The anxiety guru on the trials and tribulations of new motherhood, her parenting podcast and how seeking reassurance on social media is a double-edged sword
‘It’s taken me a long time to get to where I didn’t feel like I’d failed because I didn’t have the picture-perfect newborn experience. And that I didn’t need to feel that I should be out to brunch, back running...
"I had to learn that it was OK to feel like I was crawling and trying to put the pieces back together again. And that I was everything that my child needed.”
Podcaster and author Caroline Foran – whose new parenting podcast, Stretch Marks, which she co-hosts with Sinead O’Moore, launched earlier this year – is talking about how she struggled in the early months with her first child, son Caelan, who turns two in August.
“I didn’t fail because I decided that breastfeeding wasn’t going to be for me, because I found it so difficult,” she adds.
It’s exactly this kind of honesty about the harder parts of life that has made Caroline a best-selling author and chart-topping podcaster – and it’s the driving force of the podcast, in which she and Sinead aim to push back at the notion of a woman bouncing back after giving birth.
And Caroline has walked the walk: suffering a breakdown in her 20s as a result of extreme anxiety, before going on to write the book Owning It: Your Bullsh*t Free Guide to Living with Anxiety,
She posted on her Instagram account lately about not enjoying the newborn stage and, more recently, about starting back at therapy. She did this to come to terms with how much she struggled in the months after her son was born.
“I wanted to process my postpartum experience and try and let go some of the guilt and shame I feel around that.
"I still feel sad when I see someone having a positive postpartum experience. Even if that’s not the reality, I feel really triggered – why couldn’t I be like that? Or if I see someone happily breastfeeding, I feel like I gave up, didn’t persevere.”
Caroline had always planned on having children. She married husband Barry in 2018.
“We had gotten married, done some big trips, had our house. We were looking at each other, going, ‘It wouldn’t be the worst thing if it happened now...’ And then it happened – much, much quicker than either of us thought it would. We were very fortunate.”
She describes the blithe assumptions she made about how she would take to becoming a mother – fuelled, she reflects, by a rather sanitised version of motherhood picked up during her 20s on social media.
“It seemed like it was the most natural thing in the world, and you would know just what to do with your kid, and it would all slot in perfectly.”
Like a sort of holiday, she grins wryly.
“You’re just off all the time with your child. Like, ‘off’,” she laughs and rolls her eyes.
Anxiety was not an issue during her pregnancy, despite intense sickness throughout.
“I didn’t have time to think or worry about anything, it was just get through the day. And I was proud of myself, because I was having such bad nausea and vomiting. I felt, ‘Wow, you thought you never would be able for this.’ Because I really am very frightened of being physically sick. It’s such a horrible, scary feeling when you’re so out of control.”
As her due date approached, Caroline describes how she thought she was approaching the finish line.
“Actually, it was very the opposite, for me that was the beginning. And I had no idea that would happen. I don’t know whether I buried my head in the sand, or I just had this very different impression… that you have the baby, and you take the baby home, and that’s it. Everything just unfolds naturally.”
In fact, she describes her feelings after giving birth as like being pushed into the deep end. She points to the lack of preparation given to women about how they might feel and how they can look after themselves.
“I remember doing these classes, it was all baby, baby, baby – which I know is important, but nothing about how you might feel, what’s normal, what isn’t. What maybe you’d need to look out for.”
Caelan was born in August 2020 – a pandemic baby – so Barry was only allowed in to see her in hospital for short periods.
Caroline was on her own for much of labour, and it was difficult, but she recalls feeling proud of herself and thinking: “If I get through this, I’m going to go home with my bundle of joy, and I’m going to be flooded with happy hormones. I’m going to feel happier than I’ve ever felt.”
But, after the second night, when cluster feeding began [lots of short feeds], her anxiety kicked in.
“I fell off a cliff.”
Caroline recalls arriving home with her newborn. “I remember sitting on the bed, pumping sweat. I just felt like my body was not my own.”
She describes herself at that time, how miserable she looked. “And then everyone’s like, ‘Is it the happiest time of your life? Are you so in love?’
“I felt like, ‘I’m supposed to be, but I don’t feel like that right now.’
"I thought, ‘Caroline, people do this all the time, people have multiple kids. What is wrong with you? Get a grip. Why are you finding this so hard?’”
Covid, hormones and anxiety didn’t help. But she identifies the disparity between the expectations and the realities of motherhood as a major source of the problem – something that is true for many women.
“So many people think they’re only supposed to feel all the good, squishy, lovely bits. That it’s your child, so you’re just supposed to know what to do.”
She says she felt overwhelmed, doubtful, fearful about her baby being dependent on her above anyone else, and that she didn’t know what she was doing.
“That made me feel so untethered, and lost at sea, because I like to know what I’m doing. I like to be in control. I don’t like trial and error. I wanted to just follow the rules and for it work out. I want Google to just tell me,” she laughs.
Caelan had reflux and digestive issues, which compounded the stress of the situation.
Still, the years of working in the area of anxiety, and experience of managing her own mental health, paid off. She knew there were things she needed to do to cope.
