The mothers of Northern Ireland deserve more than this by Sian Mulholland
Introducing Sian Mulholland
It is our absolute pleasure to introduce the fantastic Sian Mulholland. Sian is an Alliance Councillor for the Ormiston area in East Belfast and a constant advocate of women in Northern Ireland. Sian’s main passions in life are Youth Work and local music, in fact it was due to her youth work that she ended up in politics. Sian wanted to make a difference due to the people whom supposedly represented us being mainly older men. Sian’s main goal is to increase visibility of women and especially mums in politics. She is also the only female elected councillor for her area, which is apparently one of the most diverse areas of east Belfast, although it is made up of six men and Sian. We are so fortunate to have women like Sian in politics, it gives us hope in these dark days. Thank you Sian xx
The mothers of Northern Ireland deserve more than this
To explain a little bit of why I am speaking to you let me introduce you to my other role, the other hat I wear simultaneously as all the rest – Alfie’s mummy. Alfie is 2 and 4 months, he is what some would call ‘strong willed’ or to put it bluntly, as stubborn as an ox. He is the funniest, cheekiest little mischief maker who makes me laugh so hard, count to ten numerous times in my head, makes me stupidly proud and best of all, he made me a mummy. He is going to be a big brother in August, so we will see how that works alongside his ‘strong will’.
All I had ever wanted to be was a mummy, for as long as I could remember. Having been the youngest granddaughter of a large family, I missed out on all the baby cousins and had no younger siblings. I babysat my way through school and went into youth work, always preferring to spend time with children than adults (maybe that’s why I went into politics too?!). Anyway, when I fell pregnant I thought I would be overjoyed and whilst I was delighted, there began the niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
My experience of maternal mental ill-health began during my pregnancy. I was diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes and that is when the guilt began. I became so strictly diet controlled that I lost weight and was two stone lighter at full term than at my booking appointment. But every time my blood sugar was even 0.1 over my target I would be filled with self-loathing and my mind flooded with visuals of pouring sugar into my unborn baby’s mouth.
My birth experience was protracted, out of my control and after days of failed inductions and failed epidurals, I delivered Alfie via an emergency caesarean section in the middle of the night. The over-riding memory is the feeling of being completely out of control. I was rushed back to hospital in an ambulance ten days post-partum with a massive bleed, leaving my brand-new baby in the arms of my husband, standing at our front door watching me leave. I convinced myself that I couldn’t cry or be upset because ‘they’ would know I was a bit unhinged and would take him off me. In fact, I decided that showing any emotion would mean they would know that I was clearly an unfit mother. So, I pushed it all down.
Physically recovering and back at home, I became immersed in the day to day routine of taking care of him. Unfortunately for me, (and for Northern Ireland too obviously), Stormont had fallen and there was to be an election. As a sitting councillor with no formal maternity leave given the nature of politics, the pressure to be out knocking doors and campaigning came only from within my own head. I was back to council meetings within 5 weeks of Alfie’s birth. It was the beginning of my descent in some ways.
I remember asking my husband if he ever had these intrusive thoughts pop into his head of graphic, horrendous things that might just, on the absolute off chance happen to Alfie. He looked at me, slightly concerned and said ‘No, I worry but not like that…’ and it’s then I started to piece together that maybe something wasn’t ok. It culminated when on our first family holiday to a friend’s cottage in Donegal I felt like I could physically see the germs that were waiting to make Alfie sick and couldn’t let any of them ‘get’ him. Returning home, I thought it was time to seek help.
It’s at this point that I want to acknowledge my immense privilege. I had a university degree in Communication with Counselling which enabled me to know where to look for support. I was in a financially comfortable household that meant I could afford to pay for whatever help I needed. I had a husband and a support network who would have bent over backwards for me to feel like myself again. I typed birth trauma into the BACP website counsellor finder toolbar and scrolled through until I found the kindest face I could. That kind face was a counsellor who specialised in Post Natal mental health issues and who used really unusual techniques to remove the adrenaline and the emotion surrounding my birth story. She brought me back from the brink.
It is through luck and privilege that I received the care that I really needed. It wasn’t signposted, and had I not known where to look, I really dread to think what place my head could have gotten to before I addressed the issues.
The visibility of mothers of society (and even more so within our political establishments) is vital. By increasing that visibility, we acknowledge the multi-faceted roles mothers have within every element of our communities. Combining that with the recognition, acknowledgement and addressing of the mental health experiences of mothers is essential.
It is totally essential to encourage community-based peer support, to ensure that adequate signposting to effective support services is happening in the community and important that myths are busted about the issue of maternal mental health. I know I was not alone in thinking that showing any sign of emotional strain would result in my child being removed from me, that thought crossed my mind so many times, it is a huge barrier to women experiencing mental ill-health following the birth of a child from seeking the adequate care she requires.
I am also fully aware that I was in a position, financially and socially, to seek help and that is not always the case for mothers across the city and further afield. This issue acutely affects those from more disadvantaged backgrounds that disproportionately affect women living those realities and who will additionally have experiences that will exacerbate and add to the situation.
The bottom line is that Mothers, especially those experiencing mental ill-health, need to know: You are seen, you are heard, and you are understood. The time is now. We need adequate facilities without any more delay, the mothers of Northern Ireland deserve more than this.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Words and images by Sian Mulholland