Yvette DuBourdieu has been turned away from cafes, hurried out and asked to leave.
Not because she was drunk or disorderly but for the misdemeanour of being a mother.
“It’s hard to find places that are welcoming,” says the mother of eight-year-old Ella and four-year-old Poppy. “Here you are with your pram the size of a fridge-freezer, you just want to connect and have a coffee but you can be blocking things, it’s ‘leave your pram outside’, or when a baby cries it’s dirty looks from other patrons or being judged for using a bottle. That’s going on all the time, it really prevents you from going out more.”
DuBourdieu believes such instances are just one of the factors that lead many new mums to feel isolated.
Perinatal (that’s the period while a woman is pregnant and the year after a baby is born) anxiety and depression affects one in six mothers and one in 10 fathers. Even more women experience a sense of overwhelming loneliness that is not clinically diagnosable.
“It’s quite a harsh transition from having a career to motherhood,” DuBourdieu says. “I think parents in general are pretty well-briefed about the joys and sleepless nights, but no one really tells you about how lonely your days will be and how much time you spend alone with your baby.”
For her, after the initial excitement of having a newborn, it was “almost a grieving process” as she adjusted to the shock of the new.
Yvette had an “amazing” mother’s group, but it wasn’t enough.
“You spend perhaps two to four hours with them a week, so there’s still a lot of time to be completely and utterly alone,” DuBourdieu says. “You learn really early on that your days are really long when your partner leaves for work at 7-7.30 and doesn’t get home till six or seven at night.
“On the days that I did not organise something to do or someone to see it was extraordinarily isolating… especially if you’re going through a period where your baby is crying all the time… on a few occasions you would be waiting for the key to turn in the lock.”
Such isolation – and boredom – is exacerbated by the expectation that it’s meant to be a joyous time; and while it is joyous for many, it is also an incredibly challenging time.
“Having your first child in particular is the single most life-changing event. It changes you profoundly,” says Dr Vijay Roach, leading obstetrician and chair of Gidget Foundation, which is calling for perinatal mental health checks to be as routine as blood pressure checks.
“Pregnancy is a time of joy and happiness and should be such a positive time but for many people it’s also anxiety-provoking and can be an unhappy time.”
Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in Australia (The Gidget Foundation was named after the nickname of a young mother who took her own life while suffering postnatal depression).
Roach says awareness is “evolving and evolving in a positive way”, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
“Fathers are an unrecognised group,” he says, noting that they often struggle if their partner is suffering depression, but can also struggle with the “enormous shift” that is becoming a parent.
Three primary factors tend to make the perinatal period particularly difficult, Roach says:
- “The biggest thing is in the workplace. Many women are scared to tell their employers. They are concerned they might not be given the promotion or be seen as less capable because they’re pregnant,” he explains.
“And for men, there’s still not a general acceptance of them as carers. They don’t get that support and it’s frowned upon if they leave early to pick up their child. It leads to enormous stress and it’s a time when you’re tired, people struggle with all that.”
He adds that if someone is experiencing depression or anxiety, they are even more likely to swallow their feelings for fear of being judged.
- “The other big issue is isolation – people are often stuck at home, you’re tired and it’s difficult to find places you are welcome as a new mum. They often feel alone,” Roach says. “You’re supposed to be happy, you’re supposed to just get on with it.”
- “The third thing is social media. There’s an illusion of connection but the reality is humans need face-to-face connection.”
Social media, with its illusion of connection and its illusion of perfection, can make parents feel more alone and less capable.
“You have the beautiful Instagram shot that you put up of your baby, but the other 99.9 per cent is a different story completely,” DuBourdieu says.
“I think all mums feel isolated, but I think it’s very hard for anyone to put your hand up and say, ‘I’m lonely, I’m bored in this’. It still amazes me how many mums you can see in a gated playground not talking to each other.”
DuBourdieu, who created Ellaslist (after her first daughter, Ella was born) to connect parents to each other and to parent-and-child-friendly places and activities, says she’s had “quite a few” women burst into tears when she’s approached them in the playground to say hello.
“No one has asked them how they are,” she says, adding that finding her own community and places she felt welcome “completely changed” her experience of parenthood.
“What parents need so desperately especially in those early days is adult connection and to be around other people. Ellaslist is really about connection. When I started it I was looking for things to do but looking back on that now, I was looking for connection.”
Recent research found that social support and connection plays a significant role in positively influencing the mental health and wellbeing of new parents. Social support consists of hands-on help, emotional support, access to information and affirmation that the mother is doing a good job.
“Through awareness we can start to address these issues and give people an opportunity to get better,” Roach says, adding that there’s one key ingredient to creating change.
“We need compassion – it’s important to support mums and dads through this important transition.”