“Because I was feeling so rubbish, I needed Barry to do a feed so I could try and have a rest. There was no way my emotions were going to settle down if I didn’t recuperate. But there’s this weight of expectation. Because everything’s about the baby.
“People say, ‘Happy mum, happy baby’ – but when it comes to it, we focus so much more on the ‘happy baby’ part.
“I felt a bit guilty and a bit selfish for having to prioritise ‘happy mum’ as well. But I’m at the top of the pyramid, keeping this all going. If I’m not OK, it all crumbles. So we need to be able to look after me, in order to be able to look after him.”
As always, Caroline was very open on Instagram about what she was going through, posting several heart-breaking accounts of what she was going through. She looks back now and wonders whether this was the best thing for her.
“I’ve always felt, from when I first struggled with anxiety, if I put something on social media that is far removed from how I’m actually feeling, I will combust with the pressure of trying to live up to that. So to my own detriment, I cannot do that.”
It’s also about “craving reassurance”, she adds. “Looking for reassurance from other people, and looking for permission that it’s OK to be how I am.”
It’s something she is working through with her new therapist.
“Since I started sharing openly about my mental health, it has kind of become like a drug – in that I kind of can’t go through something without sharing it.”
In part this is because she wants to normalise things for other people; this is the underlying goal of most of her work.
“But I also notice that I need to vocalise things to get reassurance. And it really does help so much – but I want to know that I don’t need it, that I don’t depend on it. I want to be able to trust myself as well. And be like, ‘It’s OK that you went through this’ and that I don’t need to qualify that by ten strangers saying it’s OK.”
She needs to make sure the sharing is doing her good as well.
“Now, looking back, I probably wish I could have sheltered myself just a tiny bit, at my most vulnerable time.
"But I would have bitten the head off anybody who told me at the time not to share. I would have thought, ‘Why? You’re part of the problem, this is why women feel they can’t be open.’”
And sharing made her feel she was not alone. “Ninety-nine per cent of people were like, ‘You’ve just articulated what I went through.’”
Not everyone though. Several months after her son’s birth, a total stranger messaged Barry, Caroline’s husband, saying they questioned her mothering, and wondered whether Caelan was in good hands.
“A complete stranger who didn’t even follow me. She’d read comments on Tattle Life [a message board where comment on influencers, and threads full of vitriol can spool out for pages on end]. Stupidly, months later, I went on it.
"I was physically shaking like a leaf, reading all the comments written while I was in those first few weeks. They were so hurtful, and so horrible.
"I remember there was one comment saying, ‘Let’s hope she doesn’t inflict herself on another child. Poor Barry, that poor man having to deal with her. That poor child having to deal with her. You’d swear she’s the first person to ever have a baby. If this is difficult now, just wait until she’s six months in...’”
Sharing about motherhood has been harder than anything else Caroline has written, spoken or posted about – precisely because of this kind of judgment, and the policing of mothers.
“I think that’s precisely why I need to share. I wrote back to that woman and said ‘Your message is precisely why hundreds of women who have postnatal anxiety and depression can’t talk about it – because of the fear of judgment.’”
Things improved for Caroline after the first year. Caelan’s sleep and digestive issues resolved. Mother and baby found their rhythm. She grew in confidence.
“I get so much more back now than I did in the baby phase. He’s my little person and I’m just amazed by him. These are all the bits where I feel like this is why I did it. Because for so long the question in my head was, ‘Why do people do this, if it’s this f***ing hard?’”
The breakdown Caroline suffered in her 20s began not long after she and Barry got together. It gave them a strong foundation from which to weather other storms.
“I think we’d been in the trenches before because of my mental health. We had just moved in together when it all hit me. I was like, ‘You need to go, you didn’t sign up for this. I’m not the cool relaxed girlfriend I thought I was.’
"He said, ‘We’ll figure this out, we’ll find a way through it.’ It was the same thing again when we had Caelan.”
Parenting challenges any relationship. “I remember going for a walk and being like, ‘Look, for the first year it’s not about us and that doesn’t have to mean that there’s something wrong. But we need to just give ourselves a break.’”
It’s why they haven’t rushed into having another baby.
“Because we really wanted to come back to each other, and make sure that you’re still there for the right reasons. I think that foundation, having gone through that with my mental health, really served us. And we’re both really kind to each other. He takes care of me so well, and I hope I do the same for him,” she smiles.
Caroline doesn’t count herself an anxious person these days. In fact, she questions whether that label is helpful. Becoming a parent has shifted her focus away from the anxieties that used plague her.
Previously, when she went to therapy, it was because her anxiety was really bad. It had got to the point where she did not want to leave the house.
Back then, she says, her therapy was very functional. “I needed therapy that would help get me from A to B.”
Now, she’s doing what she describes as "regular talking therapy”.
“I wanted a space to talk about things. Because I think that even with the best of friends and the best of intentions, you always have this fear of judgment.”
The difference between that first time and now is one she’s enjoying.
“I’m so grateful to be back in therapy for the normal stuff. I’m so grateful for the problems that I have now.”
‘Stretch Marks’ podcast is available on all usual podcast platforms