When we think about mental health, we don’t often think about babies.
We know that mental health issues are on the rise in the UK – so much so that the problem amongst young adults is being described as an epidemic. In many ways awareness is at an all time high, with stigma being chipped away by a number of high profile campaigns.
The root of society’s struggles with mental health is multifaceted – some blame social media, others the racheting up of assessment in schools; there are links drawn with austerity, and with the decline of ‘the village’ in our increasingly busy and isolated lives. Rarely though does the discussion touch on the very beginnings of emotional wellbeing, on the ways in which we are nurturing mental health amongst the very youngest in our society: which is why Infant Mental Health Awareness Week really caught my attention.
I’m a week late in posting this. Initially I sat down to write an article for Integra Baby, my mind leaping straight away to the many ways in which babywearing can boost infant mental health. It goes far beyond that though, in ways that have been playing on my mind over the past few days.
The Association for Infant Mental Health shares this quote on their website – it sums up their priorities, and explains why it should be a priority for us all:
“Children are our most precious national resource; they are the living messages to a time we will not see, and new scientific advances are showing the crucial importance of the foundation years and especially the first 1001 days from conception until age 2 as a springboard for neuro-cognitive development, life-long health and well-being and socioeconomic success”. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Harvard University.
Perhaps the most vital way in which we can nurture mental health is by focusing on attachment, the ‘enduring tie of affection that the baby develops towards their main carers’. Building attachment is fundamentally about being present – about responding to a child’s day-to-day physical and emotional needs, honouring their feelings and comforting them when they are distressed. But the reality of life as a parent in our society today can make this challenging.
There is so much pressure on parents, especially mothers, to be doing it all – providing a picture-perfect childhood for their children whilst holding down a meaningful career and more often than not being responsible for the day to day running of the household at the same time. Society has been quick to come up with a myriad of ways to help us achieve this. There are baby gyms and bouncers and swings, all designed to replace human interaction. There are hi-tech prams which make it easier to transport the baby to where the parents need to be, and a raft of government initiatives focused on getting parents back into work, and babies into childcare, as soon as – and for as long as – possible.
It is hard to ignore the impact this is having on our tiniest citizens. They are left to ‘cry it out’ in a bid to foster independence before they even have a concept of themselves as separate from their parents, spend ten hours at a time in the care of strangers before they have learnt to communicate their needs even to those closest to them.
So what should we do about it?
It is simple to say that for those first 1001 days a parent’s only concern – or more accurately, a mother’s – should be their child, but the reality is that for many families providing that kind of wraparound care in the home is impossible – and for many more it is far from desirable.
Women have spent decades fighting for the freedoms to enable us to break away from the shackles of child-rearing – to win identity in our own right, to carve out an existence which does not have to be abandoned with the first signs of pregnancy, to protect our own mental health in a world which still has such a long way to go before it truly recognises us as equals.
Motherhood is sodden with guilt in a way I’m not sure it has ever been before: women feel guilty for leaving our child in the care of others, or guilty for stepping down from the career we worked so hard for. We feel guilty for prioritising our own needs ahead of those of our child, or guilty for falling into the old cliché and losing our sense of self as we struggle to help our children find their own. We feel guilty for not realising our potential in the workplace, and guilty for not always being there when our child needs us.
So much of this it seems comes down to choice (or lack of it). We too often have to choose, as mothers, whether to thrust ourselves back into an unforgiving workforce or whether to stay at home and sacrifice our careers to looking after our children ourselves. There are ways of finding a compromise – my Instagram feed is filled with inspiring women who have built businesses from scratch as a way of clawing back some balance. But this is far from the norm, and too often requires battling against the system rather than being empowered by it.
There’s no escaping the fact that, in the early years especially, motherhood really is just about being there. It’s not about fancy enrichment groups or pinterest worthy play, but rather about physically being there where your baby can breathe you in. And being there is exactly what our society makes so hard. Spaces are rarely set up for mothers and babies to exist in tandem: either they are baby friendly – mums leave your identity at the door – or they are adults only, unspoken rules as powerful as actual exclusions.
In the five years since I have been a mother I have attempted to carve a different path – one which has seen me write three novels (and countless blog posts) with my babies strapped to my chest or playing at my feet, where I have breastfed them whilst campaigning to save our local lido and during heated debates about the future of local politics. I may have left my former career behind, but I am beginning to see how I might be able to create a life for us that truly integrates the spheres of work and family, inspired by Anna Whitehouse’s excellent Flex Appeal campaign and Matilda Leyser’s fast-expanding network of Mothers who Make.
The fact is that there are plenty of mothers who really do want it all – to both work and parent as actively as they can, to feel fulfilled professionally and to nurture their children themselves rather than constantly having to outsource their care at great financial and emotional cost to all concerned.
And if we are serious as a society about giving our children the very best start in life, in breaking the cycle that has sent our mental health spiraling out of control, then we have to start factoring in their emotional needs to the decisions we make – and to create a world where the power of attachment is given the value it deserves.