New Series Klaxon! For the next few weeks I’ll be featuring a few of my favourite wellness, coaching, psychology experts asking them to share what’s in their mental health toolkit.
There’s been a healthy swell of conversation about mental health matters over the past few weeks, and I for one am heartily applauding. Anything that brings mental health out of the shadows and into the sunlight has to be a good thing in my view. Fundamental to this new tide is the recent interview Bryony Gordon conducted with Prince Harry, where he spoke about his own experience of bereavement and the mental health issues that that provoked. Couple that with the Duchess of Cambridge talking with confidence and strength about how challenging motherhood is, and we’re undoubtedly witnessing a sea change.
One of the biggest cheerleaders for this movement is @mumologist, who, along with @thepsychologymum, have championed a new campaign on Instagram called HowcanIhelp? inviting people to get the conversation started about their own mental health and how they nourish and notice it day to day. I chatted to @mumologist to find out what’s in her personal mental health toolkit.
1. Tell me about yourself!
I’m Emma Svanberg, and I’m a clinical psychologist and hypnobirthing teacher. I worked for the NHS in primary care mental health services before I had children, working in Children’s Centres and GP surgeries with pregnant women and parents with children under 5. I left the NHS before having my daughter five and a half years ago.
I trained as a hypnobirthing instructor 7 years ago. After having worked with so many women struggling to come to terms with difficult births, hypnobirthing seemed the most effective way of preventing birth trauma and encouraging a positive experience. We spend time talking about the couple’s relationship and upcoming changes, anxieties around birth and parenthood, focusing on self-care and how to protect mental health.
Since my youngest started preschool last September, I’ve been gradually building up my business and have returned to therapeutic work. Eventually I’d like to have a service fully supporting pregnant women, new parents and their families throughout the transition to parenthood and all the stresses (and joys) that encompasses.
I also run our local Positive Birth Movement group (www.positivebirthmovement.org ) – an amazing FREE meet up for pregnant women and their partners to discuss birth in a positive way (whatever that means to them). And, two years ago, I set up a local support organisation called The Village. I host monthly meet ups for parents, with the emphasis on creating a supportive environment for parents to share their current thoughts and challenges. Next in the pipeline is a weekly group for new mums.
2. How/why did you start mumologist on Instagram?
The mumologist was originally a blog (www.mumologist.com) which I started when I was pregnant with my daughter in order to have a space to voice my thoughts about being pregnant, but also to discuss some of the ideas that came up time and time again in my work with pregnant women and parents.
Psychology can feel very mysterious – often we work behind closed doors – and it’s always felt important to me that we share the experience and ideas we come across to people outside the therapy room.
I started my Instagram initially just to share photos of my kids, but when I saw this tremendous supportive community of mums growing on there, I made it solely about my work. I absolutely LOVE Instagram. It makes the information and support new parents feel so in need of is very quickly and concisely accessible. I’ve very recently started trying to post short vlogs and posts rather than concentrate on the blog, and I love that this seems to be the way things are going. When you have a new baby, or even a toddler and a new baby, or more than that – you just don’t have the time or headspace to always read a blog or an article, so short sharp ways of conveying information seems much more helpful. It also feels really easy to connect with people on Instagram, and I’ve found it an incredibly friendly and morale-boosting community.
3. The campaign for starting the conversation about mental health, hashtag-how can i help? has been a really powerful one, getting people really involved and chatting about these important issues. How did it come about?
All credit to Emma M (thepsychologymum – next up in the series) on this one. Emma is a friend of my sister’s – they trained together in Glasgow – and we hadn’t been in contact for about ten years after a particularly raucous party at my sister’s flat!
I’d heard through my sister that Emma was also interested in making psychological ideas and approaches more accessible. I’d just started stepping up posting on my social media so it was all perfect timing. I found her Instagram page and stayed up far too late reading every single post, her page is BRILLIANT, completely hilarious and so wise! I connected with her on Instagram and we had a chat about starting a campaign after listening to Bryony Gordon’s wonderful podcast with Prince Harry.
We were both very keen to promote positive mental health and continue that conversation that Bryony started – to present mental health as a normal, everyday subject that we should all be concerned with. After batting ideas back and forth we quickly came up with our key question and the how can i help hashtag was born! We have been really overwhelmed with the response – but it just goes to show people are really ready to talk about this. One of the things I really took from my training was that mental health and physical health can’t really be separated, and if we can talk about feeling rubbish with a cold, we should be able to talk about feeling rubbish with stress.
