IN HONOR OF MATERNAL MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH THIS MAY, WE WILL BE FEATURING GUEST BLOGGERS AND INTERVIEWS, EACH OF WHOM BRING THEIR OWN UNIQUE EXPERTISE AND PERSPECTIVE TO THE DISCUSSION. IT IS MY HOPE TO HELP EDUCATE AND NORMALIZE THE EXPERIENCES OF ALL MOMS.
This was such a fun opportunity! In this interview, I chat with Elly Taylor, an incredible relationship counselor, researcher and author of the book, Becoming Us, which I recommend to clients all the time. Such an honor to have a conversation with her and to hear some of her wisdom. Check out our interview below.
CATHERINE: I'm Catherine O'Brien, Marriage and Family Therapist at www.HappyWithBaby.com and I'm so super excited to have Elly Taylor, who is a relation counselor, parenthood researcher, and author of a wonderful book I recommend all the time to new parents--new and expecting parents--called Becoming Us. She's agreed to spend some time with us today, so why don't you tell us a little about you, Elly, and your passion for helping new parents and moms.
ELLY: Oh yes, and lovely to see you and to be connected online. I'm thrilled to be doing this with you, Catherine! So, as you know, my background is in relationship counseling, but I've become a relationship counselor and a new mother pretty much at the same time. I was actually pregnant with our second child when I started counseling couples, and so I was really aware, I guess, of the changes that I experienced when I became a mom and the changes that my husband experienced when he became a father, and then the impact of those changes on us--our relationship. And, looking back, with all the preparation for parenthood that I'd done--and I'd done everything. I did prenatal yoga, I read everything I could get my hands on. My husband and I paid to do private (internodal?) classes, so we were as prepared as we could be, and I remember looking back and thinking, "what could someone do to prepare us for all this stuff," right? You know, you get the baby home and then it all kind of hits you all at once and there's just no preparation for all those changes, you know? Like life after is so different to life before, and so I was really aware of the struggles that I was having as a mother, that he was having as a father and that we were having as a couple--as partners. And at the same time noticing that most of the couples that I was seeing, as a counselor, were having the exact same issues. Like the exact same issues at pretty much the exact same time that we were having the issues. So I started tracking what was going on with all of us and that was the beginning of my research journey and the beginning of the book and everything that came from that.
CATHERINE: Yeah, we have definitely similar stories in that was--yeah, I was super prepared, and for some reason it never dawned on me--no one told me how it would rock our relationship so hard, you know? And that became my like, "Wow, I'm not the only one feeling this way" and I'm like watching everybody else and going, "this is hard for everybody," you know, on different levels and stuff. So, how do you encourage--I know sometimes I'll talk to parents, or like a mom--and she says her partner doesn't understand what she's experiencing--how do you encourage a mom or a partner to talk when they're struggling and having these difficult feelings or things aren't going the way they want them to?
ELLY: Yeah, well that's normal and pretty much everybody else is in the same boat. We know that something like 92% of parents have more differences in the first year after baby and Gottman's statistic of 67% have declined relationship satisfaction, so everybody's pretty much going through it to some degree or another, so firstly I tell them it's normal. (laughter)
CATHERINE: (laughter) Which is always good to know.
ELLY: With all our time--I mean, babies are gorgeous, but they suck all your time, all your energy, and all your focus, so of course it's not going on your partner or on yourself, so there's going to be consequences for that. We talk about the reasons for it--the reasons why it's happening, that everyone's going through it, that if they can share what's going on with their partner, it's often quite a big relief, I find, because, the partners--the dads--the men, often sense that something's not quite right or that something's changed, and that causes them anxiety and particularly if they think they're the cause of it or they can't work out why it's happening or how to "fix it"--not that it's a problem, but that's often what they think. It's often a real relief, I find, for dads, when their partners open up and trust them with that information and be a bit more vulnerable, maybe, than they would normally be. And that's what I experienced too. I tried so hard for so long to hold it all together and "to cope" that I actually was undermining my own ability to cope and I hid a lot of what was going on for me from my husband, but when I did share it, it was a relief for him to hear that I was struggling and I needed help, because he could do something about that.
