The Mums Aren’t Alright! Check In On Your Friends; They Are Not Okay

Traumatic births, baby loss alone, no vaccine, redundancy, childcare crisis, mental health issues, homeschooling... When it comes to how the pandemic has affected mothers, the list goes on says Joeli Brearley of Pregnant Then Screwed.

Mother pandemic stress

by Joeli Brearley |

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When the Prime Minister finally admitted that schools were unlikely to open in February, precisely no one was surprised. Anxious, drained, jaded… absolutely, yes. Surprised, categorically not. The news exploded across the airwaves with experts jostling to tell us about the impact this will have on the education and mental health of our children. Little was said about their parents; but take it from me, the poor sods are frazzled. Done in, on the edge, shovelling in chocolate to stop ourselves from screaming; wondering what will crack first - our employer, our children or our mental health - perhaps all three. I mean, have you ever tried to teach phonics to a hyperactive seven-year old while your other child collapses in a crumpled heap on the floor wailing: ‘’Why can’t I have another marshmallow!? You’re the worst mum in the world.’’ And the deadline for your stakeholder report whizzes past in a blur of nonsensical screams, resulting in furious messages from your childless, male employer. If you have no idea what I am talking about then check in on your mum-friends; they are not okay.

For some mums, lockdown stress is bookending other significant adversities triggered by the pandemic. Take, for example, the women who have grown a baby and pushed it out since March 2020. Many have been heading into work, bump and all, to ensure they can keep the money coming in, whilst also being utterly terrified that they may become infected with Covid19. Worryingly, more and more research is showing that for those in the later stages of pregnancy they have a higher chance of becoming severely unwell or giving birth prematurely should they become infected, yet 57% of pregnant women who work outside of the home have told us that they do not feel safe in the workplace, which shows that many employers don’t appear to be taking these risks very seriously at all.

My boss just kept saying that I was at no greater risk than anyone else and if Carrie Symonds had been infected with Covid while pregnant and she was fine, who was I to think I should get special treatment?

That type of anxiety plays havoc with your head, which was perfectly articulated by Jasmin, a care home worker, who was threatened with her P45 if she didn’t continue working throughout her pregnancy: ‘’My boss just kept saying that it was fine, that I was at no greater risk than anyone else. He said that if Carrie Symonds had been infected with Covid while pregnant and she was fine, who was I to think I should get special treatment; so I went in every single day and I worked in close proximity to other people who could be infected with the virus, with just a flimsy paper mask and a plastic bib to protect me and my baby. I was made to choose between my livelihood and my health and if I didn’t earn any money I would lose my house - what sort of start would that be for my precious baby daughter?’’

Hospital restrictions also meant that pregnant women have been forced to attend all medical appointments, including scans, on their own. These appointments can be a time when women receive devastating and sometimes life-changing news. Badass feminist author and campaigner, Caroline Criardo Perez had a miscarrage in December and documented her experience in her fortnightly newsletter.

She wrote: ‘’I didn’t expect to have to lie down on an examination table and have an ultrasound wand inserted into my bleeding vagina and pressed around my painful, empty womb, while no one was allowed to touch me or hold my hand. I didn’t expect to have to be told that they couldn’t find my baby and that they didn’t know if I was having a miscarriage or if I had an ectopic pregnancy. I didn’t expect to start crying in front of strangers. I didn’t expect to feel so humiliated and alone.’’

My partner wasn’t allowed in during the most traumatic time of my life

Our own research from October with over 15,000 pregnant women and mothers found that 9 in 10 felt that these restrictions had amplified their anxiety and negatively impacted their mental health. Which isn’t at all surprising, particularly when we also know that in October 7% of women had given birth on their own due to these restrictions, sometimes because their birth partner had been contacted too late, sometimes because a member of the family had tested positive for coronavirus, sometimes because there was confusion amongst the staff about the restrictions, which is what happened to Jami-Lay: 'I birthed my girl alone on the 9th of April, via a cat 1 emergency c section after a short induction, because of Covid restrictions. Not because me or my partner had Covid or that we had been in contact with Covid. I don’t even live in an area that has high Covid cases. But the reason my partner wasn’t allowed in during the most traumatic time of my life (even though he made it to the hospital and was fully dressed in scrubs) was because someone in the operating room said no. It seems that there wasn’t enough clarity on restrictions so they just didn’t let him in. At the time I was terrified and thought there was something wrong with me and the baby and that’s why they stopped him from entering the theatre. However, I’ve since found out that there must have been a mistake and confusion over the guidelines.’’

More than a third of new mums are telling us that their mental health is poor which, as someone who suffered with post-natal depression after my first baby, makes every bone in my body shudder. I know all too well that all-encompassing feeling of being completely numb; of going through the motions of what you think motherhood should look like, whilst regularly experiencing hideously intrusive thoughts that make you fear ever leaving the house. For the women who became mothers during a pandemic, there’s little chance that this deterioration in their mental health will be spotted by a professional, with 66% of new mums telling us that they don’t feel they have had the support they needed since giving birth, and 56% saying their baby hasn’t had the health checks they need due to the pandemic.

