Parenting with Social Anxiety

social anxiety and parenting 2

Confession time. This is a scary blog to put out there. I’ve dithered posting it and re-drafted it a million times because it is so personal. But here goes. I struggle with social anxiety. Some close friends and family already know this about me. Some people might be surprised I guess. It is something I have lived with to varying degrees since I was a child. Over the years I have developed coping strategies, and mostly, I get by. I can usually play the part of a functional adult. However, still, on very bad days the idea of the smallest interaction with someone else can make me feel pretty stressed.

My anxiety was probably worst during my pre-teen years and adolescence. At its peak, during my first year at secondary school, I barely talked to another person, aside from my teachers, or family. Not an exaggeration. It was a really unhappy time for me. I am amazed now, that not a single teacher spoke to my parents about it. This was during the ’90s. I hope social anxiety is more recognised now, that young people get more support than I did.

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety isn’t simply shyness. It’s intense fear that can affect everyday life. Lots of people feel uneasy in social situations. However, for someone with social anxiety, those feelings can be very difficult to manage.

According to the NHS, you may have social anxiety if you:

  • dread everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping
  • avoid or worry a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company, and parties
  • always worry about doing something you think is embarrassing
  • find it difficult to do things when others are watching – you may feel like you’re being watched and judged all the time
  • fear criticism, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
  • often have symptoms such as feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
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Personally, my anxiety manifests in a few ways. Much of the above is very familiar to me. For example, in a conversation with another person, I am often half listening, wondering how I am coming across to the other person. What are they thinking? Do they like me? What should I say next? Did they just give me a funny look? Am I boring them!? This distraction isn’t a lot of fun for the other person either to be fair. On bad days this internal narrative is so overwhelming my mind goes blank, and I cannot think of a thing to say. Sometimes, I respond almost defensively to the most innocuous of questions. A simple, “How are things with you guys?” can send me into a panic. I desperately try to think of something interesting to say, and fail, awkwardly shrugging “Oh well, you know, nothing really”. Then I spend the rest of the day (even days) berating myself.

I apologise to all my friends who have endured these painful interactions with me. Thank you for seeing past it all and being kind. In truth, I am luckier than some. I have a loving husband and family, I have had help, my anxiety is always there, but mostly under control. I can go to a party where I don’t know people well. I have some good friends. Held down a career in freelance design. I do volunteer work that I love. You see, I do actually want to be around people. People think socially anxious people don’t want to socialise, and that’s just not true, at least not for me. It is just we also find it incredibly difficult.

Parties or gatherings of large people can be most difficult for me to navigate. I  make sure these days, that I don’t allow my anxiety to control whether or not I go. I used to just turn down invitations to parties. I still get that white-hot fear though, when I walk into a room full of people even if I know most of them. How I feel the event went can have a profound impact on my mood. If I think I managed to navigate it with more ease than usual, I am happy. If I have an awkward moment, not only am I anxious about how that must have looked, but it descends into this horrible feeling of shame and embarrassment about who I am as a person later. The self-loathing sometimes lasts for days. Regardless of how the event went, I am often exhausted afterwards.

At 35, when I had my baby, I was thrown into a new world. I suddenly had to have adult conversations in a room full of parents I didn’t know, a situation which scares the pants off me. I didn’t do many classes and groups. I often found myself making an excuse to avoid them. “Those classes more stress than they are worth” (true, but not entirely the truth). I went to one baby group where not one person spoke to or made eye contact with me. It was such a triggering experience, I didn’t ever try another local village group. Despite tons of breastfeeding issues, I think my daughter was months old before I managed to get to a breastfeeding support group without a friend. The kindness of peer supporters and mothers there made that group my lifeline really. Thank goodness for boob group, NCT friends and Facebook because I think these things actually saved me from acute loneliness in the early days of motherhood.

