Help is at hand for new mums

by
18 October 2013

A pilot project in Winchester offering chaplaincy for new mums is making a valuable contribution to families, discovers Pat Ashworth

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Close contact: conversations can be about anything from feeding problems to tiredness

Close contact: conversations can be about anything from feeding problems to tiredness

IT IS no surprise that Winchester attracts a tide of couples that are leaving London to start a family. The heritage city is within commuting distance of the capital; levels of deprivation are generally low; housing is good, if expensive; and unemployment stands at just 1.5 per cent.

So the place is positively bristling with new mothers. But, however pleasant their environment, many of them are unprepared for just how life-changing the experience of having a baby will prove to be.

Ante-natal and post-natal care tends to be focused on childbirth, and the physical health of the baby - something recognised in a report in March this year from the Department of Health, Giving All Children a Healthy Start in Life.

The report included a commitment to recruit an extra 4500 health visitors - nurses or midwives with specialist training in helping families - over the period 2010 to 2015.

The emphasis is to be not just on the baby, but on monitoring the mental health of the mother, too, particularly to detect any signs of post-natal depression, estimated to affect 90,000 women every year.

Organisations such as the Pandas Foundation (Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support) advise that family and friends can play a big part in helping recovery. "Don't bottle up your emotions as this can cause tension," their website advises. "The most important support you can have is being able to talk to someone and be honest about your feelings and emotions."

A lay chaplain with the ecumenical Winchester City Centre Chaplaincy, Jemima Thackray, saw an opportunity to provide that at the community clinic session run by the city's health-visitors team, and hosted by the United Church, a Methodist/URC place of worship.

 

THE way in which mothers used the building's incorporated café before or after the baby weigh-in set her thinking. A comparatively new mother herself - her son, Louis, is now 16 months old - she approached the lead chaplain, Howard Rowe, a Methodist minister, with the suggestion of a chaplaincy specifically to mothers.

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"The chaplaincy has always gone out to offices and shops and places of work, offering a pastoral support and listening service underpinned by the Christian faith," she says. "The service exists for people who are working, but mums are working, too. It might not be in an office, but they're making a valuable contribution, and need supporting in what they are doing. They have so many challenges. I just thought they could do with a listening ear."

She already had some experience of working as a volunteer at breastfeeding workshops run by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). "I've seen a lot of mums in a lot of distress, wanting to do it [breastfeeding] but being in pain or difficulty, and giving themselves such a hard time," she says. "I've travelled quite a bit in Sudan and Uganda, and seen how women support each other much more, and how children seem to be brought up by the village; and while I'm not being naïve about how hard their lives are, they seem to have this right.

"We seem to live isolated lives behind our own front doors, often quite distant from our families. That's no longer a feature of our culture, and we can't bring it back, but there's a gap that needs filling."

Mr Rowe was enthusiastic, and she embarked on a trial year, based in the café at the health visitors' clinic session. "The health visitors are very much aware of me, and we have a good relationship; but I'm the Church, and not the NHS, and everyone is clear about that," she says.

"When we advertise the service, we emphasise that I'm there for the mums rather than for the children. Mums know I'm there, and come and chat, or I might just get into conversation with women on their own."

 

THE conversation can be about anything from feeding problems to how tired they are, and to the pressures that come when maternity leave is ending, and work must be faced again. "Sometimes they're just looking for affirmation in their parenting," Mrs Thackray says.

"They want to talk about their own health problems sometimes, or grief after a bereavement, or the problems of childcare and the difficulty of balancing children and work.

"Parents are under massive financial pressure these days, and needing two incomes, and they want to have it both ways: be a natural parent on hand for their children, but to be seen also contributing to the workplace. They face negotiating with bosses over how much they can work, and feel guilty at the prospect of leaving the baby with childminders.

"My priority is their well-being. I try to stay away from cooing over the child, although that might be a way in, sometimes. The mum's mental and spiritual help is a constant need; so I ask how she is, is she getting enough sleep.

"I'm not a counsellor, and I don't give advice; I'm a sounding board. Mums talk it out and come to their own conclusions. I try not to self-reference, either. It's not a conversation with friends, it's a sharing with a chaplain, so it's not the best approach to say: 'Oh, my Louis was just like that.'"

Mrs Thackray is also based at a mother-and-baby group at Christ Church, Winchester. The trial year has gone well, and she would like to expand the service, train more volunteers, and perhaps be able to offer talks or discussions on well-being at the clinic, to complement those on child welfare.

Flyers on the health visitors' front desk are frank about this listening service being part of the city-centre chaplaincy. "It might be off-putting for some; but most appreciate that we're not the State," she says.

"They know we've got this spiritual underpinning to why we're there, and, generally, people are quite accepting of it. They're curious sometimes, but chaplaincy is a well-known term. They look at my badge and think, 'OK, I know what that is.'"

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