Births can be traumatising for all involved. Obstetricians and midwives are subject to very different stresses to the women they serve. In fact, all those witnessing the birth (and death) of babies, including professionals and birth-partners, can be left traumatised.
Hospital protocols, coupled with the unpredictability of birthing itself, can override what women want and expect in terms of a birth experience, leaving some women, frankly, in shock. This, unfortunately, can then have a knock-on effect on infant development.
By 2020, the number of births in England is predicted to increase to 691,038 – a staggering figure for an already bursting population. On top of this, postnatal depression is a significant public health problem. It is estimated postnatal depression in England and Wales costs the NHS at least £45m per annum.
More recent figures for perinatal depression, psychosis and anxiety suggest a much higher global figure, with long-term costs at £8.1 billion per year in the UK.
Causes of postnatal depression
Unresolved or traumatic birth experiences appear to be one of a number of triggers of postnatal depression.
Antenatal anxiety or depression, lack of social support, a history of depression, stressful life events during pregnancy and domestic violence all increase the likelihood of a woman experiencing significant depression in the postnatal period.
In the UK at present, almost half of pregnant women and new mothers do not have access to specialist perinatal mental health services.
The National Maternity Review (2016) suggests that around half of all cases of perinatal depression and anxiety may go undetected and it is said that children of depressed mothers are also more likely to experience long-term mental health problems and developmental delays.
So, how can art help new mums and prevent postnatal depression?
In a bid to try and find ways to help women come to terms with becoming new mums, I carried out a project in which parents and birth workers were given the opportunity to explore their experiences of compassion fatigue, stress, birth suffering and postnatal readjustments. This was through using the arts: drawing and painting, photography, photo-diaries and art elicitation workshops.
The aim of the ‘Birth Project’ was to stimulate mutual recovery and make women feel supported and relaxed about being a new mum, which can very often be a daunting and tiring experience.
I worked with 16 women across the East Midlands and Sheffield who had recently given birth, as well as seven midwives and one birth worker.
‘Mothers Make Art’ involved eight women, aged 25-40, from a diverse community, taking part in group discussions and making art out of everyday domestic objects such as cling film and paper towels. The group met for three hours a week for 12 weeks. The women were invited first to experiment with materials and later worked towards an exhibition piece. All of the women were invited to make art on their birth experience, or any aspect of their transition to motherhood.
The other eight women took part in a workshop series with a Health & Care Professions Council art therapist. This was explicitly for those who felt they would like to work in a more intensive and therapeutic way. Over the weeks the women worked on several individual pieces of art.
Another workshop series took place with midwives and a birth worker inviting them to reflect on what it feels like to be a birth professional. As well as creating individual art pieces, the groups both created two large pieces of work.
Results of research
During the three-month period, the women were able to spend time with others who were in the same situation as them, experiencing similar joys and fears of being new mothers. It allowed the women to have some time away from their ‘mum roles’ and focus on how they were feeling and coping with the added new responsibility of being a mother.
The project revealed that 100% of the participants found the intervention beneficial. The Warwick Edinburgh Wellbeing Scale – the most popular mental wellbeing scale in the UK – asks a number of different questions and then scores them before and after the intervention. Both groups had increased scores of 37%, which is very significant in terms of improved wellbeing. This is such a substantial improvement that we believe it will have long-term consequences for both the mothers and their infant’s development.
Seven reasons why women should take up art
1. Increases social support
Art groups are a valuable resource for women to make sense of, and understand their birthing experiences, as they are able to build self-awareness and spend time with women who are going through what they are also experiencing. Many new mums crave having adult conversations and time for themselves despite loving motherhood.
One participant said that taking up art after giving birth allowed her to be able to express herself freely. She said that it gave her the time and space to talk about her, which she found both emotional and liberating.
2. Improves confidence
Motherhood is a stressful, tiring but also very rewarding experience. Many new mums doubt whether they are fitting into the role of a new mum as quickly and as well as they should be and often focus on the negatives including sleepless nights, the struggle of getting their baby into a routine and keeping on top of other responsibilities.
Taking up art can allow women to express themselves and feel a sense of pride in what they have created. Not everyone is a born artist, but by giving yourselves a short period of time to relax and calm yourself, you can let your creativity run wild and enjoy not knowing what will appear in your work.
One participant said the activities allowed her to feel confident about being a parent, creator and thinker.
For many women, becoming a mum means giving up work either for a short or longer period of time and often routine is thrown into chaos. Art can help improve motivation as it can allow a whole picture to emerge giving a useful overview and help with decision making.
4. Mental wellbeing
Many new mothers feel guilty for various reasons. This might be because they are having some negative feelings about their experience and feel that they shouldn’t be having such emotions. Others find breastfeeding difficult and then feel inadequate. Others feel their own bodies let them down, the birthing professionals let them down, or that they let themselves down by not being more assertive in resisting unwanted interventions. Art allows an expression of feelings that might not be fully conscious, so it can function to promote self-understanding.
One new mother in the study said that by creating art it allowed her to “purge negative feelings of anger, guilt, blame to a calm acceptance.” She also said it helped her enormously work through her own issues – issues she wasn’t necessarily aware existed.
5. Decrease in social isolation
Not all new mums will be able to go to art-based support groups. For those who can spare an hour or two, being in a social and shared environment helps women to feel connected to others and more open to expressing how they really feel.
One participant said the art groups allowed her to share ‘moments’ of empathy. She also said that the women all shared the ‘intense, powerful experience of being mothers in a creative environment.’
6. Mediate stress
Having feelings that are not fully understood is stressful. Art allows emergent, difficult or angry feelings to be explored. Sharing thoughts and feelings with other mothers and realising that you are not alone in having certain feelings is very relieving.
7. Validate difficult birth experiences and raise women’s awareness of birth process
The transition to motherhood can be scary, especially if close ones haven’t gone through it themselves. Image making and reflection can help substantiate difficult birth experiences for women.
So, how long should new mums spend doing art?
As a new mum, you are in demand more than ever. Often running on minimal sleep, there’s not always the option to be able to leave your new-born baby and have time to yourself. Firstly, research to see if there are any art-based support groups in your local area. If not, see if friends can come over and spend a short amount of time – perhaps while baby is sleeping – to help you create a piece of art. Sketching, using paints or simply doodling will allow you to feel calm and relaxed.
The power of art cannot be underestimated. A short art session can be a highly effective intervention, catching women postnatally before postnatal depression takes hold and giving women much needed support and a means of self-expression at a crucial time.