An underestimated first line of defence against perinatal mental illness
Toddler Groups, don’t you love them! Picture the scene, a busy crowded room, toys strewn across the floor, babies protectively huddled together on play mats trying to avoid being run over by a boisterous toddler peddling towards them on a little tricycle at alarming collision-course speed; someone hosting a small craft activity in the corner involving green paint & that eternal evil – glitter! And Mums having a cup of tea in the corner, snatching little bits of conversation in-between watching out that Charlie doesn’t bop Emily on the head again with the plastic rolling pin!
Love them or loathe them Church Toddler Groups provide a backbone of support for parents up & down the land for those who are desperate to escape their four walls & another episode of Paw Patrol with their beautiful, adorable, but insanely hard work little human people. The Church is the main provider for Toddler Groups in the UK, especially since the increasing demise of government run ‘Sure Start’ Centres in recent years. We may take them for granted but do we under-value what they really offer? To the average Mum (who is tired, hassled, hasn’t managed a shower for 3 days but is generally coping well & has a good support network around her & enough money in her pocket to buy something for tea) the toddler group is an additional social appointment & an added way to socialise their children & to meet other ‘grown ups’ to escape the endless rounds of Peppa Pig! But for some parents, especially some Mums, we will never truly know the value of the groups we provide.
It’s an alarming fact that mental illness amongst parents of young children in the UK has grown in silently epidemic proportions in recent years. We’re now at a place where the Government estimate that 1 in 5 Mums suffer with some form of perinatal mental illness during pregnancy & after having a baby. Illness such as pre or post-natal anxiety, post-natal or ante-natal depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder etc are on the rise… or perhaps they’re not on the rise, perhaps we’re just seeing them exposed a little bit more as their stigma is challenged tiny step by tiny step in an otherwise hidden & private struggle? Perhaps one of the most harrowing statistics to date is that ‘suicide’ has now become a leading cause of death for Mums in the perinatal period (basically from pregnancy up to when that baby turns one) a truly horrifying statistic which is very under-reported.
It’s not just mental illness that is increasing, food poverty is another often hidden struggle, & the Christian Foodbank giant the ‘Trussel Trust’ estimates that 1 in 5 parents skip meals in order to be able to feed their children. 1 in 5… these are truly alarming statistics. This means that in an average Toddler Group of 20 families, 4-8 parents are going to be struggling with either their mental health or their food provision, but what can we do about it? How can our chaotic, ordinary little Toddler Groups help in this fight for peace of mind & to address the silent poverty which can push parents to the very edge of coping?
When I had my first baby in 2000 (my longed-for millennium babe) I had thoughts of a perfect water birth with minimal pain relief, my husband lovingly rubbing my sore back, & visions of my baby emerging into my tired but over-whelmed-with-love arms as he nestled into my chest for skin to skin & breastfeeding. Nothing could have been further from the truth sadly as an over-due labour resulted in me being admitted to hospital without my husband for support in those early hours of labour following a small bleed. A short-staffed delivery suite confined me to an electronic fetal monitor & to the bed. I didn’t get my water birth or my glowing skin to skin time following a beautiful & powerful natural labour… instead I laboured for 36 hours, I had many painful interventions & restrictions, an epidural, & ended up with an emergency C Section at the pushing stage & a baby who devastatingly would not breastfeed.
In short I ended up broken. I had flashbacks & anxiety, I cried daily, I was fearful, jumpy & hyper-vigilant (immediately thinking the worst was going to happen like imagining if my husband was late home from work that he was lying dead in a ditch somewhere.) I had intrusive scary thoughts, I couldn’t concentrate, I longed for sleep, I felt like a failure, I thought that my baby didn’t love or need me. I often screamed in a heap on the floor not able to get up as my son lay on his changing mat in the middle of the living room. I regularly collapsed in tears in Church & even in front of friends, & at one point I even contemplated ending it all at my lowest. I had what I now know to be ‘Post traumatic stress & depression’ after a traumatic birth experience. But very few people knew. My doctor was no help at all. If it hadn’t been for the offer of prayer ministry from my Church I don’t know where I’d be today.
My Church at the time offered an amazing Toddler Group which took place once a week in the morning, & when I could manage it I enquired about attending, but soon discovered that trying to leave the house in the morning was a big no-go for me. I asked if they had an afternoon group, & was told ‘yes what a good idea, but there was no one to run it so would I like to take it on?’ I was flattered at the prospect, but how would I manage? They had no idea how much I was struggling; even ‘I’ had no idea how much I was struggling at the time!
Soon enough I connected with Mums from my previous ante-natal parentcraft class from the hospital & we had a small but healthy membership on a Friday afternoon. I, along with another volunteer, arrived early & put out the toys, boiled the kettle & arranged the cups, created the safe baby area, put out the donations basket, & refreshed my memory for the singing that I would be leading later. It always seemed like a good session for the Mums who came, but for me it was tough. My child was terribly clingy & screamed whenever I went out of sight, & my responsibilities meant I could rarely sit & enjoy a cup of tea with the other Mums or snatch more than a snippet of decent conversation. I felt really lonely & often walked home in tears.
This was my hidden reality ….. & this is the hidden reality of the 1 in 5 Mums who sit in our midst looking like they are coping, looking like they are enjoying our groups, but are sometimes just trying to survive & to get through another day of living with perinatal mental illness. Many battles are hidden from view behind a weak smile & a cup of tea.
And what about those parents who come along who struggle to find the £1 or £2 donation for the basket? What about those parents who would love to come for a coffee afterwards but know that they cannot afford to go to a café; in fact they haven’t eaten all day because they gave the last piece of bread & butter to their child to make a sandwich, & they know their money will not be coming in for another two days & they’re wondering how to make things stretch with what they have in their cupboard until then? Would we be able to recognise these people in our groups? Probably not. What can we do to help the hidden 1 in 5 who are struggling often invisibly in our midst with food poverty? What can our little Church Toddler Groups do to make a real difference?
