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.
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
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.
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 Uni 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
"I never expected to be flooded with so many emotions".
"I feel intensely protective and utterly fearful".
"I feel helpless and sometimes, useless".
"I have this constant worry that something bad is going to happen".
"I was traumatised from seeing my partner in labour, but I knew I had to be strong for her".
"Work seems irrelevant but I feel a pressure to perform because my family is depending on me".
"I don't know who I am anymore".
"What's happened to my wife?"
"I feel exhausted all the time".
These are just some of the thoughts and feelings men have shared in the therapy rooms of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network.
Depression, anxiety and stress is common in new dads, but the focus is often on new mums. This can mean that dads feel unjustified in seeking help, and worse still, they feel like seeking help in some way implies weakness.
New parenthood is a developmental stage (just like toddlerhood, adolescence, adulthood). With it comes change, uncertainty, new learning, and a need for re-definition (both for the self, and for the couple relationship). Struggling is par for the course.
New parenthood forces people to acknowledge the ways in which they were parented. This can be confronting, and can present challenges for new parents, especially when their parenting backgrounds were difficult, traumatic, or significantly different from that of their partners'. Some men feel paralysed with fear about parenting like their own parents, but don't know how to do things differently, especially in the toddler years. Parenting support and guidance can make an enormous difference.
Some men struggle because their partners become unwell in pregnancy or the postnatal period (with depression, anxiety, stress or in rare cases, psychosis). We often see men who have 'held the fort' while their partners were being treated, who then 'hit the wall' themselves - buckling under the unexpected pressure of taking care of their partners and babies, while trying to function at work.
Speaking to a mental health professional is about resourcing yourself to better manage in this new life role. Arguably, the most important role of your life. As the Royals William, Harry and Kate discuss in this youtube video, "talking is medicine".
If you are struggling as a new dad, you can contact the phone counsellors at PANDA on 1300 726 306, see your GP, or seek the help of a psychologist. You may have a work Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that you could access.
Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) offers free emails to new dads (synced with the stage of fatherhood they are at), with trustworthy and supportive insights, strategies and advice. Dads can sign up for their emails here: www.cope.org.au/readytocope/
If you're interested in reading quality parenting articles (curated by a Clinical Psychologist), you can follow the Facebook Page of the Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network. Stay informed about evidence-based parenting approaches that support you through the challenges of parenthood (especially through the toddler years).
You could also follow Dr Matthew Roberts's Town Hall Dads Facebook page - dedicated to fathers.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Clinical Psychologist
Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Posted by Dr Renée Miller