Women can feel entirely ignored, like Steph, whose baby was tragically still born after two days labour. Steph had a third degree tear but this wasn’t picked up.

For some women they can feel entirely ignored, like Steph, whose baby was tragically still born after 2 days labour. Steph had a third degree tear but this wasn’t picked up because health checks for the mother are only taking place at the six week check for the baby. Or the many women who have contacted us to say that their baby had tongue-tie, which made breastfeeding severely painful and meant their baby wasn’t getting the milk they needed to grow, but without face to face breastfeeding support, this went undiagnosed.

Research by Unicef found that 27% of mothers say they struggled to get support with breastfeeding, which is what happened to Leticia: ‘’I struggled to breastfeed my son from birth and didn’t feel I received the support I needed due to Covid. I then developed mastitis that went undiagnosed for a month. It then turned into an abscess after several medics again missed it mainly due to telephone appointments and no one actually seeing me in person. Due to the abscess I had to stop our breastfeeding journey all together and after it burst I ended up in A&E and had to have an operation to remove a 5x5cm lump.’’

But at least these new mums will be getting the support they need from their family and friends at this really challenging and vulnerable time, won’t they? Oh, wait. Without baby classes, and groups like NCT, many new mothers are finding themselves wading through the depths of isolation, feeling trapped inside their house with a new baby that surprisingly hasn’t arrived with a manual to explain how it works. They are suddenly on their own, rather than being surrounded by the startled faces of other new mums, to remind them that the confusion and exhaustion they are feeling are all completely normal, and things will get better.

Our childcare sector is on the brink of collapse as the government has actually cut funding to this sector during the pandemic.

And after about nine months of that, they might head back to work, only to be greeted by a veritable buffet of mind boggling challenges. Firstly, you’re going to need some childcare, because, well, have you ever tried to work while looking after a baby? You can’t leave them at home in a jumperoo with one of those water bottles they attach to hamster cages. But our childcare sector is on the brink of collapse as the government has actually cut funding to this sector during the pandemic. It is expected that we will lose about a quarter of our childcare places when provision was already very low. For the lucky ones who find a childcare place, they may be expected to dump the baby on the doorstep and trot off to work, because, understandably, nurseries want to reduce the number of people coming in and out of the building; but can you imagine leaving your child with complete strangers in a building you have never even seen? Leaving your baby with a family member is hard enough.

We’ve known for a while that those returning from maternity leave are at high risk of being pushed out of the workforce. The Government has had plenty of opportunity to do more to protect these new mothers from losing their livelihoods, but sadly they are yet to take action. Our own research in July found that 13% of women who had recently returned from maternity leave said they either had been made redundant or expected to be, with 66% saying their maternity leave was the reason for their redundancy.

They sent me a text the day before I was due back that said I must be available for a video call at 9.30am. That’s when they told me I was being made redundant.

Jessica, who worked in software, got made redundant on the day she was due to return: 'It felt brutal.’ She told me, ‘They sent me a text the day before I was due back and said that as we are in lockdown I mustn’t go into the office and that I must be available for a video call with the MD and my boss at 9.30am. That’s when they told me I was being made redundant. I was back at work for 30 minutes.’’ Those on maternity leave just feel more dispensable to employers as they are already managing without them, as Jessica says: ‘’They blamed Covid, but i am not convinced. They coped for nine months without me so they clearly think i’m not needed. Covid is a nice excuse. It ultimately saves them over £50k a year.’

The problem with pandemics, besides the obvious, is that they magnify already existing inequalities. Before Covid 19 entered our lexicon, pregnant women and new mums were losing their job for daring to procreate. In fact one in nine would be forced out of the workplace. And women were already doing 60% more of the unpaid labour, and almost three times the caring. But now that the kids are at home and about 40% of companies expect to make redundancies during the pandemic, these inequalities are on steroids, and it is resulting in a tsunami of mothers leaving the workforce as their mental health unravels before our very eyes.

A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that 43% of new mums met the criteria for clinically relevant depression and 61% met the criteria for anxiety, and that is data from the first lockdown, so it is likely that things have deteriorated further. This isn’t just true for the UK, it seems to be a problem in other developed nations, which is probably why Australia has just invested $13.6 million to support the mental health of new and expectant parents. I keep clicking refresh on the UK government website, awaiting their big announcement of financial support for new mothers, but weirdly it hasn’t been forthcoming.

If you know a new mum who is desperately trying to figure out how a baby works - call her

So this is a plea from me to you. If you know a new mum who is desperately trying to figure out how a baby works, following what will have been a traumatic pregnancy and labour, who is worrying about her livelihood and her future amongst the sleepless fug and somewhat broken body and mind; call her, suggest a socially distanced walk, send her a card, or a gift if you can, make sure her family are looking for signs that things are not okay. Make sure she knows that things will get better and that you are always there if she needs you; because trust me, right now she needs you more than ever.

Joeli Brearley is the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed and author of Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About The Motherhood Penalty and hot to fix it which will be published by Simon & Schuster on March 4 and can be ordered now.

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