People sometimes don’t believe me when I say I now do volunteer work yet am socially anxious. Especially when I say I also do telephone support and they are familiar with me dithering around, taking a week to call a plumber! However, my support work is so much easier to navigate than a baby group. It is like putting on a costume. I have conversational tools from my training to support women. There are some questions you always have to ask, some issues which are so very common, these things form a kind of familiar script, so I always have something to say. Silences are encouraged so it gives me time to think. I am often asked about specific issues and have a bank of knowledge I can draw from to move the conversation forward. Crucially, I am not focusing on myself, but on someone else. I can largely forget about what people are thinking about me. I don’t have to worry about making the mums I support my friends. In fact, it is actively discouraged. The tools I have gained in training have been immensely helpful to me in ‘real life’ social situations, however, and it has really built my confidence.

As my daughter gets older I now find myself often scrutinising her interactions with other children. My biggest fear is that she ends up like me. The maddening thing is, I know the more anxious I am around people in front of her, the more likely this is. This encourages me to navigate situations I would have previously avoided. My daughter drives me on to be my best self. While she is a little shy as a child and often overwhelmed in busy situations, I have seen how well she interacts with other children at nursery or smaller groups. I try to reassure myself she’s doing fine, and no different to many of her peers. Next year she starts school. I cannot articulate how worried I feel for her. I desperately hope she does ok, that she makes friends and has a “normal” experience.

If you are a parent with social anxiety but you push yourself into situations which make you anxious try to remember this: it takes guts. Finding the courage to go to that group is amazing. Even if you don’t speak to anyone, feel proud. You were brave. Being a parent with social anxiety can be hard. You may lose the “crutches” or coping strategies you had developed pre-children. On top of this, as parents, we may be dealing with a loss of our professional identity and other parts of ourselves. You are navigating a new beginning. Like many new starts, if you lack confidence, it can be even more stressful. So give yourself credit where it is due.

I still remember the girl who finally befriended me at school during my worst period of social anxiety. I don’t think she knows what she did but she made a lifelong impression with her kindness. My appeal to everyone is, please say hello to that quiet mum in the corner of the playgroup if you can. Make eye contact, smile, reach out, be kind. Sometimes, someone is standoffish because they are anxious. Please be forgiving. Engage that scared looking person in a conversation. It might not be the start of a beautiful friendship, but you might be the person who helps them get through the day smiling or encourages them to come to the group again. They may actually make a friend or two eventually. Small gestures count. Make them a cuppa. You never know the difference your kindness might make to someone.

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Social anxiety support:

If you can relate to the issues raised in this blog, first and foremost, seeing your GP might be helpful. You may also have local counselling services you can self-refer to. CBT is considered one of the most effective interventions for social anxiety.

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The 12 Days of Boobin’! Christmas Tips for Breastfeeding Mums

Enjoying the holidays, and breastfeeding your baby are not mutually exclusive

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Soon many of us will be spending time with friends and family, and while we may look forward to the holiday, some may find the idea of breastfeeding over the Christmas break brings up a few anxieties.

First of all, in my view, there is one brilliant advantage to breastfeeding over the Christmas period, You have the perfect excuse to slip away and get some quiet time (hopefully with a box of choccies to keep you company) because “baby feeds better without distractions”. Another bonus- you also have the perfect excuse for turning down events you don’t really want to go to. Maybe that’s just me. I am happiest in PJs with a glass of wine.

Other people may prefer to drink their wine wearing their party gear, and worry that this breastfeeding malarkey means they are going to miss out on all the fun.

I know often concerns revolve around family members, particularly breastfeeding in front of them. Some people worry that Auntie Lynda will go on (and on) about how she thinks the baby should be on bottles/formula/Christmas dinner and all the trimmings by now.

christmas breastfeeding meme

So here are a few of my thoughts on how to make life easier as a breastfeeding mum over the Christmas holidays.

Baby Wearing

Worried about baby being passed around like the tin of Roses, during peak cold and flu season? Wear your baby! You will be surprised how much less well-meaning relatives will demand a cuddle when they see a baby all cosy in a sling.

