Psychologist with the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network. Hannah is located in Mornington and Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula.
Social media is a quick and easy resource for busy new parents. The challenge is finding reputable sites that don't promote extreme (and often contradictory) parenting advice that can leave parents feeling confused and inadequate.
The Facebook page of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network provides a community resource for expectant and new parents. Articles curated by Dr Renée Miller (Principal Clinical Psychologist) are posted with a knowledge of the evidence base, and seventeen years experience in supporting women and couples through the common challenges associated with new parenthood.
Our aim is to promote practical positive parenting strategies with a focus on connection, as well as to maintain a culture of self-care, self-compassion and 'good-enough' parenting.
We are delighted that our following has grown to over 4000 people, as parents engage with our page in their pursuit of perinatal well-being and positive parenting strategies.
Thank you to the perinatal professionals who follow our page and who share our articles with their clients and patients.
Here is a link to our page: www.facebook.com/antenatal.postnatal.psychology/
Guilt is a common but wasted emotion. It often comes about from trying to be a perfect mother when perfection does not exist. When guilt pops up, check in with what your guilt is telling you. Does it come from overly high expectations, or from an inner knowing that something is not sitting well with you? Explore it, make choices in line with what you value, but don't let guilt govern your sense of self. Get to know who you are, what matters to you, and what you want for your child/ren. Trying to be a perfect mother does not help anyone. If you are feeling guilty much of the time, this could be a symptom of depression, and it might help to check in with your GP or a therapist if your mood is low.
Posted by Dr Renée Miller