MOTHERS BE HEARD: THE STORY
As I write this in 2015 it is the beginning of a new year and a new era. Technical issues made it difficult for mothersbeheard.com to continue as it was so this website (formerly the MBH Mobile Counselling Service, in August 2016 this service became Your Storyline) is taking it under its wing and giving you easy access to key content – namely the voices of women who have shared about their evolution as a mother. Below is a story about Mothers Be Heard’s own evolution.
It was July 2006. We had been emailing for just over ten years. Microsoft had just released it’s Xbox 360 games console in Australia. Myspace was the new cool and facebook had not even become a household name. Bloggers were becoming as common as joggers and the World Wide Web was gaining momentum at lightning speed while people still marvelled at how websites could now be interactive. YouTube had only just hit mainstream.
For new mothers cooped up at home with little ones it was a brave new world. MotherInc – Australia’s first online magazine – had only been operating for five years and parenting forums had emerged in Australia like The Bub Hub, Minti, Real Mums, and Essential Baby.
Women had parenting information at their fingertips and could shop, debate and connect at any time of the day or night – aka whenever bubs would allow for it – all in the comfort of their own home. No longer were conversations restricted to the playgroup personalities on offer.
It was a heady time to start a website of my own.
My eldest was just gearing up for his first year at school while his younger brother had started toddling around the house and learning to talk. I was fairly and squarely in motherland and after an attempt to combine parenting with paid work without backup support I’d called it quits on my career for a while.
But that didn’t mean that my brain had stopped or my desire to express the social work values that had become integral to who I am had vanished.
As I joined the throngs of new mums trying to find information and solace on this intoxicating thing called the internet I noticed something: advice was aplenty and so were mind numbingly boring posts about daily lives – the mundane stuff like what little Johnny was eating now or what new gizmo a mum had just bought. Opinions from the loud and proud also abounded. Basically if it wasn’t light and fluffy or you didn’t dig the wild and inflammatory then you’d might as well hop off.
Where was the opportunity for women to explore the internal terrain on life as a mother? How their life has changed? What’s important to them now? How they feel about themselves? What they’ve lost and what they’ve gained – without being subjected to the all too quick judgment of their peers – themselves trying to forge new identities and highly sensitive to how they’re fairing as a parent?
Who was consulting these women – especially career women - on a level that would allow them to better process the unexpected realities that they were facing? Who was helping them knit together again individual direction and meaning while they are a shadow of their former self?
My counselling sensibilities were alive with possibility. Where else could women share their honest impressions of new motherhood? Be taken seriously? Be given an opportunity to speak separately about being a woman and a mother? Be heard?
I had just emerged from a year of researching – stealing time away from family obligations to immerse myself in the delicious solitude of university libraries – into the experience of contemporary motherhood. Why? Why not?
The information was illuminating and disturbing. It resonated with my personal experience, yes, but more significant to me was that it spelt out what I had sensed around me: mothers today were living in uniquely constructed pressure cookers. Contradictory social expectations of feminist individuality and the perfect nurturer were bubbling together in a brew that often created much tension and guilt. And to top it all off, if you cracked under this strange fusion of social constructs then you were more than likely passed off as suffering from individual dysfunction and assigned the label ‘post natal depression.’ A label that most women would do almost anything to avoid.
I learnt that what psychologists, sociologists, scholars and social commentators around the globe were discovering was that there were some very good reasons why modern mums were experiencing distress and many of the reasons had little to do with individual anomalies of disadvantage or disposition.
Moreover these mums were hardly the minority – by definition diagnoses of mental health issues assume a level of abnormality – but they were the secret lives of the ‘normal’, the well functioning, the successful, the bright lip sticked mummy faces that would smile right back at you and tell you honestly how much they adore their baby.
These were the women I wanted to feel comfortable enough to write their experience down. These were the stories that were threatened to be silenced through shame or lack of opportunity. Stories of mixed emotions, confusion, the good the bad and the ugly. I wanted mothers to step aside from the mask of ‘good mother’ ideals. I wanted Mothers to Be Heard.
Stories by mothers, for mothers; and for the world. I wanted to challenge perceptions, especially in the medical community, that emotional distress for new mothers should be pathologized to the extent that it is. I wanted the ‘garden variety types’ to speak up. And they did…
So there, in a poky little study, on the 23rd of July 2006 mothersbeheard.com was quietly released into the stratosphere.
Did I make millions? Of course not. Hardly even earned enough through advertising to cover the yearly hosting fee. But I was never doing it to make money. It was enough for me to give women a platform to share their evolutionary experience of becoming a mum.
Below is a medly of what various women submitted in the Your Story section of my site:
“Before motherhood I was a work-a-holic… I was completely overwhelmed by absolutely everything ranging from the most awful sleep deprivation to my inability to just get on top of housework… It’s been a rollercoaster… I don’t think I expected life to be like this… I am physically and mentally exhausted… I feel so incredibly blessed… Myself as a mother was a new identity and one I struggled to come to terms with.”