Wearing Your Baby has the added advantage of keeping them close, which leads me onto my next point…

Expect Baby to Change Their Feeding Habits

Often over holiday periods, things are busier and babies are more stimulated. It is easy to miss feeding cues, or breastfeeds. During long journeys, a baby might sleep more than usual. Lights and music and new people often mean distracted babies that don’t feed as well or cue for a feed less. Quite often babies are being passed around for cuddles. Sometimes Uncle Gary might decide he can soothe the crying baby himself rather than passing them back to Mum. Sometimes mum is distracted entertaining friends and family or making food.

Building in times during the day to breastfeed might be a helpful way to combat this, or alternatively see above; Wear baby more so they stay close! If you are undertaking long journeys build in some rest breaks to allow time for boobin’.

Alternatively, baby might be out of sorts, cranky, overstimulated and want boob ALL THE TIME, also normal! In fact, in these situations, nursing can be a godsend. It is often much easier to calm a baby with a breastfeed.

Nursing also gives you an excuse to get out of peeling the sprouts or doing the cooking. I may or may not have personally used this as an excuse to sit on my bum eating Christmas cake (“It’s for the baby!”).

Make time to express if you are apart from your baby

If you are away to a party, or out for the day Christmas shopping you may want to build in some time to express. This is more important the younger your baby is. Not removing milk from your breasts may lead to engorgement and blocked ducts, and eventually lowered milk supply.

If you do find you develop some blocked ducts or engorgement, following self-care is important, this is great information from the Breastfeeding Network.

If your baby is having bottles while apart from you, making sure responsive feeding methods are used can be helpful. Click the link for a video demo.

Alcohol and breastfeeding

Most sources suggest a moderate intake of alcohol while breastfeeding is fine. You can still have a glass of wine or two and breastfeed. However -and this would be true however you feed- as a parent you need to be careful you are still fit to care for a small child. Bedsharing after drinking alcohol is also a no-no. If you fancy a blowout, expressing some milk in advance might be helpful, as well as enlisting a babysitter.

Some useful links:

Pass the stuffing, please!

Christmas is often a time when the food police come out to tell you that you can’t eat your veggies because “baby might get windy” or that you need to avoid the stuffing or after-dinner mints because the sage or peppermint might “lower your milk supply”.

The good news is, there is no evidence-based research showing foods themselves will make your baby gassy (unless they already have a known allergy or intolerance to a certain food), and you would need to be eating absolutely VAST quantities of stuffing/mint for there to be any effect on your milk supply, so tuck in, and don’t worry.

In case you overdo things, many indigestion remedies are safe to take while breastfeeding. All on the link there. You’re welcome.

Don’t feed the baby!

baby food christmas breastfeeding

I’m not talking about breastfeeding here of course! However, older babies that have solids may be filled up with Christmas ‘treats’. It can be helpful to put aside some time for boobin’ toddlers too unless you are planning on weaning.

Sometimes, you may need to watch out for relatives trying to feed younger babies solids. Remember, some relatives may be from a generation where babies were given solids much younger than they are now, and may have no idea this isn’t OK. If you suspect this might happen, it might be helpful to be upfront; for example saying something along the lines of “It is important to me that the baby is closer to six months before giving them food, the research now suggests this is best for babies, and this is also what our health visitors have recommended”.

You may even want to think about ‘recruiting’ any prime suspect onside, have them “watch out for anyone who might give baby solids accidentally”. It is amazing how well giving people some trust and responsibility can work in your favour.

If well-meaning relatives are convinced giving baby Christmas dinner is the key to a full nights sleep- show them this!

Dealing with criticism

Make sure people know that you are proud of your breastfeeding relationship and that you see it as a good thing. If your relatives don’t see this as a chore they can relieve you of, you might find their attitude changes.

If you feel your choice to breastfeed is questioned, or that those surrounding you aren’t supportive, the “pass the bean dip” approach can be useful: https://twolittlegrasshoppers.com/tag/the-bean-dip-method/

If you have an older nursling, and you are worried about people questioning why you are “still breastfeeding”, Kellymom has some useful suggestions here too: https://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/criticism/

Family members are generally well-meaning. They may be basing their ideas on outdated things they have been told. They might be open to learning about how recommendations have changed if you approach the subject gently.

