First birthdays, part 3

Emily, Guin, and Becca

As the third and last in our series of posts about our first birthday, I asked Guin Webster and Becca Knowles-Bevis, two of our founders, to write a post for the blog about their involvement with The Motherkind Café. Guin and Becca are both clinical psychologists who have vast experience of working with mothers and their knowledge, skills, and commitment were indispensable in setting up the café. Although they are no longer able to be co-ordinators and are much missed, they continue to support us as mothers and mentors to our peer supporters and the fruits of their work live on in everything we do now. Here’s what they had to say about their recollections about their experiences of motherhood and the beginnings of the café…

Wouldn’t it be great if there was somewhere for new mothers to feel completely comfortable telling it exactly like it is?

Guin writes ­– I know stigma about maternal mental health exists because when my health visitor asked how I was doing, I lied and said I was fine. By that point I’d spent the previous five years at work persuading people there was no shame in talking to a psychologist (me) about any difficulties with coping. But I still wasn’t sure it was ok to not be ok myself. I knew it was irrational but I worried if I admitted I was struggling I’d be seen as an unfit mother and my baby might be taken away.

I thought something might not be right when about four weeks in one of my daughter’s nurses asked me “Are you enjoying her?” and I couldn’t work out what she meant. Was I supposed to be enjoying this? I’d had a rocky start to motherhood with an emergency caesarean, a baby who needed a stint of IV antiviral treatment in hospital, and five arduous weeks of excruciating pain getting breastfeeding to work. It’s no surprise I was finding it tough. I was lucky to have supportive family and friends, and also lucky that things were getting better and not worse. Gradually my baby and I eased into the new normal and I started to find places to go and people to see. But it was still hard to tell anyone how I was really feeling – after all, everyone else seemed to be getting on fine, and it was hard to find the right moment to say I wasn’t always, especially because I hoped that if I kept going eventually I would be ok too. Lucky for me I was right about that – when my daughter reached six months old, I was feeling more like myself again and I knew exactly what it meant to enjoy my baby. By the time I had my younger children, I’d learned how to talk about the things that were hard and had found the skilled support I needed – what a difference it made. I wonder how much less isolated and lonely I would have felt in those first months of motherhood if I’d found somewhere to be honest about what was really going on inside my head.

Becca writes – Like Guin, I’ve spent my whole professional life encouraging openness about psychological health, fighting stigma and normalising the need for support. Yet when my son was born and I found myself completely overwhelmed, I felt unable to tell anyone (other than my poor husband) how bad I felt. I cried and raged so much that people must have known something wasn’t right, and yet there didn’t seem to be a space where it felt safe for me to talk about it. I recall one person at a breastfeeding support session I’d gone to scolding me, as tears poured from my face onto my son’s as I struggled to feed him through the excruciating pain of my bleeding nipples, to “at least pretend to smile so your baby doesn’t see how sad you are,” and that cemented my sense that I really was failing. Failing my baby. I never did seek professional help, and over time we started to find a rhythm we could dance to, my son and I. It was a lonely rhythm at first, and it wasn’t until I found a small tribe of women, kindreds with whom I could be myself, that I started to feel alright again. Alright in myself and alright about myself. Alright enough to do it all over again a second time. And that time around, I was much less ready to hide myself away and much more confident that being with people – really being WITH people – was what I needed to do to grow into motherhood.

That’s why when Emily Malden contacted us in May 2018 with an idea about a group for new mothers who were finding things tough, we knew we wanted to help.

At the time, we’d both been specialising in support for women making the transition to motherhood for many years. We knew so many women struggled with this big life role adjustment, and how many of them struggled to express these difficulties and to find the support they needed. We also knew that formal mental health services have strict criteria about who they can help and that many new mothers who are finding things tough don’t fit these categories or don’t identify with what is on offer there. And we knew that it’s not always easy to create a place where new mothers can talk about their true feelings and needs. It won’t always just happen on its own if you get a group of mums together (the “supermum” myth is pretty powerful….). We were sure there was room for a space between a mother and baby group and a mental health service, but a great deal of thought and care was going to be needed to make things feel safe enough to tell it exactly like it is.

It felt important for us that the space we were creating was open and welcoming, without eligibility criteria or referral pathways, that it was really easy to get to and really nice to be in once you’d arrived, and that it nurtured a connected community of women, building strength through reducing isolation. We were completely blown away by the generosity and courage of all the women who came forward to volunteer at the café, and by how many people believed in what we were doing and wanted to be part of it. That we have come this far through volunteer power and goodwill alone is incredible! Getting to know each of the brilliant women who have given of themselves to support another mother has been a highlight of the whole experience.

It’s been an honour, as well as a joy, to nurture The Motherkind Café from conception onwards, through a sometimes tricky pregnancy as we tried to work out the best way to deliver this project, culminating in the exciting moment of birth at our first café session in January 2019. In its first year, together we provided 51 hours of pro bono facilitation in the form of both peer supporter training and supervision and circle discussion sessions at the café. In addition, between us we attended 41 sessions as peer volunteers, undertook half a day’s top-up safeguarding training, and spent many, many more hours deep in discussion and paperwork in order to set the café up and fine-tune its systems, as well as thinking through and responding to each concern and query as it arose. The time involved in this was a huge challenge! Not a completely unanticipated one, but at times it felt very difficult to keep this going alongside increasing demands from our regular jobs and our families.

Although it felt as though our experiences and skills as clinical psychologists had been really helpful in thinking about how to set up and run The Motherkind Café safely (such as how to attend to issues relating to confidentiality, record keeping, safeguarding, volunteer wellbeing, and managing communication and boundaries with other services, for example) and we had put a huge amount of time and energy into thinking these things through and creating robust systems and processes, there came a point where we began to wonder whether our direct involvement as HCPC registered clinicians was adding a layer of complexity to the group that was more of a hindrance than a help. For each of us, trying to straddle the line between the clinical and the non-clinical had become increasingly difficult. After a long period of reflection and many conversations in our own supervision spaces, we reached the conclusion separately and together that The Motherkind Café really belongs in the hands of non-professionals: of the women, the mothers, whose qualifications are their experience and whose tools are themselves.

Just as a mother and baby are held securely within a wider network of family, village, and society, in mothering The Motherkind Café we too have been held by an amazing and generous network of local services and practitioners who care deeply about perinatal wellbeing. In particular, we thank Sara Keppie at Oxfordshire Mind for her enthusiasm and support with early conversations about the idea. Jayne Joyce and Emily Tammam at Oxfordshire Breastfeeding Support were instrumental in helping to get the project off the ground with ideas and practical support in abundance. We are grateful to Dr Sonia Bues, clinical psychologist, for providing us with pro bono supervision and much-needed thinking time around our roles at The Motherkind Café. And of course, we are indebted to each of the individuals and services who have contributed to our first year, by coming along to open sessions, by referring mothers to us, or by offering up their skills in a themed session.

The Motherkind Café is well established, our baby peer supporters are fully-fledged and taking flight as new co-ordinators, and we are now ready gently to step back take up the mantle of grandmothers. We hope to continue nurturing The Motherkind Café by providing regular support and nourishment sessions for the volunteers. And to be there when needed with a big hug and a strong cup of tea.

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