The importance of infancy and the early years, and the relationships that develop during that time are central to the work that child and adolescent psychotherapists do. Some child psychotherapists work alongside health visitors in baby clinics, or with family support workers in children’s centres supporting the developing relationship between the parent and their infant, and some child psychotherpaists are based in more specialist perninatal teams, or maternal mental health teams supporting mothers and babies that may need a specialist intervention.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been widely reported that parents of infants and very young children have had very little support. Parent Infant foundation and the 1001 days movement have been campaigning on this issue. Contact with the extended family has been limited, if not entirely curtailed, as have baby groups and other services in the community for new parents. Working life for parents has dramatically changed, which has often been combined with increasing finacial pressures and anxieties about health.
Jennifer Davids, ACP member, has commented:
I have become aware in my work as a child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, that during the pandemic the relatively ordinary set of experiences that accompany becoming pregnant and indeed becoming a mum have been happening in the context of extraordinary times. Times in which expectable anxieties can be magnified. Some mothers describe feeling frightened as well as deprived of social support networks; worried about their own inner bodily health as well as fearing carrying the virus asymptomatically ; concerned about how and if the vaccines will affect their pregnancy; there is often more need to “go it alone” as fathers as well as prospective grandmothers may not be allowed to be present at important moments for example, for scans under Covid restrictions. Some mothers fear giving birth without a close relative or friend. Siblings too can struggle with mother’s pregnancy a little more in the context of the loss of school and the relationships that provides. So the normal facilitating environment is not there in quite the same way as usual.’
We would like to use the opportunity of this year’s Mother’s Day to highlight the experiences that mothers have had in this last year and give voice to women who have perhaps had to shoulder the larger domestic and emotional (as well as no doubt many other) loads for their families.
We asked women who were either mothers, or had become mothers during the pandemic to tell us about their experiences.
Many mothers experienced loss, some lost their jobs, most lost contact with family and friends in the usual way, but there was also the grief about the time that had been lost.
‘We will never get that time back. I will never be a first time mum again, a time I was so excited about. And that really pains me.’
I feel I’ve really missed out on making these friends and experiencing mixing with other mums and babies day in and day out.’
Many mothers explained that it was very tough juggling the contuing pressure of work and taking on home schooling for their children.
‘The expectation that you can hold everything as if all is normal. I can’t hold everything during a normal year, much less in a pandemic. I can’t be everything for everyone.’
Many mothers described complicated feelings about their ‘new roles’, which included guilt.
‘In many ways it’s felt amazing to have all the extra one on one time with my little one and in other ways it’s felt kind of claustrophobic.’
Trying to support their children
‘It feels like you have lost any identity as an individual. Your whole existence is keeping the children's spirits raised and providing stability in these uncertain times.’
‘I have suffered with anxiety, worry and sadness and the children have definitely been aware of this and to a lesser extent had their own worries and sadnesses.’
‘I also believe that my own anxiety about the virus was also felt / passed on to my child – ie: making sure not touching door handles, washing hands – when I had to go back to work and was anxious I definitely know that she would have picked it up on my own emotional state.’
Supporting children emotionally and providing stability, is a key task for parents usually, but the difference is that there are usually other opportunities for parents to get support themselves, and parents have not universally been exposed to continuing high levels of anxiety in the way that they have been this last year. This has meant that it is much harder for parents to regulate their own mood.
Worries about their children
Although mother’s of babies did not feel so concerned about the impact of their development, mother’s of toddler and older children were much more preoccupied with the impact that not socialising with other children was having on them.
He stays away from other children in the park and doesn’t know how to interact (even on a basic level) - he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in someone else’s home and play with their toys.
‘I’m worried that my son will not be [confident and sociable] due to his lack of contact during lockdown.’
Relationship with partner
Perhaps more positively, women commented that they appreciated their partner’s being around more, as they were either not working or working from home so there was more opportunity for them to develop a relationship with their children.
‘I feel that my children have benefited greatly from my husband being home all of the time. He is able to be more involved during the weekdays and not just at weekends.’
‘I’ve enjoyed observing tired looking dads circling round the park in the dark (early evening ) listening to their overly chatty toddler.’
‘After paternity leave, my partner worked from home for 5-6 weeks before being furloughed, so he’s never had to leave the house and go to work all day, and I in turn have never had to worry about coping alone.’
There have also been some benefits that mother’s have seen for their sibling relationships.
‘My kids have developed a closer relationship with each other as siblings and playmates.
These comments seem to echo Jennifer Davids’ experience, ‘it seems to me that with recognition of the differences, the fears, the journey of being pregnant can be negotiated and the joys of giving birth to new life celebrated even in the shadows cast by the pandemic’.
What has been helpful
Mothers also commented that they found it helpful to go to playgrounds and meet other parents to have some social contact outside of the home, as well as for their children to have some contact with other children. One mother felt that the lockdown had helped her to overcome her shyness and approach other parents directly in the playground, because she was more aware of the need for social contact.
Mothers also valued the rare times that they were able to have some time on their own, whether this was going for a walk or run outside the home.
Where to go for more support?
If you are struggling with your mental health, please contact your health visitor, midwife or GP, or contact your local children’s centre. Although many of the usual support groups may not be running in the same way, many services are offering some in person work, or able to offer online alternatives:
Our Understanding childhood leaftlets, written by ACP child psychotherpaists are written on a range of topics including crying and sleeping in the first months of life, your new baby and postnatal depression. See them here
There are also some good books written by child psychotherapists about the ordinary experiences of becoming a mother:
Finding Your Way with your Baby: The Emotional Life of Parents and Babies - Daws, Dilys & de Rementeria, Alexandra (2015) - Finding Your Way with Your Baby explores the emotional experience of the baby in the first year, and that of the mother, father and other significant adults. It does so in a way that is deeply informed by psychoanalytic understandings, infant observation, developmental science and decades of clinical experience.
Parent-Infant Psychotherapy for Sleep Problems: Through the Night - Daws, Dilys & Sutton, Sarah (2020) - Sleep problems are among the most common, urgent and undermining troubles parents meet. This book describes Dilys Daws' pioneering method of therapy for sleep problems, honed over 40 years of work with families: brief psychoanalytic therapy with parents and infants together.
The Nursery Age Child - Davids, Jennifer (2010) - This book aims to facilitate the understandings of nursery age children, that is, children around three, four and five years, and their parents. Children of these ages are particularly fascinating. The wealth of their growing minds is apparent in their play and in their widening capacity to express themselves in words.