Remember, you are the advocate for your baby/toddler/child. They cannot stand up for what they want. Give yourself permission to be unashamed. You do not have to answer to anyone else about your feeding relationship. Your boobs, your baby, your choice.

christmas babies

Choose clothing that provides easy boob access

Worried about feeding in front of family members? Consider practicing in front of a mirror, seeing how little is exposed might reassure you a little, especially if you use the “one up, one down” technique.

If you don’t feel comfortable getting your boobs out in front of family (maybe you have an inappropriate drunken uncle or two), the muslin trick is an inexpensive tip. Using a large muslin, tie one corner to the strap of your bra, and use the loose cloth to cover up any exposed areas. Or employ your partner on distraction duty to get uncle Roy into the kitchen for another sherry if that’s what makes you feel happier. Or, if like me you like a bit of a breather, use it as an excuse to get a bit of peace and quiet. When it comes to feeding, it is about what makes you feel more comfortable first and foremost.

If you need a party outfit or even some new fashion ideas for breastfeeding friendly clothing, why not join Can I Breastfeed In It? They are a UK facebook group, which have fantastic tips and ideas for feeding fashion (and they even have a selling page so you can grab yourself a bargain too).

christmas with a baby

So there you have it, some helpful tips for enjoying Christmas while continuing to breastfeed. Is there anything you think I have missed? What are your tips for breastfeeding over the holidays?

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What Nobody Told Me About Becoming a Parent

Are the images we see of parenthood realistic?

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Screenshot from Pexels for “Motherhood” taken Nov 18

Back in 2014, I remember it quite clearly, I was sitting in an antenatal class with other expecting parents, who later went on to become good friends. We have often talked about those classes, but one memory which stands above the rest for me is one of the exercises, where we planned “24 hours with our new baby”. I remember filling in hourly slots on the flip chart with stuff like “going to the coffee-shop with the baby” and occasionally saying things like, “Ooh, it has been four hours, so we probably should be feeding the baby now too?” or “Perhaps baby will need their nappy changed now?” It always makes me chuckle when I remember it. I honestly don’t remember if the antenatal teacher tried to question this chilled out picture of the day we painted. I do wonder now how much she was laughing internally at our naivety. The perception some of us had, after babies, was this: the realities of parenting were a well-kept secret, and not to be discussed, at least not until after you have the baby.

Culturally we are all influenced by the image of “happy motherhood”. The commonly sold narrative is that all parents will naturally transition to life with a baby with ease, and will innately understand all aspects of parenting, especially if we buy the right “stuff”. In reality, we are social creatures, and what we learn about parenting, comes from what we absorb, from our wider lives, childhood, and culture. Many of us simply are not around babies and children much, except as children ourselves. We may have had a sibling, but chances are we do not really remember them being babies. We often grow up in small nuclear families, rather than extended families or small communities. We might see a lot of babies on the screen, but many UK parents have rarely held a baby before the day comes when they hold their own.

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Screenshot from Google Search “Motherhood” taken Nov-18

The societal norm of not really talking about how parenting can be unless you are talking to another parent, of not admitting to our real feelings, of not discussing widely how normal it is to find it difficult, perpetuates the “big secret” about what it is really like. Search an image site, or google for the term “motherhood” and what you will find is similar to the photo above; a gallery of soft focus images of babies being cuddled, smiling mothers and heartwarming memes talking about how amazing mothers are. And we are amazing, but that doesn’t mean we feel like we are. Yet we are constantly bombarded with this stuff. “Enjoy every minute, it goes so fast!” the memes cry, or they say things like; “Motherhood is messy, and crazy, and challenging, and sleepless, and giving and still unbelievably beautiful“. And just sometimes, seeing this stuff can make you want to scream; “I don’t feel the bloody beauty! I am tired, I am fed up, I want to shower without interruption, I want to pee by myself, I want a full nights sleep and I want my old life back, just for a day”. It can be especially hard to be a new parent in a world where we can be bombarded with “insta-ready” images of parenting. We see smiling parents in adverts for “stuff”. We see lovely snippets of life with kids on our social media feeds, a place where we compare the best parts of other peoples lives, to our everyday.