CATHERINE: Right, I know, I think that's great. So is May "Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month" in Australia as well?
ELLY: I think it is, but I see so much from overseas that it is in May.
CATHERINE: Okay, so that was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you today. So what is one thing you wish that a mom who thinks that she might be struggling with a prenatal mood or anxiety disorder--what is it that you would tell her?
ELLY: I guess I'd tell her a couple of things--and let me answer this also from two different levels. I suffered from postnatal depression and postnatal anxiety after my first and second, so I've personally experienced it, but I've also worked in a professional capacity through it. So, it's very common, much more common than most people realize, so the first thing I would say is it's not abnormal and it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you, because I find our society doesn't do a great job of preparing and supporting new parents. We actually suck at it, I think.
CATHERINE: Which is amazing, right? Since we've been doing this for--ever.
ELLY: We have, but society's changed a lot just in the past couple of generations. Children used to be born into extended families that often lived in the same house or area and so people shared the tasks of raising children. These days, couples are often living in isolation and without any maternity leave, and have to go back to work way too soon for what's comfortable for them. And there's financial pressures, I think too, that our generation of parents are one of the first who are having to deal with modern-day parenting. So we've got really quite high rates of prenatal anxiety and depression. Depression, for example, it's at the moment, one in seven mothers, and one in ten dads. And we had some new research from Monash University in Melbourne that's 33% of mothers and 17% of fathers that are experiencing symptoms of postnatal anxiety--so that's one in three moms!
CATHERINE: Yeah, that's a lot!
ELLY: They are super stressed out. It's a lot, and I think it's because we don't do a good job of guiding and preparing parents for parenthood. So, it's not your fault. It's not your fault. And there is help out there, and there is support. And sometimes a diagnosis is the first step for somebody to receive that.
CATHERINE: No, I think that's good. I'll talk to moms and they'll--so much guilt and shame around feeling like "I'm a bad mom" or "this has happened to me because I don't have everything," and I'm like, it happens to anybody. It doesn't discriminate, unfortunately, and the sooner you get help, the sooner you can hopefully start feeling better.
ELLY: That's the good news, is that prenatal mood disorders, as you know, are very common, but they're also very treatable. So often it's just a matter of getting mom or dad the support that they need. Often it's the social factors that have contributed to the anxiety or the depression that we can do something about quite easily, you know. It doesn't always mean medication. It doesn't always mean that things are going to get worse. Often it's just identifying how you got to this place, and how we can help you through it.
CATHERINE: Yeah, I'm glad you said that. So I've been doing this series of mom interviews, and so I thought I'd take some of the questions from there, because I know you're a mom as well and your children are a little bit older, so I think it's always good to have some insight--especially for moms and new parents--that it does get easier or at least the challenges are different, right? How do you balance being a mom and working in your relationship roles?
ELLY: It does get easier as they get older, I have to say. It's great now, so hang in there, it does get easier. I work mostly from home now with my online educational stuff, so I try to work during school hours so that I'm present for them when they're home. My husband and I have two rescue greyhounds that we take for walks every day. Our kids are old enough to leave--leave the younger one in the care of the two older ones, so we go for a walk every day and we have a coffee date when we take our dogs for a walk.
CATHERINE: Oh, good.
ELLY: Yeah, it's really good having that time away from the kids to be able to talk, just us, really is great for us. We find that tension doesn't tend to build up between us like it used to, because we're walking regularly--we get that space, then we get to just enjoy hanging out with each other and not be parents for an hour a day.
CATHERINE: Yeah, my husband and I get that opportunity too--usually on a Saturday evening it works out. My mother-in-law comes over and we put the youngest one to bed and it's nice, so it's not like we're missing out with much time with them, yet we get to have that time where we talk and it--the connection--is so much better because of that. So I think that's really good.
ELLY: For parents with younger children, because my kids are older now, so it's easier for us, but when I'm working with parents of younger children, it only takes a moment to connect--it doesn't have to be a great deal of time. Date nights are often too hard to organize or you're often too tired, but it just takes a moment to actually stop what you're doing, turn to the person that you're with and say "how are you going?" You know, "how are you?" and hug and just that good quality connection really only takes a minute or less, but don't underestimate that.
