Photo: Miranda Mayle
If malevolent forces set out to break new mothers, they would probably design something like current COVID-19 situation.
For so many women, those first days and weeks with an infant are the most vulnerable and overwhelming of their lives.
Coronavirus means that every day around 850 women across Australia are taking new babies home to isolation, cut off from the usual procession of visitors, support, and encouragement. It feels weird, anxious, alienating, and not how so many people pictured their first days of parenting.
Of course, we’ve seen families get creative about embracing their newest members – HouseParty welcome events, safe-distance supply drops, and promises of so many hugs when all this is over. The support isn’t face-to-face, but it’s still just a call away.
But here’s the thing.
Even before terms like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” rolled off our tongues, countless new mums already felt cut off, completely isolated by their new role, and by so many circumstances beyond their control.
Shut out of their families, in problematic relationships, a long way from support networks, or just absolutely alone, they faced pregnancy and new motherhood with nowhere to turn.
Imagine how the past few weeks have hit these new mums, now even unable to leave the house with their bub or their bump – or worse, scolded by virus vigilantes when then do.
We don’t know how these women are doing, because our society barely acknowledges their existence.
But last week, the discovery of a newborn baby dead on a Seaford beach showed us the very worst outcome of our failure to support vulnerable new mums.
We are all touched by a tragedy this heartbreaking – and instinctively we ask, outraged, who failed this baby?
The answer seems obvious, until the next question: who failed the mother?
From my two decades working with vulnerable and at-risk new mothers, I can tell you: the list is always long. And it incriminates so many aspects of our community that isolate and ignore vulnerable women who fall through service and support gaps.
Nearly two years ago, the Victorian Parliament’s Family and Community Development Committee tabled its Inquiry into Perinatal Services, which made more than 80 recommendations seeking to improve perinatal care.
While the State Government committed $213.7 million in the 2019-20 budget to improved supports for new parents, at the frontline of supporting vulnerable mothers, I’ve only seen one initiative actually reach struggling new mums at the grassroots: the baby bundle.
Offered to every first-time parent or family in Victoria, it’s a grab bag of books and baby supplies, a first-aid kit, and parenting info. All helpful in theory, but who does this one-size-fits-all approach actually help? For prepared parents with plenty of community, it’s a surplus – and for a new mum desperate to connect with support, it’s beyond inadequate.
Victoria’s existing safety net for women in those tough situations, the free statewide Maternal and Child Health Service, only connects with women after baby arrives.
It’s already too late for so many overwhelmed and alone mums in those first frenzied few days: alienated and mistrustful, they may have decided that public services can’t help them, or worse fear child services involvement, so disengage altogether.
Positive relationships are built on trust, not a series of safety checklists (although we absolutely need those too!) We need to start building community connections and parenting confidence as a woman prepares for motherhood, not in those first bleary days and weeks of endless feeds, minimal sleep, and just plain survival.
For the past decade, The Babes Project has offered free perinatal support to some of Victoria’s most vulnerable mums.
I founded the not-for-profit service because I could see so many gaps in how our community supported women. Too often, social supports failed them as they faced challenges like teen pregnancy and single parenting, poor mental health, domestic violence, drug and alcohol issues, family breakdown and isolation.
Yes, isolation. COVID-19 has made it a buzzword, but year in, year out, the vast majority of the pregnant women who seek help from The Babes Project put “isolation” amongst their biggest fears for motherhood.
And they’re right to be worried. Australian mental health advocate Beyond Blue warns that loneliness and isolation can contribute to antenatal and postnatal depression, affecting one in 10 and one in six new mothers respectively.
Worse, figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show women are more likely to experience domestic violence while pregnant – terrible for any woman, and completely paralysing if there’s no lifeline outside the relationship.
But counter to isolation, there is good news: how connectedness can transform motherhood, even for our most vulnerable.
At The Babes Project, we’ve seen again and again how holistic perinatal care, based on nurturing relationships, supports women to grow confident and empowered in their early motherhood.
But it takes time. It takes relationships that build trust. Of course, it takes investment. And it takes leadership that is prepared to ensure sustainable on-going support, not just checklist ticked, or a quick fix.
Locked down in our separate homes, we’re all dreaming of reconnecting face-to-face when the world goes back to normal.
But for so many, “normal” means more disconnection and disengaging.
We need to start designing now for a community where even our most vulnerable are connected, included, and supported – especially in those days where they need it most.