by Anon, Social Worker, Queensland, Australia
I am a mother of three adult children and I work in the area of child health, particularly focusing on infant and perinatal mental health. Every day I have the great fortune and privilege to share the lives and stories of many women who are having or have had a baby. From a young age women are subtly taught that it is natural that one day they will want to have a baby of their own and it is kind of an unspoken law that until they do, they haven’t quite reached the same status as their peers who have had a baby. At times the pressure can be enormous – someone gets married and the next thing that happens is that people are asking them when they are planning to have children; someone has a birthday and people start to make remarks about the biological clock ticking … you get the picture. The socially accepted norm that motherhood is a taken for granted goal, instinctive and fulfilling for females shows no regard for individual choice or circumstance.
I certainly took on these beliefs when I was growing up in a family with five siblings and parents with strong Catholic beliefs around women and their roles. Once I became a mother, I loved that it seemed to bring me closer to my mother. It was like I had gained her approval by having a baby and we now had something in common to chat about.
While these cultural norms around expectations that women should and will have a baby and what motherhood means still exist quite strongly in our society, what I have noticed is that there is an increase in the number of women who are delaying having a child until later in their life. Statistically the average age of a women having her first child has remained steady at 30 in recent years in Australia, but there has been a consistent increase in the number of births occurring in the 40 – 44 age bracket (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). These figures are similar in most developed countries around the world. What this essentially means is that women are delaying child bearing. This is due to a number of reasons, such as wanting to travel and explore the world first, taking time to complete study and establish themselves in careers, relationship instability, and wanting to establish financial security before having children. Sometimes women decide to have a child in later years because they feel the biological clock is ticking and they are scared they will miss out if they don’t have a child before it’s too late, while others decide to have a child to please their partners. Some women decide to go it alone.
Adding to this picture, I have found that often underneath this decision to delay having a baby is the common belief that fertility can be prolonged indefinitely and especially that if all else fails, there is always Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ART) to come to the rescue. Yet according to various studies, the correlation between age and conception is frequently underestimated, while faith in ART is overestimated. Fertility begins to decline from about age 25, making it increasingly difficult to fall pregnant as the years go by. Fertility in men has a more gradual decline, but nonetheless sperm disorders increase with age (Pre-conception Health Special Interest Group, n.d.). So the reality is that our bodies do have reasonably set periods of time in which to consider childbearing.
By no means am I suggesting that all women should want to have children, or that there is something wrong with them if they don’t – everyone has the right to make their own decision – but rather I am commenting on one of the common myths that is out there, that fertility is almost indefinite and that ART is the guaranteed backup if conception doesn’t occur naturally.
There has been a growth in the number of births through ART processes over recent years and in 2011, 6,686 women gave birth in Australia through ART, with an average age of 34.4 years, and just over 63% of these women were having their first child (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2014). But the reality is that ART is not the reliable back-up plan that many believe it to be. The success rate per treatment cycle is just under 24% for pregnancy and just over 18% for a live delivery (National Perinatal Epidemiology and Stastics Unit (NPESU), 2013). Understandably, given these figures, the rates of childlessness, sometimes unintentional, have also risen in the last few decades (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014).
If people choose to use ART, they may have to spend years and huge amounts of money to achieve a pregnancy and then there is the long wait to see if their baby will survive and be born healthy. During this time, many women and men report to me the enormous strain it puts on them mentally, emotionally and physically. What I have found through my work is that the whole process is highly medicalised. Women talk about how their life becomes consumed with this one goal and that is to fall pregnant. In all this busyness there is a lot of focus on ‘doing’ and ‘outcomes’ and very little on taking the time to feel what is going on in their bodies outside of the functional sense. Relationships are pressurised and tense because falling pregnant is the whole aim and real intimacy, playfulness and the joy of being together seems to be lost in the scheme of things. Women and men’s connection to themselves and each other as human beings seems to me to be totally over ridden and pushed to the background in the often driven, hard, focused energy of achieving pregnancy. Life is a series of highs and lows and depression and anxiousness are common. While not knowing first-hand the rigors of ART, I wonder how much harder this makes the process, when women’s bodies are not only dealing with extra drugs in these circumstances but also the physiological impact of the stress of this roller coaster ride?
