It's hard to appreciate until you go through it, but any mother can tell you: motherhood changes everything. Jemma Leighton (@stilettostostrollers) has made it her life's work to help women navigate this transition from 'me' to 'mum', guiding expecting and postpartum mothers through every stage and every high and low, with grace and ease.
We sat down with Jemma to understand this transition, the importance of 'mothering the mother,' and get her top tips for managing competition and expectations in the tumult of new motherhood.
As a doula, you've helped so many have a positive birth - and it also means you were on the front lines as women were born into motherhood. Can you talk a bit about that, what that experience is like and how you help women navigate that immediate change?
Every birth I've been at has been the most amazing privilege. However a baby enters the world, it is beautiful - and women are phenomenal. Every birth is different. Even if the outcomes on paper are similar, there are no two that have been alike.
Being asked to support a family at this important time in life is such an honour and I put my all into making sure they have the best experience. What I actually do really depends on the family I'm with, as they all have different needs - but how I support that mother is by looking after her.
The main role of a doula as I see it is to mother the mother. We are there to ensure her needs are met and not just physically, but emotionally and mentally too.
The way I help women navigate the first steps of motherhood is to encourage them to trust their instincts. Often new mothers second-guess themselves, they listen to what someone else has told them to do or what they have read in a book.... just like birthing a baby, we know what to do - it's just having that confidence to trust yourself. That's what I try to instil for them.
Often from the time we’re children ourselves, we as women have expectations in our mind of what being a mother will be like. What kind of parent we will be, and how it will feel. How do we balance those expectations with reality?
In short: Scrap them! It's sad that our society has gotten to a place where it's a race to be the most 'together' - out first, back to work first, etc etc.... being a mother is hard. There is really no easy way of saying that! Every day is different and every part of your child's development is a stage: One day they are a perfect angel, then next you're crying in the toilet! But the way to keep sane is by cutting yourself some slack and realising babies are just human too - they don't stick to routines! Sometimes they just need a cuddle, and it won't last forever.
In that initial postpartum period, many new mums find themselves in need of more support - socially, emotionally, even practically. What helps?
Those first days, weeks & months of being a mum can be tough and lonely. This also contributes to 1 in 8 women suffering from post natal depression. To try and make those early days better emotionally, gather your tribe before your baby even arrives. Whether you sign up to an antenatal course like NCT or The Bump Class, or have a group of friends you've made in a yoga class, getting to know other people who are expecting around the same time is priceless.
Being able to use them as a sounding board, moan about lack of sleep or just have company at 2am can make all the difference. Then when you're ready to go out and about, you all know you're in the same boat, so it's fine when you rock up 40 minutes late, covered in baby sick... there is no judgement and often a lovely camaraderie!
The other type of support that can be worth its weight in gold is professional support, either in the form of a postnatal doula or maternity nurse. These are people that are well-versed in helping with a newborn or young baby, which means mums can relax knowing their baby is in good (caring hands).
A postnatal doula will help you however you need: Their primary objective is to mother the mother, and that might be holding the baby while you shower and nap, preparing you lunch and dinner for later, or just be there as a shoulder to cry on. A maternity nurse is slightly different in that they only take care of baby, but can offer guidance to nervous new parents or be a great hand to mums after a hard birth.
It seems like the competition to prove that you're doing motherhood 'right' is so common. How else should we be approaching new motherhood?
Oh don't even get me started on this! Working or staying at home, breastfed or bottle fed, baby wearing to babyled... everyone has an opinion on everything and there isn't one that is the right way and one that's the wrong way!
We all mother in our own way, and you are the only person that knows what is best for your child and you. Each family is different and we are all just trying our best. The best approach is just be you - do what you need to do, how you need to do it.
Much like pregnancy and birth, I'd say do your research, know your options and then decide on your path from an educated point of view along with just following your gut, because they tend to be right.
Social media can be amazing for finding community, but it can also contribute to feelings of comparison and loneliness for new mums. How can it be used more thoughtfully?
Social media can be addictive! It's scientifically proven that we receive a hit of serotonin when we use it, and during those lonely hours it's often the go-to place for new mums. You're right the community can be an amazing support, and when you realise you're not alone that can be brilliant.
But it does also insight a nasty dose of 'comparisonitis'. I'd say to remember behind every perfect photo that mum probably has a child having a melt down and laundry piled up to the roof. There is a saying that I love: We're all losing our shit, some people just hide it better.
It's important to remember to take time away from social media, to live in that moment, play with your baby, look into their eyes.... walk to the park chatting to them rather than on your phone. Those early days seem long, but I promise you the years are short and before you know it they are all grown up. Enjoy your baby and bond with them when you can, give yourself a time of day or an activity that you always put your phone away for it will benefit both of you.