Friday, 10 October 2014

World Mental Health Day: Motherhood and my mental health

Happy World Mental Health Day!

I have become increasingly fixated upon the link between motherhood and mental health.

I'm not talking about post-natal depression, a condition I feel entirely unqualified to comment upon. I mean general mental health in terms of 'how am I feeling today' and 'I feel a bit low and I don't know why'.

Much like physical health, I believe mental health isn't a clear-cut case of 'ill' or 'well'. In the same way you can physically function entirely competently with a cold or an ingrowing toenail, most of us can function entirely competently with a fluctuating state of mental health and wellness.

But in the same way most, if not all, of us get colds from time to time, I also believe most of us have times of feeling more well, and less well, mentally. Stress, pressure, lifestyle factors, and how we feel about ourselves at the core can all impact how well we feel mentally.

As a lifestyle factor motherhood comes with a degree of stress, pressure and a great deal of being flung into the unknown. How we react and respond does depend to some degree upon our mental health and our levels of self-care.

Deep breath. Here's the honesty bit. I've suffered from a mental health condition on and off for years. All my life, I think. Certainly as long as I can remember. But I've never had a name for it.

I'm not, as far as I'm aware, depressed. I can get anxious but I don't suffer from anxiety as a condition.

I'm well aware of the 'symptoms' of my own particular mental health issue. It's best summed up as being 'my own worst enemy'.

Self-doubt, getting in my own way a lot, relentlessly comparing myself to others but always comparing the best of them to the worst of me so I cannot possibly win, self-sacrificing behaviour rather than asserting my own wants and needs, then resentment at 'once again' falling on my own sword.

Lack of faith in my own judgement, a tendency to make poor decisions then viciously attack myself for the consequences, impossibly high standards for myself that I wouldn't dream of applying to other people, a relentless quest for nothing less than utter perfection in many areas of my life - perfect mother, perfect wife, perfect body, perfect diet, perfect career, perfect friendships - and constant and tedious self-flagellation when I fail to meet these self-imposed and utterly impossible standards.

A conviction that I can cope with more than 'other people' and 'don't need' basic human rights such as privacy, time to myself, my own needs to be heard and acted upon, my own feelings to be expressed and heard and taken seriously. A strong aversion to accepting any form of help - then deep resentment when others take me at my word and leave me to my own impossible struggle.

It's only quite recently that I have come to understand that what I suffer from is known as self-hate and that it has controlled much of my life and many of my decisions for far longer than I care to remember. I have always had a curious way of making life hard for myself, always making the wrong decision then throwing myself into the battle to rectify the consequences, always struggling against an inner or outer enemy - always struggling, but always, always 'failing' on some level. Lashing out at those I love when I am feeling overwhelmed emotionally then hating myself afterwards, apologising out of shame rather than genuine remorse because I wrongly feel I cannot control my behaviour or actions when I am angry or upset, and I know on some level the next time I get upset it will happen again.

It's motherhood that has brought this self-hatred to the forefront and insisted that I acknowledge and confront it. Cherry has reached an age whereby she has become something of a mirror of me. Every decision I make, from the way I speak to her to the activities we pursue and the food we eat - is reflected back at me in tiny, two-year-old form.

Her diet? My diet, because I am not so hypocritical as to stuff myself with chocolate cake whilst she eats carrot sticks. Her emotional expression? My emotional expression, down to the phrases she uses and the manner in which she expresses them. Her anxieties? My anxieties.

Much of this is not spoken. I have never applied the appalling language with which I castigate myself (feckless, useless, lazy, stupid, selfish, idle etc) to either of my daughters verbally or non-verbally, but Cherry is highly sensitive and empathetic, MUCH LIKE HER MOTHER, and there is much she knows that she cannot verbalise.

The most surprising part of all this is how much I like what I see. I strongly love the parts of myself I see Cherry reflecting back to me. Her compassion, her lovingness, her empathy, her strong sense of self. Her conviction that her presence is healing, that she is enough.

All of that is her, but it is me also. Her personality is hers alone, a beautiful concoction of my and Noel's genetics and her own unique Cherry-ness. But her behaviour, her reactions - these are a combination of raw instinct and learned, shaped responses.

I have learned through my daughter that I have a strong sense of self-preservation and an empathetic and compassionate soul. These exist within me as strongly, stronger I hope, than self-hatred. These are what carry me and nourish me, these are the parts of me I have listened to at truly crucial junctures in my life.

I have learned through my daughter that I must heal myself, for her and her sister and for Noel, but more than that. I must heal myself for myself. 

Nobody deserves to carry around a burden of impossible standards and a side-order of near-constant self-flagellation.

I wouldn't wish that for my children and I wouldn't wish it upon myself.

I wouldn't wish it, truth be told, upon my worst enemy.

(If you have read this and thought 'that sounds like me!' then I strongly recommend reading an excellent book called Compassion and Self-Hate by Theodore I Rubin.)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Cathy, I hope you won't mind some random from the internet (who just came here to see how you were getting on with no shampoo) giving you advice, but I can't not say something.

    I don't know about your, but I am NOT the sort of person who would ever have quite got round to seeing a therapist or anything like that. But through a series of happy events, I found myself having a session with Sue Smith (, It has TOTALLY changed my life.

    She uses this technique called Clean Language Metaphor, which basically allows you to talk directly to your subconscious and delete a lot of the negative internal crap you have whirring round in your mind. It's like you can upgrade your own system and remove all the bugs. Sounds weird, but it was really great. I have been to see her three times - once a year. But you can go more if there is a lot to work on. At the time, I felt like the 2nd and 3rd trips were more like luxuries - little brain treats - but they both ended up being almost as life-changing as the first (except that the first cured me of IBS, which was pretty special).

    Loads of my friends have been to see her, and apparently I'm now sharing this information with strangers on the internet. I really can't tell you how worthwhile it's been.

    (Oh and full disclosure: I'm telling you this because I read this and thought "she needs to see Sue, I must tell her!" but I should tell you that after working with her I ended up helping her set up The Stresshacker.)