Then if pregnancy is achieved, a whole new level of fear and anxiety is raised: the risks in pregnancy and childbirth with older women are increased and so there are extra scans, blood tests, specialists’ appointments etc. throughout the pregnancy and post birth as mother and baby are closely monitored. There is, for example, increased likelihood of chromosomal or other abnormalities and the possible decision to then terminate the pregnancy or not, premature birth, miscarriage, perinatal mortality and hypertension (Pre-conception Health Special Interest Group, n.d.). There is also the increased chance of a premature birth and of the subsequent need for the baby to require specialist care immediately after birth. During the pregnancy many women report to me that they aren’t willing to allow themselves to bond with their baby due to the fear that something may yet go wrong and they will lose the baby. They feel that until they are actually home with a healthy baby they won’t believe that everything is OK.
Next comes the adjustment to caring for and rearing a baby. Again there are many myths out there around how natural and easy it is for women to care for a baby, simply because they are female. Women of all ages can struggle, but many women who delayed child bearing have focused on other areas of their lives and have spent very little time with babies and therefore feel completely overwhelmed by the demands of caring for an infant. Women commonly tell me stories about how fearful they felt leaving hospital with a new baby and unsure what to do next to care for their child. While I started having my children in my mid-twenties and had grown up around children I nonetheless found that it took time to adjust to being a mother. It wasn’t the sweet, glowing ever happy image that it had been portrayed to be, and some days and nights were extremely hard with a crying, unsettled baby, little support and me turning into a sleep deprived, cranky mother.
Self-identity and beliefs regarding femininity, wife/partner, a ‘good’ woman/mother/homemaker, together with qualities such as nurturing, emotional dependence, selflessness and self-sacrifice are all tied in with the idea of ‘good’ motherhood. So right from the start there is guilt if women put themselves first. I struggled to work out what I was supposed to be doing, according to what was deemed the right way – even though that way was unclear and seems to vary so much from person to person. Trying to juggle all the balls at the one time meant that we shared some moments of delight, but these moments were minimal in comparison to the overall sense of needing to do more, be a better mother, wife, home maker etc.
There is massive comparison between mothers around how their babies are growing and developing and there is often a sense of failure and inadequacy if their child is not doing what other babies are doing at the same age and stage. I also went down this rabbit hole by going into huge amounts of comparison and jealousy with other mothers I met, measuring myself against them as sometimes doing a better job, but mostly seeing myself as falling short somewhere and then inwardly beating myself up and redoubling my efforts to be a ‘good’ mother.
Looking back now, there wasn’t an ounce of recognition at the time that I was trying to live up to the ideals and beliefs of others. It was very draining and an endless cycle and sadly in my work I have found that my experiences are still quite similar to those of many other Mums in the current day.
To make matters worse, there still doesn’t seem to be anything really challenging this setup. Mothers commonly read and research widely to find the ‘best’ way to do things. There are no shortage of books etc. available to ‘teach’ us about pregnancy, childbirth and how to be mothers, but there’s nothing I’ve seen in the current popular media about us being, loving and appreciating our natural selves as the foundation for true child caring and rearing. It’s all more like a set of rules made according to what the author believes is the best way to care for a baby and it doesn’t encourage parents to use their own natural instincts with their children. In fact I found that the best thing I ever did as a parent was when I ditched the books and looked at each of my children as being their own unique person and to then follow their leads as much as possible.
If women have been successful in the workforce, they commonly assume that they will be able to care for this baby in a similar way to how they ran their day at work, and it can be a real blow to their identity and self-esteem to find that they don’t have the control, structure, routine and predictability that they are used to, and so they can feel completely lost. Many women tell me that although they love their child, they feel guilty because they are not enjoying being a mother and just want to escape back to the workforce. They say they feel like they went from being ‘someone’ in a job to a ‘no one’ in the home. There is often resentment that their partners are able to go off to work each day and that they feel that partners don’t appreciate how hard it is to care for a baby. Added to this is the fact that there is a clash of public values between women’s participation in the workforce and mothering. I know I also felt invisible in the home compared to when I was in the workforce; just another mother with kids; nothing special, and that it was hard undervalued work. Adding to the confusion, social attitudes often criticise women who return to work after having a baby, treating them as if they have abandoned their child, yet usually society more highly values workforce participation over home based mothering, especially if that is full time.
