New mum joins the club – getting support from the group

  
BBC Radio4 broadcasted an interesting interview with sociologist Dr Jennie Bristow and editor-in-chief of Netmums Anne-Marie O’Leary about supportive role of friendship during early stages of motherhood. (Woman’s hour on BBC4 podcast, interview starts at app.33 min of the program http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06z255x). They spoke of early parenthood as one of these times in life when we need friends the most. This brought also questions of what is friendship, to what extent we can expect friends to be answering our needs and what kind of friends do we look for, over the course of life. The toddlers groups were mentioned as very valuable source of social support from people who are going through similar challenges.
In my experience as a stay-at-home mother, the various toddlers’ groups me and my children attend are indeed a great way to socialise and meet new interesting people. It helps me to remain active (and sane). It’s very rewarding to see my children playing with others. Going to groups makes me feel part of a wider community.
On the other hand, I find that groups can be sometimes a bit overwhelming and that they do have an unspoken, more difficult side which can make this group experience somehow stressful. This can be a reason for some mums who are feeling vulnerable, for whatever reason, to stay at home, rather than reach out for help and face the Group. 

Unfortunately, when we need the groups support most, we may find it most difficult to attend.  

Why is a toddler group a challenge?
As a group facilitator, I work with people who come to my classes with specific expectations. They want to be part of learning experience which will help them better understand themselves as parents and resolve their issues. This is the first, visible and spoken reason for joining the group. 
But when we form groups of any type, group dynamics are unleashed that we have to cope with. * These processes are powerful and not always easy to deal with, especially when we are not fully aware of them. When becoming part of a group, we tend to take up certain roles; sometimes we benefit from them, at other times, they make our experience very difficult. Common group dynamics evoke our competitiveness, our defence mechanisms, and trigger our deep emotional issues. .

Competition
Some of us have strong desire to compete with others and perceive competition as a fight for the badge “I’m the best”. This can provoke tensions between group members, make some people feel inferior or excluded. Sometimes the competition becomes a main figure of the meeting and dominant group feelings are that of tension and hostility; in these cases group no longer serves as a support group or safe haven. 

Defence Mechanisms
To understand the way we relate to the group, we need to go back to our own-early-childhood experience. The first group we are born into is the family group, and we learn about the world from relating to others: initially from our first care givers and our siblings. In relation to others we define who we are and what is important to us. We need others to see ourselves in their eyes, to figure out who we are from the way they react to us. What is more, we often need them to deal with our emotions. Early in life, we develop mechanisms which help us avoid emotions, which are too overwhelming. For example, children split the world into good and bad, and in this way they don’t have to deal with ambivalence and mixed feelings e.g. Mummy is all good, or all bad, pending on the mood the infant is in. Over the course of life we are expected to learn more mature ways of dealing with emotions. We as grown ups, should be able to face and process the fact that our parents can be right at some points, and completely wrong at others. Mature people should be able to accept the fact that sometimes they get angry, they experience envy and that is part of who they are. But even if we are capable of this kind of ‘mature’ emotional processes, we sometimes still turn to our defence mechanisms and use them to avoid some feelings. We might for instance project our feeling of sadness onto someone else. When we do this, we really can see evidences of the person being very sad and we intensely focus on this other person’s sadness. While doing this, we don’t acknowledge our own sadness. These mechanisms operate in groups. They can become very powerful, when group as a whole starts using them and prevents its members from embracing what they feel and who they are. Projections often hit the most vulnerable people in the room. Single parents for example can easily become ‘objects’ for projecting our own feelings of vulnerability, loneliness, dislocation. Group may be focusing on expressing pity and sorrow over one person, who starts feeling overwhelmed by the emotions, which belong to other people.  

Roles
In this way people play different roles in the group. Our life situation and personality are main contributors to the way we appear in the group. We might realise, that we often take up similar role in different groups we attend.  

It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek or cannot count on group support when feeling vulnerable. It’s just important to be aware that this deep emotional processes are circulating in the room and when we feel that something is put to us and we are perceived as more outside the group or more sad that we actually feel ourselves, we don’t have to consent to it. We can try and do something differently, engage with someone else that we usually do, change anything which we are able to change and see how it impacts our emotions and the way other people see us.
Getting group support which we need, often demands being proactive and as conscious as possible.