What could you do to help...
Creating an environment where people can talk & not have to hide is so important. If you are blessed enough to be part of a church that runs ‘freedom from fear’ courses, offers counselling or trained prayer ministry, offers debt management courses or foodbanks (or you know another Church in your area who does offer these things) then advertise them & make leaflets freely available & encourage everyone to take them so that people who need them don’t feel self-conscious.
Think about how much you charge for your groups, or how much social activities cost such as a meal out at Christmas. Consider changing it to a ‘donation’ instead of a ‘charge’ for the group. Consider asking for contributions from your church membership who have a heart for parents to help to pay towards costs such as social occasions for those who may need it, & say openly that giving financially is something your church ‘loves’ to do.
Offer biscuits or cakes to the Mums when the kids have their juice time, (it may be the only thing some of your Mums will eat all day as we’ve sadly discovered), or consider leaving free fruit & veg on the counter from those who grow their own in the congregation, or buying free fruit or pastries out of funds for people to take home. Basically don’t ‘assume’ everyone is coping… ask. Make it a natural & safe place to discuss these things, & don’t be shocked by what you may find out.
Talk openly about mental health in your groups so that it is not a taboo topic – because so many Mums are afraid to say how they really feel incase they are judged as being a terrible Mother, or they may worry that their children will be taken into care (which is an extreme rarity!) Tell the people who come to your group that ‘they are not alone’ through natural conversations, & give space for those who may need it to hang back & talk at the end of a group or to come for prayer or counselling etc if they’re open to receiving that.
Try to recruit volunteers to help to serve the tea & coffee, to hold a crying baby while Mum has a drink, to help with craft activities, to play with a child for 5 minutes to give their parents a break, or to just be on hand to listen. Don’t under-value the ministry of putting a hot cup of tea safely, generously, into a Mums hands, it may be the only time she feels cared about & like she matters that week (who knows the battles she has at home & maybe hasn’t told anyone about.)
Listen to people’s birth experiences & try to resist the old adage “at least you have a healthy baby” … being healthy includes being emotionally & mentally healthy too, & Mums need to know that their feelings are of equal importance. You may feel that you are not doing much by just listening, but listening compassionately is ‘powerful,’ never under-estimate it!
Perhaps your Toddler Group leaders & helpers would benefit from going on a Christian Listening course or basic counselling course to help them with this. Just asking the question ‘how are you’ can help, & if you get a very generic response which you suspect is not how she really feels, take the time to look her in the eye & say ‘are you sure you’re ok, because I’m a good listener?’
Try to be informed about local resources to be able to refer people to if they need more specialist support – such as local support groups, local health services, & professionals who can support them. Check in with them if they have been to a meeting with their GP for instance following a previously tearful week. Coming to a Toddler Groups can be a huge undertaking for many parents who have perinatal mental illness. Just getting out of the house can be a triumph. Many Mums sit there in quiet agreement when others talk about their birth experiences in Toddler Groups, especially if they are discussing a straightforward birth & how they bonded easily with their baby; but behind the fake smiles parents can be grieving on the inside.
Simple group discussions such as ‘when are you thinking of having another baby?’ can be painful too for a woman who feels she has been to the brink of hell & back through her last birth experience & is still struggling to cope every day, & can’t ever imagine going through that again. Try to be sensitive & to read between the lines of what those in your group are ‘not ‘saying.
It helps to create opportunities for smaller group get-togethers such as going for coffee or a walk before or after the group where it’s easier to talk one-to-one while their kids nap in the pushchair, (but maybe consider the ‘suspended coffee’ idea in your church as a blessing for this so that those who struggle financially don’t have to refuse due to cost.)
Try to create fun, genuine & joyful spaces where deep friendships can be formed, & where parents have a safe space to come to & the chance to rest a while. And most of all …. basically just be ‘kind.’ Kindness matters, it’s a fruit of the Spirit, & it makes such a huge difference, especially to parents who may be at a distance from extended family support or who don’t have quality relationships in their lives. (Galatians 5: 22-23 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.”)
And if you lead a Toddler Group yourself … first of all THANK YOU! You are a ‘leader’ but I bet you don’t feel like it often, & are rarely thanked & supported in the way that other Church leaders are. What you do is an amazing gift; you may not think it is, but it really is, & it can make the world of difference to those parents who are in need. I know what it takes to run a group & it’s not easy (especially if you’re struggling yourself after the birth of your own children like I was.) It’s really hard work & it takes a huge commitment, so may the Lord bless you & reward you richly!
And secondly, please look after yourself too. Our Toddler Group leaders & helpers need just as much support as the parents who come to their group. Christian Mums are not immune to mental illness sadly, or parenting worries, relationship troubles, or financial concerns. They’re fully immersed in the joy, chaos & sometimes pain of being a parent as much as anyone else. So if you are a Toddler Group leader, or you know a Toddler Group leader, make sure they’re not always giving out, try to ensure that they’re receiving opportunities to be blessed & to receive too
...is a Mum of 3 teenagers & she lives in North Wales. She is the founder of a facebook support group for Christian Mums called the ‘Birth Trauma Christian Encouragement Group.’ Claire also founded & leads a local non faith-based Peer Support group called ‘Birth Story Listeners’ for Mums in North Wales where members connect online & in person in local café’s for support. She is passionate about improving birth experiences & has written campaign poetry to raise awareness of perinatal mental illness. www.birthstorylisteners.simplesite.com