My son asked me a really tough question last week; “When the baby comes will you be sad, I mean, ill again?”
First, the little self-correction between sad and ill made me feel so proud of him as it shows how much he has already learnt about mental health.
Second, I had a brief, panicky moment when I had absolutely no idea how to answer.
I’ve always been honest with my son, from the moment he could understand, about what I experienced when he was born. Frankly, this blog means I have to be, as it won’t be long before he can read all about my struggles himself. But also I believe it’s incredibly important to be honest and open with our children about mental health from a really young age. Mental health issues among children themselves are now a huge problem so education has to be the first step in facing this.
He is very aware that after he was born I was ‘poorly in my head’ for a long time. I’ve explained that I felt sad and scared all the time. We’ve discussed how there are two parts of our brains and sometimes the frightened part can take over and make us feel truly awful. I found this to be the easiest way to explain clinical Anxiety to him and he gets it.
I always planned to be honest with him but I must admit the conversations I’ve had in more recent years were made easier for me as I didn’t believe we’d ever have another baby.
Last week is the first time he seems to have put two and two together and considered the idea that Mummy might not be quite herself when his baby sister arrives. It breaks my heart that he even has to think about this but, in reality, he does. Just as I do. It could easily happen and I don’t want him to be blindsided.
The question gave me a lot to consider and I wanted to share some thoughts with you, as if you have a slightly older child too it may be something you also need to face during a subsequent pregnancy.
1. Be positive
The first thing I told him was that there was a good chance I wouldn’t be poorly this time. I don’t think this is entirely unrealistic as I do have a lot of tools in my arsenal now with which to defeat Anxiety symptoms.
I also explained that if I was unwell again there was a good chance it wouldn’t be as bad as before, for the same reasons.
In my mind, there’s a big difference between being honest with a child and being negative. Although I’m up front with my son about everything he questions about our world, I also try to put a positive spin on the issues. It’s important we do this as adults, as well as children.
2. Extra support
I’ve highlighted to my son all the awesome support we are lucky enough to have. He knows that should Mummy be feeling particularly unwell we have incredible family and friends who will step in to help; both practically and emotionally. And that he can speak to any one of them about how he feels.
3. No blame
The most important point I always try to make to him during our discussions about my ‘poorly head’ is that it was NEVER his fault. And that it wasn’t my fault either. It’s just something that happens to some people; to lots of people. I compare it to a common cold – it’s nobody fault if you have one, it just happens.
4. How he can help
I figure this is as good an opportunity as any to explain how he can help me should I not be feeling good. I remind him of all the things he does that make Mummy feel happy – cuddles, kisses, funny songs & dances etc. I tell him that sometimes I might need some quiet, relaxing time.
I hope that by explaining these things I’m firstly, developing his sense of empathy and secondly, helping him to feel more empowered, as when someone close to us is suffering we always feel better when there’s something we can do to help.
I feel confident in telling him that, no matter how Mummy is feeling, we’ll keep our routine the same wherever possible. Kids thrive on routine and it’s also a huge part of recovery for me so establishing and keeping to a good daily and weekly routine is definitely something I plan to do. I hope this will make us both feel safe and comforted.
6. Encourage questions
Lastly, I’ve told him he should ask me questions whenever he wants. I want us to maintain a totally open dialogue with each other about this topic and I hate the idea of him feeling nervous to ask me something for fear of upsetting me. I explained that no matter how Mummy seems it’s always okay to talk to me, and that I’ll always tell him the truth.
Much as his question caught me off guard I’m now very grateful he asked. I hope so desperately for a more positive postnatal experience this time around. Or if I’m unable to have that, I at least pray for the strength and courage to maintain the brilliant, upfront relationship I currently have with my son, no matter what.
NB: Images courtesy of Willow & Rose Photography.