The struggles in motherhood are often concealed by keeping up the appearance of the ideal, serene parent. But being honest and open about these hardships is the best way to deal with them, says psychotherapist and author Anna Mathur
There exists a dominant narrative about the experience of new motherhood. It is represented by imagery painted in pastel tones, of stuffed bunnies and cheerful balloons. The new mother, we are led to believe, is made molten by hormones and tenderness. She is serene, Madonna-like.
This story only tells a fraction of the truth. The reality is more complex and much darker.
Psychotherapist and Instagram star Anna Mathur, a mother of three who lives in Surrey, has written a new self-help book specifically designed to address that thornier reality. Despite its soothing, anodyne title, The Little Book of Calm for New Mums probes into the hidden, unpalatable emotional material of motherhood.
It’s all in there: the terror, the rage, the trauma. The new mother’s desperate and endless striving to make manifest her maternal love by expending herself entirely — until she is wrung-out and empty.
It is a book that speaks directly to a reader whose emotional state might range from low level malaise to existential despair. Inside its pretty gold-embossed cover, you won’t find a hint of condescension or chivvying faux-cheer.
It has been written to address the mother who is isolated and overwhelmed, with words that she hopes will “bring clarity, and grounding, compassion and comfort. Because the moments that we need those words of clarity and comfort and support are often the ones where we are on our own.”
Mathur knows of what she speaks. She has been that mother lying on the kitchen floor, her spirit broken. “There’s a lovely maxim that ‘authors write the books that they needed,’” she says. The Little Book of Calm for New Mums is the book she needed after she gave birth to her second son. He had silent reflux, and the early months of his life passed in a kind of twilight of extreme sleep deprivation and distress — both hers and his. “I think you write things for almost different versions of yourself. And I think that I needed those words,” she says.
Mathur had been working clinically as a psychotherapist for over a decade, “working in GPs’ surgeries and private practices,” and downloaded Instagram when on maternity leave after having her second baby.
“Just purely for that sense of community and to get inspiration, because I was moving house — for decoration inspiration,” she remembers. “And I started sharing just little tiny bits about mental health — just my own observations of motherhood. And it just grew from there really. I discovered almost accidentally that there were all of these different communities online and people were just kind of hungry for tools. And I felt really excited to be able to hand them over in that unexpected setting.” Now she has 200,000 followers and is a Sunday Times bestselling author.
Her interest in emotional health sprang from the challenges she experienced in her own childhood.
“My sister had cancer and died when she was nearly seven,” she says. “My mum has always been an incredibly intuitive, compassionate person and she really helped me navigate that. She would always just have a way of approaching life that used to explore the reason that things are the way they are. So I think I was very influenced by my mum.”
As a psychotherapist, she has chosen to specialise in the area of psycho-education which she describes as “basically the practice of handing over tools in educating people. I call it taking therapy out of the therapy room, and sharing the tools that I would use with clients on a broader scale. It can be so hard for people to access therapy. I can’t give everyone free therapy, but I can share these insights and these tools that they can apply to their own lives, and that can hopefully help them in a different way.”
She dispenses these tools through her Instagram page, combining therapeutic strategies with relevant details from her own personal experience.
“I am basically the case study,” she tells me. “It makes it more approachable.”
She is not afraid to be honest because she has seen first hand through her clinical experience as a psychotherapist that dysfunction and emotional turmoil are normal and ubiquitous.
“I have the very privileged position of knowing full well that I am not alone in the intrusive thoughts, in the anxiety, in those conflicting emotions and the anger and all of those things. But I can feel confident in sharing them because I know that they will resonate with people. Whereas if I hadn’t had that insight, being a therapist for 10 or 12 years, I would probably still have a lot of shame around those myself and wouldn’t feel as able to share. So I’m very lucky to have that confidence,” she says.
She is passionate in her belief that being honest and authentic about the ways in which parents, and particularly mothers, struggle offers the best hope for addressing and processing the challenging aspects of family life. The stubbornly persistent trope of the ideal, perfectly fulfilled mother is oppressive, because it forces us to expend enormous energy on the effort of keeping up appearances.
“This stuff has changed my life. I very much felt that I had to maintain that facade, until I was completely broken by the post-natal depression and chronic sleep deprivation that came up with my second child. And I don’t know where I would be without that experience. Maybe I would still feel a need to have that facade there. And I’m incredibly grateful for the depth that that [experience] took me to, to help me realise that was not a good way, that it wasn’t a sustainable, healthy way to live.”
She is especially good on anger, arguably the most taboo emotion for mothers, and is courageous in openly acknowledging her own. “Over lockdown, I felt more rage than I’d ever felt,” she says. We struggle to speak openly about anger, she says, because “it is so conflicted with that media-enhanced version of motherhood which is nurturing, patient, loving, giving.”
I suggest there is a groundswell of anger, bubbling up amongst today’s working mothers, who are desperately over-burdened, and she agrees.
“I identify anger as being a result of unmet needs and unexpressed feeling,” she says. “I think it’s been harder for people to fulfil their needs in small ways than ever before. And because people’s face-to-face network has been so limited, there is loneliness in that. There are fewer opportunities to have those feelings validated by others. And then we get out of the habit of meeting our needs. Life kicks off again and we don’t necessarily stop and take stock of where we are depleted.”
Her thesis is simple and radical. Women are angry because they are unable, under current circumstances, to have their basic needs met. “The increase of women in the workplace, the imbalance at home and the imbalance culturally hasn’t caught up with that, so women are just shouldering both. Women are working and yet still holding that role. And it’s just too much.”
That being said, she is optimistic about the future. “Rage can actually be incredibly productive,” she says. “Especially when it’s a righteous rage. Because it can fuel change. You start realising that actually this isn’t okay. It can’t continue this way. So I think that anger and that rage can actually motivate change.”
The Little Book of Calm for New Mums, by Anna Mathur is out now, priced €18.20