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"They say that raising children takes a village. But what do you do when you can’t see your village?"

One year on - new parents Hannah and Andy Howells from Southampton, share their fears and anxiety of coming out of the latest lockdown.

Raising children brings the ultimate rewards and a happiness like no other, but it’s certainly tough at times too. 

Parenting can be filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows – there’s no rulebook and no way of knowing what some days will bring. Some days you thrive. Others you simply survive. Which is why parenting in a pandemic has been a test like no other. A test of sanity, a test of stamina and a test of strength.

In March 2020 as we were first locked down, the birth of our second baby was just a month away. Quickly, we then had to navigate our way around a new normal, juggling working from home, having our then three-year-old home from pre-school, working through our anxieties about the fact that we were about to bring a newborn into the uncertainty of the world. Fear grew, as did our frustrations about what we did and didn’t know. What should have been a joyous time was being tainted – and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.

Despite all of our worries about going into hospital during the pandemic, one Sunday in April, my labour progressed so quickly that our baby, Wilf, arrived on the way. Delivered by my husband in the front seat of our car, we caused quite the scene in a Sainsbury’s local car park! Euphoric from the birth and unbelievably grateful that everything went so smoothly, it was then time to nest as a family of four with big brother Theo, who suddenly seemed so much more grown up. Seeing our baby hold and love our new baby really was magical.

Any mother can probably tell you about the ups and downs that you feel towards the end of your pregnancy and in those early days, weeks and even months. 

Hormones are raging. Your body is recovering. Instinct is learning to take over. Your role as a mother is now who you are – you are needed and there is no respite, no matter how tired you are. You ask yourself questions, you second-guess, you worry relentlessly. Nothing can prepare you for those feelings. Second time around, having a newborn felt so much more natural and so much more relaxed, and in many ways was so much easier. But having a toddler made things harder. Comparing things to first time around made things harder. And being in a pandemic made things harder too.

They say that raising children takes a village. But what do you do when you can’t see your village? What do you do when you can only talk to your loved ones on screens or through windows? What do you do when you can’t call upon people for help? Now that we’ve been through it, I can tell you. There are moments that you tell yourself to see the positives – the newborn bubble, the time to get to know each other without the influx of visitors. There are moments that you cry because you miss everyone and want to share your happiness. There are moments that you just want a break – a shower, a hot meal, a quiet five minutes. New families are usually encouraged to ask for help, but in a pandemic, that just isn’t possible.

Maternal mental health is delicate and I remember my husband asking me one evening if I thought I had post-natal depression. He had looked it up, as had I. I was teary and I was struggling. But I knew that was just it. We had a colicky newborn who didn’t want to be put down and I was barely sleeping. I watched my husband, Andy, take on so much as he worked from home, doing everything he could to also help out with the boys. And Theo, aged three, just got on with it – a new baby had come into his world, his parents now had to divide their time and he couldn’t go anywhere or see anyone. This was why I was teary and struggling. Because it was hard.

At the very start of the pandemic though, we vowed to make the best of the situation and looking back over the past year, I certainly think we have. As a family we have learned to slow down and embrace the simplest of things. We have grown stronger and we have adapted. I would urge any parents out there to try and do the same thing. Of course it’s been tough, but we have learned so much along the way. And now, as we come out of lockdown, we continue to learn more. It’s hard to believe that we are now a year in to living under restrictions – a whole year of trying to find new normals.

But in the coming months, as things begin to ease, does this mean that life will get easier too?

Wilf starts nursery next month and I am already losing sleep for worrying. I feel a sinking feeling I get in my stomach when I think about handing him over at the door when he starts. Handing him over to a total stranger. He has barely had close contact with our dearest friends or even one set of grandparents, so how does this next step even seem fair on him? As well as this big change, Theo will be starting school in September and it seems so strange that we have applied to schools that we haven’t even been able to look around. I am sure many parents out there will be able to understand these uneasy feelings of uncertainty, but the fact that you have to put on a brave face about it all for the sake of your children.

The strange thing with this past year is the muddled feelings of frustration and comfort that I often feel about our little world. The same four walls. The same walks. The same park trips. What happens next when we venture further? Cocooned in the same routines and outings for so long, I can’t help but worry about what will happen next when the world does start moving again. Perhaps it’s only really sinking in now, now that the big wide world seems within reach, that I now have two very adventurous, head-strong, energetic little boys who I need to keep tabs on at all times. How long will I be asking Theo to keep close by, to try and keep away from people? How long will I politely step back from dear old ladies in the supermarket as they get close to Wilf to coo and say hello? How long will it take for things to go back to the normal that we used to have, or will they not? Do we even want them to anyway?

Raising a baby in a pandemic has been tough. Anxieties have been heightened and so have fears. 

And we all know that we are not out of the woods yet. Being a year on now seems poignant – a fitting time to reflect, feel frustrated at how long this has gone on for, but also feel proud at what we’ve achieved too. There have been low points and days that have felt painfully sad and lonely, and there have been a fair share of days of doubting my ability to get through it all. But, we have, and we are.

This past year we have all learned to adapt, to make the best of things and to desperately try and see the positives, even though at times that might be hard. Parenting is the toughest job in the world and it takes a huge toll on our mental well-being, with parenting in a pandemic being an even bigger task.

I’ve learned that it’s ok to cry and it’s ok not to be okay, and I would encourage other parents to tell themselves this as well. Be kind to yourself. And remember, there is always a new day.

Solent Mind's top tips for new parents

During pregnancy

- Keep in touch with your midwifery service.

- Take up online opportunities to link up with other expectant parents.

- Use antenatal education online - take a look at the website of your local maternity hospital.

Remember: It’s ok to feel anxious and doesn’t mean you won’t be a good parent.

    After the baby is born

    - Stay in contact with others - It can be tempting to hide away when we feel vulnerable but contact with others who understand, through things like online groups, can make a huge difference.

    - Although lots of people are looking forward to going out, it’s understandable to feel a bit worried or overwhelmed by it too – both for you and your baby!

    - Take it slowly and don’t feel a pressure to be socialising all the time.

    - When face to face baby and toddler groups reopen, these can be great for meeting others who understand and getting important social contact for you and your child.

    - It’s important to keep a balance and have downtime too, for your own wellbeing as well as your child’s.

    - If you are finding things hard, whether that’s feeling very anxious, low in mood or worried do reach out for help. Contact your midwife, health visitor, GP or a local group or charity.

    Remember: You are the most important thing for your child – looking after yourself and your own wellbeing is being a good parent and you will not be judged for finding it hard.

    Videos:

    Hannah and Andy share their worries about moving out of lockdown
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