Another common myth is that women will instantly fall in love with their babies, but this is far from the reality, especially if they didn’t allow themselves to connect with their babies during pregnancy. Mental health issues can sky rocket, relationships have to be re-organised, with often a tumultuous result, family of origin issues resurface, especially if there was childhood abuse in the past. In fact, any trauma is usually re-activated and amplified through the upheaval of changes that occur through pregnancy and childbirth, as women want to protect and do the best they can for their baby. They often know what they don’t want to do or to happen with their child rearing and caring, but aren’t sure how to do things differently from what they may have experienced. Knowing how to create a different life for their infant can be a difficult struggle between not being a pushover on the one hand and not being the abusive parent on the other. Feelings of inadequacy can spark a host of emotions and feelings. Trying to soothe a crying baby when you are sleep deprived yourself is a prime example of where this dilemma occurs…. Of course, some parents have a smooth transition into motherhood/parenthood and I am not suggesting that what I have presented above is always the case; but I have found it common in the course of my work, therefore felt it was important to comment on.
What’s missing in this story? For most people it’s not a long stretch mentally to recognise that changes in certain areas would likely translate into increased health and wellbeing. What really stands out to me is that while the ART field does offer much benefit to people wishing to have a child, and counselling is offered as part of the process, the reality is that no one is stopping and talking with people about how they are living their lives and whether or not this could be something that is impacting on fertility. Every step of the ART way is medicalised and women commonly see their bodies as failing them. This is supported by the ART industry, which places a priority on the biological aspect but doesn’t place equal emphasis on the environmental factors. What if these women are given the opportunity to consider that, at their core, neither they nor their bodies are failures? What would it mean for these women (and men) to experience being met and accepted for the precious and lovely beings they already are – which would be ‘a first’ for most people? Furthermore, that everyone has much to offer the world and every child in it, whether they are biological parents or not.
What complementary medicine offers is a genuine missing link in this story and I believe it would really support men and women everywhere who are contemplating having a child, whether through ART or not. It could be quite confronting to some women to be asked to consider how they are going in their everyday lives: what’s their sense of themselves as a woman? Do they feel vital or are they feeling constantly exhausted? What is their sense of themselves as women? What are their beliefs around motherhood and family? What is the quality of their sleep and diet? What if there was more happening here than just a ‘biological glitch’? Why is this not offered right at the beginning when women start down the infertility treatment pathways? In fact it would be wonderful if all women were taught this from birth, not just when problems arise with fertility. I know I have spent most of my life knowing that something was missing but struggling for answers.
Bringing this amazing gift of themselves to motherhood through a willingness to allow themselves to accept and acknowledge their true qualities is quite a big step for women to take. I can also see that the more I am learning to do this, the greater the wisdom I naturally bring to my work, where I can offer an alternative to what is portrayed as the way women ‘should’ do mothering. I can’t undo my own early years of parenting, but I know I have the power to support other mothers to know that there is a different way and that they do have unique talents and strengths that they bring to their parenting and which they won’t find written about in any books or internet sites etc. I know that it involves developing a high level of safety and trust in our work together for women to even contemplate such a change in their beliefs and attitudes towards motherhood and themselves. But what I also know beyond doubt is that the more I gently reflect this as my way of living, the more people are open to what is being offered to them.
In my own case, I have found that my parenting has changed enormously over the last few years. The difference now is that I understand parenting in a totally different way since attending presentations and having sessions with Universal Medicine practitioners. I’ve found the real ‘medicine’ of parenting extends way beyond the boundaries of being a biological parent to the ways I choose to live all of my life from the smallest to the largest detail. I’ve discovered that healthy parenting isn’t about trying to control my children by pushing them to live according to what and how I think they should live (which unsurprisingly hasn’t worked), to stepping back and seeing myself as a role model with the capacity to reflect a steadiness and solidness (although definitely still a work in progress) in how I live my life with care and responsibility. I’m becoming much quicker at catching myself when I notice the old default patterns of seeking recognition or identification. The result is that I find my children and I have an easier going, more open communication with each other and seem to enjoy each other’s company more.
These changes in my personal and professional life would not have been possible without the support received from Serge Benhayon, practitioners and fellow students at Universal Medicine. Learning to look at myself and my choices first has helped to take an enormous amount of pressure off myself. By learning to accept where I am and to trust that my path will keep unfolding as time goes by, I can feel that each step I take benefits not only me, but it also means I can bring more of me to this awesome area of work.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Births registered, Summary stastics for Australia (a). Births, Australia, 2013. Retrieved 21/09/2015, 2015, from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mf/3301.0
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2014). The Health of Mothers. In A. I. o. H. a. Welfare (Ed.), Australia’s health 2014 (Vol. 14). Canberra: AIHW.