Amidst the “pre-baby” expectations of what we might gain- a lovely cute ‘bundle of joy’, love, fulfillment and happiness (all of which may be true) we may feel ashamed to admit if we feel a “loss” too. A loss of our old identity, our autonomy, our old body, our professional selves, our time and our sleep! I clearly remember having the realisation myself that my life had completely changed now. It was never going to be what it was ‘before’ and that there was no break from this, no holiday, no time off- and in that moment the responsibility I felt was completely overwhelming.

When you ask new parents what they feel is the most unexpected aspect of caring for their baby, quite often the knee jerk response is: “no-one prepared me for the sleep deprivation”. Our cultural norms do not prepare us for what normal infant sleep is and fears around bed-sharing, can mean more exhaustion for western parents, who are frequently trying to get babies to “go down” in a separate sleep space or even a different room. Their small human often has an entirely different agenda. When we see babies on the television, or in movies frequently we are shown a picture of a newborn, alone, in a lovely crib, while they sleep soundly. In fact to prove this point, here are the top images from a google search for “sleeping baby”.

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Screenshot from Google for “Sleeping Baby” Taken Nov 18

No wonder it can all come as a bit of shock when the reality for many is not a baby who is happy to sleep alone, but is in your bed, latched on. You are in a fleecy M&S onesie with one boob out because you know you shouldn’t use a duvet, and any sheets that do remain have a few dubious stains on- “Is that breastmilk or baby vomit?” you briefly wonder, before turning your attention to other more pressing matters, like getting your baby back to sleep. Again.

And while we often focus on only how the mother is doing after birth, the same difficulties are often true for the other parent too.

Before we had our baby, my husband often remarked he didn’t see how it would change things a great deal. I remember having a conversation with him about how I wanted to make sure I got my hair done before having the baby, as I might struggle afterward. He was confused by my worries, in his mind, of course I would have time. In reality my baby was 6 months old before I got to the salon. The transition to fatherhood was equally hard on him, and I remember he was also emotional and overwhelmed at times. I’m ashamed to say, I resented him for this at the time, I was dealing with my own struggles to breastfeed, and my transition to motherhood. Where previously we would have shown each other empathy, instead we were often in conflict. Having had a very happy relationship ‘before’, the strain we came under came as a shock to me, we hadn’t anticipated it at all. Our experience felt dramatic at the time, it was our first maritial “rough patch” but we weren’t unique. I only realised this a couple of years later, having a lunch date with an old friend, who confided in me (after a few drinks) she had a really similar experience. Difficulties in relationships after having children are well documented, and also backed up by research. Yet it seems like the huge upheavals to relationships and subsequent difficulties are only alluded to in passing conversations, rarely discussed openly, if at all.

Obviously I love my daughter with a passion, I would never change a single thing about her (ok that is a lie, I do kind of wish she would sleep but that is another story). I don’t want to paint a negative picture because I have gained far more than I ever lost, and being a parent really can be so very wonderful. I think parents are amazing, and that we often are far too hard on ourselves. But I think we need to be telling real stories. Parenthood isn’t trite memes. It isn’t soft focus images of cuddled up babies and tiny feet. Breastfeeding isn’t always smiling down lovingly at a suckling baby, especially at first. Sometimes there is pain involved in becoming a parent, physically and emotionally. Often it is hard work. There is a learning curve. We might not be able to fully prepare for it, but we can be prepared to be surprised. And as we shed our old skin, and our old lives, and become something forever changed, we should reflect on the stories we tell to others who might be next. Our real stories deserve to be told. The truth is rarely “insta-ready”, but sometimes it is good to get a little bit real.

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