Motherhood, friendship and mental health: Tips from those in the know
To mark International Friendship Day I sat down for a ‘Tea and Talk’ in Glasgow last weekend with four new mums to chat about the importance of friendship for their mental health.
In 2011 the General Assembly of the United Nations officially declared 30th July as International Friendship Day, framing the power of friendship as a force to overcome adversity.
"To confront [the world’s] crises and challenges, their root causes must be addressed by promoting and defending a shared spirit of human solidarity that takes many forms — the simplest of which is friendship."
At the Mental Health Foundation we strongly believe that friendships protect our mental health by building our capacity to cope with difficult situations and providing us with a support network.
Becoming a mum, whether for the first time or with a growing family, can be a whirlwind that impacts our wellbeing both positively and negatively. According to Everyone’s Business more than 1 in 10 women develop a mental illness in their baby’s first year.
The rise of 'mummy bloggers' illustrates the growing appetite among mothers to hear and share their authentic experiences of motherhood.
As we begin our conversation surrounded by six children aged between five weeks and six years, the nervous laughter at the sight of my note-taking suggests there’s an established ‘off the record’ norm to these conversations. But for one time only these mums have agreed to share their tips on how to stay mentally healthy throughout motherhood.
Keep an open mind in old and new friendships
Each woman said that becoming a mum had actually brought new friends into their lives and built stronger foundations with current ones.
"Something natural develops between mums because they can relate to the same ages and stages that their children are going through. Even when there’s a group with a few mums you gravitate towards people with a similar attitude."
The mums felt that the key to building positive new friendships was to be honest but also accept when someone isn’t the right fit. The most important and terrifying thing you can do is to put yourself out there either by popping along to a local mother and baby class or being the first one to suggest a coffee with a mum you’ve been sharing jokes with in class.
"It seems like dating at first – who makes the first move?!"
While friendships with other mums were said to be an incredible form of support, motherhood didn’t mean that friends without children were no longer relatable to these mums – rather they provide a different kind of support. Old friends can keep you connected with your interests before children and also present a non-judgemental and unbiased ear for your problems.
"Some of my older friends don’t have children but we’re still like-minded and they always help me feel more like myself."
The key to maintaining these older friendships where everyone is at different stages is to meet people halfway; be mindful and interested in the other person’s life and accept that you might not always ‘get’ each other.
By painting an honest picture – friends can help you 'find the funny'!
Whether recounting tales of painful or precious moments, the discussion was peppered with laughs and it was clear that a conversation with friends truly was the best antidote for the roller-coaster of family life.
"I think when you have your first baby, or if you’re the first friend to have a baby, then you have this constant thought in your head that says ‘Quick! I have to act normal!’"
Painting an honest picture of their lives helps these mums connect more quickly with other mums. But they also found solace in browsing 'mummy blogs' in the wee hours of the morning to keep connected to a global network of mums when their own local network was asleep (or trying to sleep).
“When you speak to other mums you give up on trying to act like you did before having children. You begin to think 'what even is normal?'”
While social media was praised as being helpful in keeping connected amidst a busy life, the mums raised a red flag around the importance of keeping it real and reminded each other that everyone shares their 'perfect' moments online.
"They could just be having a good hour – so never compare yourself to the lives of others on social media."
Talk about the tricky stuff – if it is difficult then it is probably important
One thing these mums had in common was experiencing anxiety, either for the first time or more intensely, after becoming a mum. For some this occurred while being overwhelmed by well-meaning visitors, others constantly worried about the safety of their child, and one mum experienced increasingly obtrusive thoughts around an ever-growing to-do list.
"With my second child I felt so anxious and unlike myself but it was only when I talked to a friend that I realised I could put a name to what I was feeling – I had anxiety."
It was conversations with friends that initially encouraged them to seek clinical help for anxiety. These discussions helped validate their experiences and make them more assertive when articulating their situation to a doctor.
The take home message was that friends can either give you reassurance that what you are going through is normal or they can recognise from the outside that you are overwhelmed and should take further measures to look after your mental health.
"It's incredible how many people have told me about their anxiety problems once I opened up about mine. It’s totally empowering when it starts feeling like it’s we instead of just me."