4. What are your personal mental health tools in your own toolbox?
I’ve always kept a diary, I used to write in it daily but now it’s more like once a month. It’s my opportunity to get my scrambled thoughts down on paper and sort them out a little bit! Before kids, I used to find I needed to balance any stress by having fun – going out with friends, going dancing, going to gigs. That’s changed since children, as I can find the daily noise and physicality of parenting very overstimulating. I find now I need regular silence. Even ten minutes just sitting in quiet is completely necessary for me just to reset myself.
For the past year and a half I’ve also regularly seen a psychologist for my own therapy. Once the chaos of the early days of parenting died down a little, I found I really needed time to process all the changes I’d been through. I think everyone should have that opportunity, to talk to a professional when times are difficult, and without having to wait weeks for the chance to do that.
5. The $5,000,000 question: How do you balance kids and work?
Well, for a long time I didn’t! I completely gave up work, apart from the occasional hypnobirthing course for friends, for the best part of five years. When I was considering returning to work, when my eldest was 1 year, my NHS role had changed to a general primary care psychology role and the national spending cuts were really starting to hit our very stressed service. Not to mention I (unexpectedly!) had no desire to leave my daughter and return to work.
Through work, I had spoken to so many women struggling to balance work and childcare, and I am so ‘all-or-nothing’ I knew I would find that a huge challenge. So I decided not to return, and had another baby instead. It was a tough decision but I don’t regret it, I’ve really enjoyed being at home with them although that does bring it’s own challenges – financially, emotionally and physically!
I did struggle a lot when I first stopped working, missing the feeling of reward and validation I got from being employed. I found out about maternal feminism through groups like All Mothers Work and that helped me feel ok about being economically unproductive for a while.
What’s always struck me – through my work as a psychologist, through meeting other mums and reading about other mothers’ experiences – is just how isolating and difficult being a mum can be. Joyful and exhilarating too, but really hard work.
I’m talking about mums in particular, as while there are many dads out there taking on childcare responsibilities, generally speaking those first weeks at home fall on the mother’s shoulders. In our society, there’s a lot of emphasis on getting our recognition from the other roles in our lives, particularly work.
It means that ‘just’ being a mum is never enough – whether you’re a working mum or not, it’s as if being a mother isn’t the thing that’s allowed to validate you – it’s all the other stuff that defines your identity. So when you’re at home with your children, especially in the early days of mothering, you inevitably end up questioning your sense of self, who you are now related to this little person and your new role. And if we allow ourselves to be absorbed into the task of mothering, which is so healthy and important for both the mother and the baby, we are seen as losing our ‘selves’. Plus, for many it’s not possible to allow that absorption to happen, because it’s just too expensive, or because the door wouldn’t be held open in their careers.
But that can be a period of tremendous growth, if we’re allowed to admit how important our children are to us, and to our sense of who we are, and if we’re supported in losing and then re-discovering ourselves for a little while.
Now, since my littlest was old enough for his 15 hours’ free childcare, I’ve really enjoyed getting back into work. I do lots of work on my phone, and try and make the most of the three hours a day I get to myself! I see clients in that time, or evenings and weekends, which involves a bit of juggling with my partner but so far it’s working.
6. What would be your top tip for keeping your mental health on track throughout pregnancy and early motherhood?
My top tip is to embrace the chaos! One of the most interesting things about pregnancy is that you suddenly turn from being an ‘I’ into being a ‘we’. It’s a very strange feeling, and often we try to avoid it. We carry on as normal, not letting the pregnancy slow us down. Similarly, in the early days of motherhood it’s really tempting to want to ‘get back to normal’ as fast as possible.
For me, weathering those first months is about accepting there is no normal anymore. When you have a newborn, everything changes – the way we view time changes, the way we view ourselves and our relationships change, it’s not an understatement to say that the whole world is turned upside down. If we can just ride that out and accept it as a time of transition, not try and control it, then we can look forward to seeing how it all lands again.
7. Anything else you want the blogosphere to know about you? Favourite books? Wellness strategies? Instagram accounts?
My gift to new parents is always The Wonder Weeks, it saved my sanity on many occasions. I also love What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen. I’ve just finished reading Milli Hill’s The Positive Birth Book and think it should be given to all newly pregnant women at their first midwife appointment – it’s that good.
I’ve recently discovered the Quility app, with mindfulness exercises for mothers. There are so many different exercises to choose from. My top Instagram account is thepsychologymum! She always has something useful to say, and she never fails to make me laugh.
But I think really it’s all about finding your own way and what works for you, and not being swayed by the current trendy wellness strategy. For some people yoga is essential, for others watching a boxset – it’s so personal.
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