This article was first published online at The Croydon Citizen on May 8th 2018.
Sisters are naming it for themselves – Croydon Cycle Theatre looks at the reality of birth and new motherhood
We always live in modern times. When my babies were born in 2001 and 2003, the world was packed with awesome inventions and bristled with cutting-edge tech. Transformed by fresh insights, we scorned the hidebound ways of the past.
Except that my phone was a Nokia. My internet was dial-up. Croydon was growing shabbier by the week. Attitudes to women were still – all too often – patriarchy 101. Viewed from 2018, the early noughties were dusty and long-ago days, not modern at all. That’s a truly shocking realisation.
In the almost-two decades since then, women have thrown off their shame. From the furious yell of #MeToo to the arrival of period-proof underwear, the lives of half of the human race have emerged from the shadows. Menstruation, childbirth, menopause, sexual harassment, FGM and the control of reproduction are now discussed frankly by those who experience them. As part of this new openness, we have the second National Maternal Mental Health Week.
It’s needed because one in ten women will develop a mental illness during pregnancy or within one year of having a baby. Suicide is a leading cause of death during this time. Seven out of ten of those affected will hide or minimise the severity of their condition. It’s time that we talked about this, and this Croydon Cycle Theatre event at Matthews Yard was part of a new national awareness campaign.
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes one to support a mother. The Village was attended by Mayor of Croydon, Toni Letts, who spoke movingly of the experience – unnamed at the time – of maternal depression in her own family. This was a space in which experts and performers got up and told it like it is: what birth is like, how new motherhood feels, how important it is to acknowledge the magnitude of such experiences. It’s normal to struggle with adjustments as vast as these, and vital to know where help can be found and to be comfortable asking for it.
Every performer brought something new and valuable. Comedian Hatty Ashdown is a sharp ‘everywoman’, whose off-the-cuff lines are as good as her script. Poet Lucy Zion gave an unflinching rendition of what it’s like to give a man whom you love post-birth sex that you’re totally unready for. But the act of the night was by Sakina Ballard and Gemma-Louise Rose, actors and birth facilitators, who performed a simple, raw, speaking piece. One woman voiced the familiar new maternal script, skimming the mess and trauma and pain. Just a beat behind came her echo. It used different words and named her reality.
The mother of the family must be supportive and understanding. “It’s so hard for my husband, having to go back to the office when he’s short of sleep”, she says. Then comes the truth. “I hate Steve. He gets to walk out of here and carry on with his normal life. There’s no normal for me any more. I’m trapped.” Oh my god – yes. That line touched a nerve with every woman in the room. The command to be filled with new-baby joy is absolute. At the time, you’re far more likely to be reeling.
Banish the ‘baby blues’ and call out reality: PTSD, upheaval and trauma
Then came a panel, chaired by Angela Scarlett-Newcomen. Taking part were Lucy Zion, author and journalist Ros Ball, Ballard, author and Pilates teacher Anya Hayes, Croydonist blogger and musician Angela Martin, Dr Rebecca Moore, a perinatal psychologist, and midwife Rose Syrett from Croydon University Hospital. They offered a wealth of personal experience and professional knowledge, banishing that most patronising term, ‘baby blues’, and instead calling out maternal PTSD and the upheaval that birth brings to our minds and bodies. Dr Moore, with twenty years’ experience in her field, was a particularly valuable presence.
The funny, serious and exploratory parts of the evening were wonderfully anchored by Amy Foster of Cycle Theatre. Two-and-a-half hours, as Scarlett-Newcomen said, only scratched the surface of this vast subject.
We are the ones who give birth, and we are its narrative
I do have a new concern, which is this. In claiming our power, we sometimes lose sight of the randoms in birth. I have friends who speak highly of drug-free deliveries in their living rooms, and other friends who tried just as hard and prepared just as well, but ended up in emergency ambulances feeling crushed by failure. The impact on mental health of starting like this is dreadful, and I heard that sad voice of regret in The Village, too: “Of course, I did have to have some intervention…”; “In the end, there were a few baby problems…”.
So we need to be careful with birth preparation. This isn’t a thing that we do wrong or right, or better than anyone else. Everyone hopes that their baby’s arrival will go calmly and well, but in the delivery room we meet factors that no-one controls. To acknowledge this supports maternal mental health, too.
Speaking of skimming the mess and pain, there were fans of Kate Middleton’s post-birth super-makeover, and others who felt that primping her for the cameras denies her reality and ours. Since we’re the ones who give birth, we are also its narrative. The Village is part of a conversation. We can disagree. The room was full of energy and engagement.
You go, young sisters and mothers. Your expressive, confident world is so much better than the dumb sexism we tolerated. Then, one day, move over; change will come and you’ll be old-fashioned too.