You have probably heard the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and you may be thinking, ‘Sounds great, but where's my village?’ Some first-time mums are lucky enough to have a ready-made village. They feel supported by a network of family, friends and health professionals willing and able to lend a hand and provide help. But this is not the case for all new mums and, for many, motherhood can feel isolating and overwhelming. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve even held a newborn, and our families live a long way away, or they just aren't available to help. Or you may have people around you but you don't feel like you are quite getting the support you need. It's not always obvious to those around us how they can best support us. This is especially true if they've never had a baby themselves or if it has been a long time since their babies were little. Often it turns out that friends and family would have loved to help, but they didn't know what you needed, or how to offer help. And maybe you didn't know what you needed or how to ask.
I remember feeling completely unprepared for how overwhelming the experience of becoming a mother for the first time would be. I had just given birth to a baby and it felt like something truly momentous had happened in my life. I also found myself needing to learn how to care for a newborn while getting by on very little sleep. I was exhausted because life with a new baby is exhausting, so it's not surprising that for a while there, life just did not feel normal. But I was also aware that having a baby is a very normal part of being human, something that women have been doing successfully for time immemorial. So why was I finding it so overwhelming? These feelings made it difficult to ask for help and as a result, I often felt quite isolated. What I didn't realise was my village was there, I just had to reach out.
I now know that these feelings are not uncommon. Many mums feel uncomfortable asking for help. They may worry that they will seem incompetent, or that they are not a ‘good mum’ if they admit to how much they are struggling. Many of us are used to being pretty independent and capable in our lives before having a baby and asking for help can be a big shift in mentality. So Instead of being honest with others about how we're feeling and what we need, some mums may be tempted to give what seems like the ‘right’ answers when asked. Such as saying that everything is fine, or breastfeeding is going well, or even that their baby is sleeping through the night when these things are not necessarily true. Unfortunately, by pretending everything is fine, it can be impossible for others to provide the support you so desperately want and need and this can leave mums feeling isolated.
It's important to be aware that these feelings can contribute to, or be a symptom of, postnatal depression and anxiety (PND/A). So if you are feeling lonely, isolated and/or completely overwhelmed by it all, don't be afraid to speak to your Child Health Nurse or GP about it. It's important to answer the questions on their screenings as honestly as you can. (This is not a test you need to pass!). This can be hard because of all the reasons mentioned above and also because we may imagine there is a stigma around having mental health problems. There are health professionals and organisations around that can give you the support you need to start feeling normal but they need to be aware that you need this help.
So where is your village? If you are not sure it may be worth thinking about the people who are in your life and if there is a way to ask them for the help you need. Perhaps you could take a moment to think about the sort of help you'd appreciate the most and make a list so if ever anyone asks, ‘Is there is anything I can do?’ you can say, ‘Yes, actually I'd love it if you could ...’
If breastfeeding is not as easy as you expected, despite having done the classes and read the books, don't be afraid to reach out to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling the National Breastfeeding Helpline or going along to a meeting of your local ABA group and having a chat with a volunteer there. You have not failed if breastfeeding has not gone smoothly and ABA is there to support you. Local groups are also a great place to make friends with other parents and you don't even need to have a breastfeeding problem, or even to be breastfeeding to go along (just as long as you are happy to be supportive of others who are).
You can also make friends with other parents with babies that are a similar age to yours by joining a local new parents group run by the local early childhood centre. When your baby is a little older you can join a playgroup or go along to story time sessions at your local library or sign up for baby appropriate classes in swimming or music etc.
These days you may also be able to find a supportive online community. When my babies were little, ABA had an online forum which became an important part of my village and I still cherish friends that I made through that connection despite never having met some of them in person. These days, with more people being on Facebook, that forum has become the Breastfeeding with ABA Facebook group which still has that online village feel. Many local ABA groups also have their own Facebook groups for a closer to home online village.
For me, one of the most important places I found support was through ABA; from the breastfeeding counsellor I cried over the phone with, to the volunteers at my local group who were always there to make me a cup of tea and give me the support and encouragement I needed to breastfeed for as long as felt right for me and my baby, to the amazing friends I have made both at local groups and online. ABA had become a really important part of my village. And the thing about being a part of a village is that, while never expected, you may eventually (once life is feeling a bit more normal) want to give back to the community that has supported you. For me, that was when I decided to train to become a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor. For others, it may just be being there for friends and family who have young children. The truly amazing thing I found about becoming an ABA volunteer is that this was when I felt like I had really found my village and I am so glad that, now that my kids are a bit older, I can be there to support new mums on their journey.
Having a new baby is a massive change in your life and it is very normal for you not to feel normal, for the reality to be different from what you expected, for breastfeeding to be harder than you thought and for it to all feel a bit (or even very) overwhelming at first. But you don't have to struggle through this alone. You can build a village around you all you have to do is reach out and ask for help.
Emma Pennell is a breastfeeding counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association. She discovered ABA when she attended a breastfeeding education class while pregnant with her first child 13 years ago and she has been a part of the ABA village ever since. She lives in Melbourne with her two children, husband and a bunch of chooks.