In her new book, Anna Williamson aims to give new parents practical advice on coping with anxiety. By Sophie Morris
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Last month I lay awake for most of a Saturday night. We were staying with friends and my 22-monthold daughter was “sleeping” between me and my husband, making repetitive choking noises interspersed with a strange, strangled cough. I had to stay awake to make sure I could still hear her, however tortured she sounded, and while lying there I decided that the bizarre breathing pattern was caused by an allergy to my friends’ cats, and that it was all my fault for having her by Caesarean section.
I could have done with a copy of Breaking Mum and Dad: The Insider’s Guide to Parenting Anxiety to hand that night. It would have been useful the next day, too, as my husband pushed the baby far too quickly on a roundabout, while she giggled and waved: “Look Mum no hands!” Breaking Mum and Dad author Anna Williamson, 36, does not sugarcoat the experience of becoming a new parent, but her book aims to guide people through it, shows them how to ask for help and recommends a number of practical exercises to combat negative feelings. Williamson was on a low dose of anti-anxiety medication when she fell pregnant, which she had to come off for fear it might cause growth and development problems to the foetus. “And there, in that little clinic, my anxiety was reignited,” she admits. “‘What if I’ve damaged the baby already?’, ‘What if my anxiety returns?’ Hmm, never mind the new baby, a whole new breed of anxiety was born.”
After an unenjoyable pregnancy and a long and stressful labour, Williamson describes as an “A-grade shitfest”, she gave birth to baby Enzo by an emergency C-section in September 2016. Following the traumatic birth, she soon realised she needed to restart her medication and had to stop breastfeeding after nine days.
The NHS says that more than one in 10 women experience some sort of postnatal depression in the year after giving birth. The National Childbirth Trust says that the figure is closer to one in two, and that half of these don’t find the confidence to talk to anyone about it. In one fifth of these cases, the GPs failed to ask the new mothers how they were feeling.
Williamson already had lots of experience in talking about her mental health. She had previously been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and delivered her first book Breaking Mad: The Insider’s Guide to Conquering Anxiety weeks before Enzo’s birth.
“Don’t suffer in silence however you might be feeling,” she says. “You need a label or diagnosis to be feeling the normal feelings that come with being a parent and that’s a parent of any stage of parenthood.
“Feelings of loneliness, not enjoying motherhood much, or at all, having obtrusive scary thoughts, perhaps of thoughts of harming yourself, crying excessively, or withdrawing from people. Just ask yourself if you are concerned about yourself and be brave to talk to someone, a friend or professional, to just check in that whatever you might be feeling is OK, or if you might benefit from some extra help.
Williamson, who is also a television presenter, counsellor and mental health campaigner, has written the book with clinical psychologist Dr Reetta Newell, who stresses that some form of parenting anxiety is normal.
“How high the levels of anxiety are, how it impacts on your dayto-day life and how long it lasts for will depend on who you are, including your circumstances, coping strategies and support network,” she explains. “I hope through reading this book you can take away the key message: parenting anxiety is normal, expected and something that we all experience. Anxiety is everywhere, so the task isn’t to get rid of it but, like Anna has done, learn to cope with it.”
Williamson does not look anything like a stressed or anxious mother. She has television-presenter good looks: long blonde hair, great skin, enthusiastic smile. “I do juggle a fair bit,” she says, “but people don’t see behind the scenes which is when I really have learnt to shut off. Phone goes off, it’s all about cooking, family time and reading. I’ve learnt to manage my anxiety well.”
“Public-facing work can sometimes be a bit ironic as the anxiety can flutter, but I find it spurs me on to talk even more openly and passionately about my experiences as I get such overwhelming feedback from others saying ‘thank you’ and ‘that happened to me’. Speaking about it acts as a kind of therapy.”
The coping suggestions include writing a letter to mourn your birth plan. Many pregnant women create detailed pictures of how they would like their birth to go, but it’s an unpredictable process which can leave women feeling battered, physically and emotionally. Williamson says that birth trauma, which is suffered by 200,000 women a year, is similar to PTSD, so recovering from it should be taken seriously.
She deals with lighter (though not inconsequential) topics, too, such as going to the loo in peace and ignoring the, usually older, relatives, who think you should just jolly well get on with things.
If you could pick three things you know now and wish you’d known before having Enzo, I ask, what would they be? “Don’t feel any pressure to experience that Hollywood-style dream moment,” she says. “Be more realistic and looser in your thinking. You won’t love parenting all the time and that is completely OK and no reflection of my capabilities of being a mum, or any question of the love I have for Enzo, and how mental health can take a bashing after having a baby and how to get help. Suffering in silence is not fun or helpful.”You won’t love parenting all the time and that is completely OK.
‘Breaking Mum and Dad: The Insider’s Guide to Parenting Anxiety’ by Anna Williamson is published by Green Tree, £12.99 at www.amazon.co.uk