*my work on group dynamics is informed by relational psychoanalysis, concepts of defence mechanisms and group as a whole come from Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion

Photo: http://www.kcmetromoms.com

First published on xpose.ie

Breastmilk or formula: what’s behind your choice?

 

I can’t fully describe the experience of becoming a parent. Intensive mixture of images and emotions which I’ve never experienced before came to me within first few days of having a baby and this changed me as a person. One of the most powerful impacts on me was the sudden realisation that from now on I am responsible for another human being’s life. And first of all it means I need to make sure the baby eats well to maintain herself and thrive. This is very basic and primitive experience. Here I am – stripped of all everyday life selves and faces, coping mechanisms and routines – faced with tiny baby who simply needs milk.

At some point, most parents to be are presented with the choice: breastmilk or formula?
Often an earlier decision is exercised and verified by reality – it’s impossible to foresee all circumstances which will influence the way we do things after the baby arrives.

In some circumstances the choice is made by parents – for example in case of some health conditions breastmilk is affected by the condition itself or by the drugs which need to be taken.

The breast versus formula discussion, is fuelled by emotions, judgemental voices and over simplification. It would come close to the top of the list of those things that can evoke parental guilt. 
It’s difficult to discuss this delicate matter; to be broad enough to avoid unhelpful polarisations of opinions, and careful enough not to offend anyone. It’s very important to acknowledge that we are talking about other people’s choices and circumstances, which they face in a very special moment in their lives. It makes them vulnerable and high emotions are aroused. 

What can be helpful in opening up and broadening the discussion is trying to understand various reasons and motives behind our choices. I analyse social media coverage on breast/formula feed and draw on my own experience as a mother, who meets many other mums. I came up with the idea of ‘Scripts’ which describe complex reasons for which we choose to breast or formula feed. 
I invite you to engage in describing the main scripts which stand behind the way we feed our babies. Some of our reasons are conscious – we are fully aware of them and can easily name them (i.e.: ‘I formula feed my child, because I can combine it with my working life’). Other reasons might be unconscious – our behaviours and decisions are guided by our own motives and social forces that we are not always aware of (i.e. ‘I formula feed, because the responsibility for the child overwhelms me, and I want to share it with my partner). Moreover, our choices always have a healthy side and a shadow side, which is present despite our honest positive intentions.

I want to make clear, that I stand for deeper understanding of feeding the babies, not for judging any choices. 

By exploring our scripts that guide our infant feeding choices, we can address some of social pressures, and personal dilemmas that we face, and by doing so be more honest with ourselves and others without feeling guilty or pressurised. This discussion needs to take place free from the judgemental attitudes on both sides that make mothers (and fathers) feel insecure, anxious and very often guilty.  

Therefore I invite you to look at your scripts and especially focus on those hidden, not obvious reasons and motives which stand behind your choices..
The way to identify your script is to complete three following sentences. If you are willing to share your script, please do so in comments below this post:
‘I breastfeed (breastfed)/ I formula feed (fed) because… ‘

The healthy side is this…

The shadow side is this…

When identifying my own script I came up with the following:

I breastfeed because this is the obvious thing to do in my family and my circle of friends – it’s a norm within my social background and I accept this norm and simply believe it’s a right thing to do. 
HEALTHY SIDE: By making a choice acceptable to my social network and family, I get support from them. The baby gets fed from a confident parent who is familiar and supported with the way their child is fed.
SHADOW SIDE: As the baby is exclusively breastfed, it doesn’t allow my husband to engage in baby’s feeding, which ties the baby to me. If he wants to take the baby out, there is a two hour time limit. This makes the baby completely dependent on me, in terms of feeding, so I do get a lot of control which can be difficult to let go when the time is right (when the baby needs that).
Feel free to share your thoughts and discover new ways of looking at your motives and circumstances. Tell us about your scripts. This can be enriching for all of us!
P.S. Publish your answers below the post or to keep your privacy write to me: agatawestern@gmail.com

*photo: http://www.sienceofrelationships.com