CATHERINE: Right, yeah that moment to be present with each other I think--like you said, hugging and noticing that you're hugging them can be really good. Is there anything that surprised you about being a mom that you didn't realize that you would enjoy?
ELLY: Yeah, I love to go back to that time with my son, who was our first-born, and when I thought ahead about life with a baby, it was kind of in terms of the responsibilities that I would have and the tasks that I would do and it was kind of like in my head it was all about caring for a baby and of course there is a lot of that, but after he was born, it was just noticing his little gestures and his little face, and you know, he was a real person. It sounds weird, but it was like I realized that he was a real person and that when he started responding to me, there was a relationship growing and I hadn't thought about in terms of meeting somebody new and getting to know them and falling in love with them. Yeah, that was really nice. That time was really special.
CATHERINE: Yeah, I can picture those moments--and I think I hear that a lot from dads, like when they tell me that when their baby first starts to smile at them, they feel like, they recognize or give them a reaction that's not just--like they really start feeling that bond and connection. So I think that's lovely. So I don't want to take a lot of your time, but what is one piece of advice--I know you have lots of good advice--but if there's one thing that you would hope a mom or parents could walk away from today or to do or to be helpful--what would that be? "Buy your book."That's what I would say.
ELLY: Yeah, thank you. There's a lot of advice in there and it's the only book I know of that really addresses some aspects of the transition into parenthood that aren't getting a lot of attention. More the shadowy stuff that really needs to be addressed, because it can make a big difference. And because we're talking about mental health, because it's Prenatal Mental Health Awareness Month, so let me put my advice in that context. So, I mentioned that I experienced postnatal depression and anxiety and for me, it felt like I lost myself. I felt that in becoming a mother, I kind of sacrificed who I was before I became a mother, because I left full-time employment and left that life behind. And I was quite isolated where I was living, because it was a long way from the city where I'd worked, etcetera, etcetera. So I found that a lot of the struggles that I've had becoming a mother were really related to me becoming disconnected from my previous life and from my previous self, and that then impacted me in a way that I became disconnected from my husband. So if I could give mothers one piece of advice, it would be: find ways to be connected to who you are. What are those things for you? If you're creative, through your creativity; if you're intellectual, through reading; if social, through keeping friendships that are important to you; or in lots of different other ways. And make it a priority to reconnect after a period of time if you disconnect, because of whatever reason. That's the first piece. And then the second piece is stay connected to your partner. I learned the hard way that he was kind of like an anchor to me and that my relationship with him was a really solid foundation that became very, very shaky, because we weren't prepared for the changes of parenthood and that we could rebuild and have done so in a really strong way. You know, we're better now than we were before--which is another thing that I think is important for women to know if they're struggling with (paranatal?) depression or anxiety, is that get the help for your relationship, because you can end up a better relationship because of it. That certainly happened for us.
CATHERINE: Yeah, that's so good. Well, is there anything else you'd like to share today before we finish this?
ELLY: I think that's about it. I love to work with parents. I love to work with professionals. You know, my passion is teaching parents and professionals about the stages of the transition to parenthood, which is what Becoming Us is all about--that's what my research has been into: the different stages that mothers, fathers, and couples go through as they transition from being partners to being a parenting partnership. So they can find me at (www.ellyterr.com?) and yeah, let's continue the conversation.
CATHERINE: Well, thank you so much for your time today. I so appreciate everything you're doing for parents out there. I think it's really, really powerful and it's so much needed out there, so thank you so much!
ELLY: My pleasure, Catherine. It was great to see your lovely face!
Elly Taylor is an Australian Relationship Counsellor, Parenthood Researcher and author of the book Becoming Us. After experiencing life and relationship changes when she became a mother, Elly wondered why, with all her parenthood prep, she and her husband hadn’t been taught about all that stuff . She was on a mission. Over 15 years Elly developed her Becoming Us model of the transition into parenthood which supports mothers’ and fathers’ mental, emotional and relationship wellbeing. Elly is now an International Speaker, Columnist for Practical Parenting magazine and Resident Relationship Expert for Daily Life website. She lives in a beach house in Sydney with her still-cute-after-all-these-years firefighter husband, their three children and a bunch of pets.