It is said that pregnant women get a sensation in the third trimester called ‘a nesting instinct’. It shows up as the desire to have a home set up for the new arrival. It often involves lots of shopping, setting up, cleaning, washing and ironing as well as planning and worrying. These physical activities often give the mother a sense of purpose in that stage when the big belly is no longer entirely enjoyable, yet there is still some time to go before she holds her baby in her arms.
When I was pregnant, I was very limited in how much nesting I could do as I was technically homeless. I could no longer stay where I was and had no home of my own to move to yet. This could have spelled a disaster for my mental health, but I was fortunate enough to have a great support network in place that allowed me to realise that there was a different kind of nest building I could do, a metaphorical one, which is exactly what I did and it was a sanity saver during pregnancy. Moreover, the structures I built, served me well in the rocky postpartum period.
Metaphorical nest stands on three equally important legs, Education, Relationships and Support network. Many people leave all that until after baby is born, only to find that they are too exhausted to make any concerted effort or simply do not have the time. So let’s have a look at the structure one part at the time, so you can be clear on how to build a safe space not just for your baby, but for you and your mental health too.
Education is not just what you learn at school, which is just as well, as you won’t learn much about motherhood there. You have to take your own initiative and do your own research. We are fortunate in this day and age with free access to a lot of information. The other side of the coin is overwhelm of contradicting views from all sorts of experts though. I’d suggest that a good way to start is to map out the basics of your plans for your pregnancy, birth and parenting and then research ways to achieve it in the easiest possible way. Stay flexible and willing to change your mind in case you come across information that leads you down a different path than you originally imagined, but is ultimately better fit for your family. Discuss all this with the people that will be involved in any of the stages of your parenting journey, so you are all on the same page. Listen to their views and consider carefully any opinion that contradicts yours. Following your heart is great, but it is even better when backed up by factual information. However the ultimate decisions are best made with the best interest of your child in mind.
The main subjects I would focus on are healthy pregnancy, type of labour you’d prefer, how you’d prefer to feed your baby, what will the sleeping arrangements be, what will your approach to discipline be. Have plan B and C for all these subjects, so you can adjust should your circumstances change unexpectedly. Some of these things will require some preparation like certain type of exercise, diet, meditation course or a course of therapy. Knowing your options will empower you to make the best decisions for your family as well as to enable you to seek support early and in the right places.
Relationships are ever changing, moving with the flow of life. Pregnancy and a new baby can put a lot of strain on relationships that are not rooted in a rock solid foundation of trust and respect. Examining your closest relationships early on, building up those with potential and loosening up the ones that have weak connections, might be crucial in keeping you in a good place when life gets tough.
The surging hormones in all four trimesters (the three months postpartum are known as the fourth trimester), the lack of sleep, the anxiety about the unknown, the grief of the life that never be the same is a lot to take on and the feeling of overwhelm can spill over and affect the people around you. Notice who is stumbling under the weight and let them go. It might be a childless friend, who really struggles to see your pregnant belly and happiness, forcing their closeness could be quite traumatic for them. Or perhaps a family member, who is constantly feeding you unsolicited advice and takes offence when you don’t follow it, having them around could become too much when you are at your most vulnerable. Maybe, it is your partner, who is not as supportive as you had hoped, couple’s therapy might be a good idea, so you can learn how to communicate effectively and meet each other’s needs, especially when the going gets tough.
Strengthen those solid relationships that you do have by paying attention, involving them in what is going on for you, letting them help and support you, but also remain there for them in whatever capacity you can. Make sure they do not feel forgotten. When you are struggling through a day by day on two hours of interrupted sleep, you’ll need strong anchors to keep you grounded and to remind you of your strength and that you can do hard things, you’ll need them to have your back, when your arms will be full.
Creating a wider support network is essential for maintaining sanity, as well as to having an easy access to solidarity, help and advice. It is good to start building this network before the baby comes, so that the foundations are already solid and you know exactly where to turn to.
Find groups on social media that are formed of parents with the same ethos as yours. Dip your toes in and observe from the posts whether the space is safe, non-judgemental and helpful in a practical way. These come handy when you have a burning question at 4am and google is not giving you the answers.
Look for local NCT or similar groups to connect with parents in your area for some face to face interactions with people in the same boat. In the UK, the local councils often organise playgroups, coffee mornings, picnics and other social events for new parents for free.
If you can’t find any groups that resonate with you, whether online or in person, create one. With all the technology available to us nowadays, it has never been easier to connect with people of similar interests.
Look up organisations and charities offering help to new parents whether locally or nationally, it’ll give you a great piece of mind knowing that no matter what, there is someone out there that can help and support you through the times that you might find more challenging than you feel you can cope with by yourself. If you are on social media, following a doula, a midwife, an IBCLC (lactation consultant) and Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who is an amazing source on all things baby and parenting related.
Last, but not least, please remember it is ok to ask for help. People, in their essence, love helping others, it feels good, so don’t deny them that great feeling and ask for whatever help you can get. You don’t have to do this alone, nor you need to struggle in silence. We are not meant to do this parenting thing alone, but rather in a close nit community of several generations living together, helping each other and supporting one another. Over the last couple of hundreds of years we have moved away from this way of being, especially in the ‘western society’ and parenting has certainly become harder and more demanding, the fact that parents are expected to work as if they don’t have kids and parent as if they don’t have work is clear for all to see, this is true mainly for mothers, but their partners get affected too. In the Covid-19 Pandemic, the pressure that was already there rose to new heights when parents were also expected to take on the role of teachers.
I’ve seen it time and time again, it was those that armed themselves with factual information, had stable relationships and solid support network that continued to thrive even in these difficult conditions, with the negative impact on their mental health being relatively low.
Knowing where to turn to when you are not sure about symptoms you might be experiencing, whether in pregnancy, in labour or postpartum, who to ask about issues with breastfeeding, which source on infant sleep is most aligned with your values, who to ask for a practical help and who to talk to about your feelings and thoughts in a safe environment, is crucial for maintaining a good mental health through all the stages of parenting, pandemic or not. If you’d like me to be a part of your support network, do get in touch and follow my pages on instagram and facebook for links to online communities, parenting authors and support workers that are worth adding too. Help and support is out here, all you need to do is ask.