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Creating and holding space – parents of the COVID pandemic

Birth Preparation

By Rachel Bridge

The journey into and through parenthood comes with so many expectations, from so many directions, well-meaning friends and family, health professionals, media, social media, as well as our own experiences and expectations of self.

When we begin stepping towards the journey of parenthood, hopes, dreams, desires start to surface. We envisage certain moments of our experience and how that may or may not look…the pregnancy announcement, the baby shower, maternity leave, birth, postpartum, pregnancy care, postpartum care, support, the list goes on.

The COVID pandemic has left many parents let down and grieving what was hoped to be a very different experience of the early stage of family life. On top of this, parents of the COVID pandemic have faced and continue to navigate a difficult barrier, an ever changing obstruction to the supports that they would have previously described as accessible and available. The current state of our health care system and community, in facing the COVID health epidemic, has left parents, both expectant and veteran, feeling anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, sad, angry, grief stricken, disconnected and alone. Rules designed to keep everyone safe from the spread of the virus, are in turn leaving parents isolated and struggling. This is the opposite what families need to thrive. Mothers, parents, and families need connection and accessible access to helpful and aligned supports. Families belong within community.

Between March and October 2020, the number of new callers to the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) helpline doubled, as did call times, suggesting increased frequency and intensity of illness. Most of these calls were from Victoria, which experienced a prolonged lockdown in 2020.

The birthing of a baby, and the birthing of a mother and of a father, is a significant transitional event in the lives of men and women. A mother and fathers experience of pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period, can go onto shape their experiences of parenthood in its entirety.

For a mother, how she experiences care through her perinatal period, can impact on how she goes onto feel about self, her experiences within relationships (particularly the relationship with her baby), and her experiences of the world and how she feels supported, or unsupported in her journey of motherhood.

In my role as a psychologist supporting women and men throughout their parenting journey, I have heard many stories shared of experiences throughout the perinatal period, during the COVID pandemic, where the mother and father both share stories of grief, sadness, disappointment, isolation, and trauma. The nature of emotional experiences such as this, during parenthood, can mean that when space and acceptance isn’t created for these emotional experiences, guilt, shame, and anger can surface in their place.

Written below are some ideas that hope to assist parents of the COVID pandemic to honour their emotional experiences and nurture themselves and one another through these experiences.

Support and help seeking are crucial parts of not just surviving but thriving whilst navigating the early years of parenthood and beyond.

Support and help may come in all shapes and forms, your partner, family and friends, health professional, home maintenance support, food and meal delivery, childminding and caring, community.

Awareness about what’s getting in the way of you seeking and accepting support and help is important.

Thoughts such as ‘I should be able to cope on my own’ as well as the absence of the cultural message ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ are just some of the internal and cultural factors that may be interrupting steps to help seeking and receiving.

Support and Help Seeking Tips:
Reflect on your own emotional experiences “How am I feeling”
Reflect on/talk through “Is there anything getting in the way of me seeking and accepting help” Practice balanced thinking “Its ok that help is needed, these are such challenging times” Communicate “I am Feeling, I Need…”
Reach out/outsource

Taking care of your nervous system
Breathing: How you breathe has a huge impact on how you feel each day. The struggle for many is that we live in a constant state of flight, flight or freeze, a survival mode in which our body and mind is prepared to react and keep us safe. Relearning how to breathe diaphragmatically can soothe our nervous system and help move us back to a more relaxed state.

As you inhale through your nose, send the breath to your belly instead of your chest using a count of 4, hold for four counts and exhale for four counts through your mouth.

Mindfulness: Have you ever noticed that when you’re doing familiar and repetitive tasks, your mind is elsewhere? This is known as ‘automatic pilot’ and when faced with stress, can leave us stuck in a difficult emotional state. Mindfulness is the opposite of automatic pilot. It’s about experiencing the world that is firmly in the ‘here and now’ and is a lovely way of soothing our nervous system.

Practice in grounding mindfulness: List five things you can see, hear, feel touching your body Self Compassion

Responding to self with warmth and kindness, just like we would to a loved one, is an important part of being able to use several stress support strategies/skills. If we can allow ourselves the understanding and compassion we need through times of stress, we then become open to seeking and receiving help, tapping into our emotional experiences, and honouring what it is we need to be ok.

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