Mental Health Awareness Day: Parental Anxiety

This week’s blog has been written by Alice Pilbeam-Brown, who is a qualified coach with a number of years working in the field of people development; designing and delivering a number of transformational programmes from performance management to talent management, leadership development programmes to cultural change programmes. 

Recently, life has changed dramatically as a result of her new baby's arrival. In her blog she explores her unexpected encounter with Parental Anxiety, why it might have transpired and how talking about it made a big difference.


Parental Anxiety … my brief encounter!

It’s 4 am and I’ve just finished the first morning feed, and despite my baby being sound asleep, snoring next to me (yep, my baby snores!), I can’t manage to fall back to sleep. For many this is likely to be normal, but for me, self-acclaimed “world’s best napper”, it’s not been an issue before. Sleep, or lack thereof it is something that anxious people often have, and that’s not me, is it?

Not being able to fall back to sleep got me thinking about my day and how lovely it was hanging out in the park, with two of my oldest friends and their babies. But when we lost track of time, I had an overwhelming feeling of worry ... I’ve noticed that happens a lot with my “little and often” snacking baby ... thinking about how we were going to have to manage our train journeys home through rush hour.

As I stood at Clapham Junction station, having missed my last train by a minute, my heart started to race. I saw packed train after packed train go by, and no sign of mine on the departures board. My 6 week old baby was being good as gold but I knew it wouldn’t be long before the next feed was due. My heart raced faster.  I then started thinking about our very new evening routine. We’d be out of sync by half an hour. Heart starting to pound harder, ‘we’re going to miss the Sainsbury’s delivery’.  Pounding faster still, my phone battery was dying, and when was the last time I changed Bobbie’s nappy? With actual heart palpitations now I’m desperately looking for new options to get home ... how much would an Uber be? ... Oh, wait, car seat!

For those who experience anxiety this may sounds familiar, but it is very new for me, despite empathising with those close to me with anxiety, I never understood it until now.

So I started to think about how being a parent has changed me and wondered whether this new feeling of anxiety was common?

I searched “anxiety in parenting” and for the first time I read the term “Parental Anxiety.” I couldn’t find a definition for it though, instead I found a load of tips on how to ease and reduce Parental Anxiety[i]. That’s great, but how do I know if I am suffering from Parental Anxiety if I don’t even know what it is?

Other articles explored how parents with anxiety could pass it to their kids like some kind of virus, again not ideal[ii] Digging deeper into these articles it seemed to me that they were referring to Parental Anxiety as a list of worries, which was a good start but didn’t cut the bill for me.  I wanted to know what I was feeling that early evening and how parenting has changed me.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.” Or “strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen.”  It wasn’t until I did a bit digging in a “Mind” article “Postnatal depression and perinatal mental health” that I found the answer. They refer to this type of anxiety as “Perinatal Anxiety”[iii]; “Prenatal or Antenatal Anxiety if you experience anxiety during pregnancy” and “Perinatal Anxiety if you experience it after giving birth” … ah ha, closer!

During midwife appointments and post birth check-ups, it’s clear these professionals are seeking signs of postnatal depression, which I have heard a lot about, but rarely links to anxiety. Again, offer some great signs and symptoms, treatment and self-care to manage it but my questions around why and how it gets to you are still not answered. Perhaps this is something to take to my next doctor’s appointment? I could make a wild guess and say it’s down to the hormonal changes, the potential complications during child birth, and for me the life-changing effects having a baby create. Whether through birth or adoption, it’s such a huge change.

I have listed the top six factors that I think contributed to my own anxiety:

  • The conflicting advice of midwives, health visitors and GPs comes straight to the top of my list. It’s very hard to know which professional to trust the most.
  • The incredible amounts of information available via “doctor Google”, in the “how to be the perfect mum” magazines, and in the “your baby should be doing all of these very specific things at a specific time, and if they’re not, they’re broken” books! Don’t get me wrong, having this information at your fingertips is really helpful but it’s hard not to then compare everything you do with your baby, or your baby does, to it.
  • The constant influx of unsolicited advice from well-meaning loved ones, and total strangers. This was something I experienced while pregnant so assumed I’d be used to it, turns out I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this.
  • The regular “comparing notes” conversations with other parents about our children. Having friends go through parenting at the same time is priceless, but these conversations need to be limited; for me anyway. And don’t get me wrong, I’m at times the first to come up with the “So how did you…?” questions.
  • The fact that I no longer work … my baby is my job now, my hobby, my social life; he is 24/7. Household chores, doctors’ appointments for the both of us, “Mummy and Me” exercise classes, baby specific classes (which you MUST go to) and, as I’m breastfeeding, the feeling of being strapped to the sofa or in coffee shops for sometimes hours on end while he cluster feeds, are all a far cry from my full time job in the City. Talking and designing learning programmes for professionals and coaching leaders, the occasional working lunch or post-work drinks of course seem very far away. Is it weird that I’m craving a ride on the Waterloo and City line?
  • Or the simple thought of “my baby is the best thing ever and I’m totally grateful to have him, and I want to do everything in my power to make sure he’s healthy and happy and everything else in between!” … it’s a lot of pressure to put on myself!

I don’t believe that many of these factors will ever go away; having a baby is like joining a relatively secret club, really quickly, with no initiation and barely any preparation! Being pregnant prepared me for some of the sleep deprivation and the fact that my body isn’t mine anymore, but the anxiety was something I really wasn’t expecting!

There’s plenty of resources and advice out there (see this manager’s guide from the CIPD for example) on managing anxiety and I’m not trained or experienced in the slightest to give either out or even select some pointers, but I hope that in sharing this, less people feel alone when dealing with a change like this. What I’ve learnt personally is that by talking about how I feel with loved ones or trusted health professionals, I feel infinitely better!



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