In the early days there was a Discussion Board and also a section to catalogue a women’s Life BC (before children): “Enjoyed travelling, playing tennis, eating out, sleeping in, reading the paper, shopping, camping, socialising with friends.”
Support was given by way of a health directory; linking women to other sites for help on issues such as reflux.
In time a specialist page called ART Mums was also offered giving women who had gone through Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) or in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to share their unique stories:
“Now after coming as far as we have and wanting more children our worries have expanded to can we have more children, will we be lucky again, can we afford it, how long emotionally can we put ourselves through it. We have several embryo's frozen which we already consider our children - what happens to them, I can't destroy them????... Having my children has changed the direction of my life.”
This page also featured recent research by Dr Karin Hammarburg on the specific challenges of mothering in the context of assisted technologies.
Her study found that compared to other women, those who conceived using assisted reproductive technologies were:
· Three times more likely to be admitted to early parenting centres
· Less likely to be breastfeeding their babies at three months
· Less confident about their mothering skills
· More anxious about caring for a new baby
· Twice as likely to have a caesarean; and
· More likely to be disappointed with their birth experience
After a while I decided to end the interactive element on my site and venture out into the ‘real world’ by offering face to face workshops for mums. These Wellbeing Workshops for Mums were developed out of a pilot workshop in 2009 run at the Women’s Community Centre of Stepney, Adelaide. The women consulted were asked to reflect on the changes they’ve noticed most since becoming a mum. Here’s what they shared:
· More emotional
· Less focussed on the self
· More worry
· Not feeling productive or appreciated
· Constancy of domestic life
· Not being spontaneous and increased feelings of isolation
· Pressure to be a good wife, mother, look great, and have a clean home
· Feeling less supported by partner
· Feeling overwhelmed with workload
There were references that people could refer to – mainly gleaned from my year of research – and at one stage there was a blog (who didn’t have one?) and an eNewsletter. I also had a fascinating array of people contact me: from authors hoping to promote their books, to the media wanting interviews, and researchers or other professionals interested in the content.
of the references I added were a result of such
people sharing with me their work or information
they thought could be relevant. And two people inparticular have become dear friends
after contacting me: Anne-Marie Taplin author of
Being Mummy and the incredibly passionate Dr Joan
And two people inparticular have become dear friends after contacting me: Anne-Marie Taplin author of Being Mummy and the incredibly passionate Dr Joan Garvin.
I also received feedback that reinforced my belief that a service like this is worthwhile – a chance to share in a non competitive environment – and that emotional distress for mums probably was going under the radar. Here is another medley of voices:
“This is fantastic…The stories are so heart felt and I can relate to so many of the emotions expressed… In our culture being a mum does not seem to be valued, although all of us that are doing it know how difficult it is and the responsibilities that come with it and the value within it… Excellent idea, especially for ex-professional women who have sacrificed a BC Life for the ideal of a nurturing mother!... Congratulations on this website and the work that you are doing. It is really important work. I appreciate the fight for woman's rights in my mother's day, but somehow motherhood got devalued in the process… I think this website touches on some great issues; a lot of the stories I can relate to. I love that it gives mothers a voice… As a new IVF parent, I was really interested in the ART Mums section. The literature was fascinating. The whole IVF journey is more encompassing than I expected and it is reassuring to know that I'm not alone. Thank you for the much needed encouragement.”
In 2008 I changed the logo to better reflect the concepts of ‘whole person’ and ‘parenting as one facet’ which characterized the ethos of Mothers Be Heard (MBH). The new logo also represented a philosophy of intervention which I was becoming increasingly attracted to. The following is directed at mothers:
The larger circle bottom left in the MBH logo represents your identity as a woman: the whole ‘you’. The other smaller circles represent your identity as mother, daughter, partner, worker, neighbour etc. While being a parent is an important role, a lot of women find that it can eclipse most other parts of themselves. And many of the parenting or health services available seem to assume that your experience of motherhood is completely tied up in the relationship with your baby. Mothers Be Heard values all elements of a woman’s identity and experience without unnecessarily or unwittingly wrapping all wellbeing concerns up in relation to baby care or mother-baby interaction.
Finally, the larger circle can also represent you as an observer. My practice is strongly informed by Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) which suggests the self as an observer to create space between people and their problems. The observer part of you is not affected by life's ups and downs and is an ever present source of calm and stability. So in this way the larger circle can represent the 'observer self' and the other smaller circles could represent various other experiences that are happening in your life whether they be pleasant or unpleasant.
In 2009 I increased my paid work responsibilities which included work as a mental health clinician. Mothersbeheard.com became more just a library of resources and, later, a sign post for my private counselling service that related to the mbhwellbeing.com site (and, now, yourstoryline.com.au).
Developing and managing mothersbeheard.com for almost 10 years has sustained me and stretched me in ways I could not have foreseen when I launched a niche little site (just because I felt like it) in an ever expanding World Wide Web.
I will leave you with a pictorial overview of the home page over the years. Thanks to the amazing generosity of the site the Wayback Machine there are 44 snapshots of my site over the last eight years which can be navigated as if they were current today.