Life & Culture

War babies: why having children is harder than ever

Bringing kids into the world is especially challenging now, says Chana Hughes


Vulnerable: JC journalist Elisa Bray has written about her postnatal depression after the birth of her third child

The most painful and moving stories from the Israel-Gaza conflict have been about the babies. From babies being born in captivity or still held held in hostage to premature babies dying in the Al Shifa hospital or under rubble. These innocent lives are exposed to such pain before they are even aware of any global injustices. Giving birth is supposed to be a hopeful, happy time for families. But now, for many families when babies are born, they are named after those who have died in the conflict or the joy is tinged with sadness about missing relatives and friends or the thought of being born into such a painful world.

The process of being pregnant and having a baby is usually joyous but it is also one in which mothers and families are vulnerable and prone to mental health difficulties. I work in an NHS perinatal service supporting mothers and their partners during the pregnancy period until their baby is a toddler. There are many and varied issues that arise but often, the vulnerabilities of this time exacerbate the difficulties that were around prior to their pregnancy. If the couple’s relationship is shaky, having a baby often pushes them to struggle. If the mother is anxious or low before, it is likely that this worsens following birth. If a family is not coping, another baby can move them into crisis. Another common issue is when couples have had to navigate an infertility journey prior to their pregnancy. This can impact parents’ emotional wellbeing as there may be an inflated expectation to be blissful when a baby arrives and guilt when parenting becomes difficult. In addition, today, the world’s socio-political situation is so tenuous and anti-Israel rhetoric so pervasive, many Jewish mums feel fragile to begin with so planning for the transition to parenthood is all the more important.

Some mothers might want to limit their exposure to the news if it is upsetting as they need to conserve their emotional energy for their baby. Research has shown repeatedly the importance of early bonding between a mother and baby so the more the mother’s resilience can be supported, the more likely it will be that their bond will become established. It is helpful for the mother to take whatever steps she needs to feel relaxed during this time. It takes most mothers a while to ‘bounce back’ from birth (contrary to what we are told to expect in the media) and the first weeks can involve lots of adjustment and strain. Nowadays, the value of motherhood is increasingly overlooked, and new mums often find themselves without much identity and feeling worthless during this time. New mothers need their family and friends to support them and take them through this joyful yet exhausting experience.

During pregnancy, especially for first time parents, many find it difficult to visualise what things will be like after birth. This is a normal part of the emotional antenatal experience. This is why talking to family and friends during this time to develop a plan of support is important, especially if the expectant mother is particularly vulnerable, because they can help the couple to think more practically. As well as the practical support, it is helpful to think of what emotional support a new mother might need. Feelings of isolation make things harder so planning to build a social network for the postnatal weeks is often useful especially if the father has little paternity leave. In many Jewish communities there are charities such as ‘Mother to Mother’ in Edgware that support mothers and link them in with the community. A friendly face and a point of contact often goes a long way to giving a new mother an opening for further reassurance and company.

Finally, any family transition even happy ones, can be a strain on a couples’ relationship. Moving from couple to parents can be overwhelming and can highlight differences between the partners. Mothers and fathers often respond differently to a baby being born which means that there needs to be increased communication during this time and couples need to rely on their network to take the pressure off their own relationship. For new parents, it is helpful to have lots of conversations about their expectations of themselves and each other so that they can catch mismatched assumptions and talk it through. It is also important to keep up those ‘couple conversations’ even in the early days. Having a little one can be so preoccupying it is often difficult to think about anything else and couples’ identities become purely co-parenting. Couples need to keep their coupleness alive by spending time together and chatting about memories and experiences that happened before the baby arrived.

Having a baby is a happy but stressful time that can make vulnerable families really struggle especially in today’s fractured world. But extra thought, planning and increased connection with family and friends can make the perinatal period an easier transition.

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