The pain of motherhood

The pain of motherhood Vlogger Louise Pentland
Many women don’t feel an immediate bond with their new-born baby, writes Colm Fitzpatrick


You receive the fantastic news that you’re pregnant and will finally be a mother. For nine blissful months you feel baby kicks and eagerly await the arrival of your child. Delivery day comes, and with little effort and no medical intervention, you give birth to a crying, but beautiful baby.

You immediately fall in love and begin bonding, realising this is the fulfilment of all that you had wished for and imagined. After a day of rest in hospital, you take your new-born home, ready to experience a life of motherhood with no stress, reservations or fear. That’s how the story goes, right?

Now more than ever, women globally are pressurised into living up to a false ideal of motherhood; one that expects them not to worry about the delivery process; to lose all excess weight and regain a perfect body; and to instantly develop a deep and intimate relationship with their child.

This damaging model of motherhood has been perpetuated primarily through our increased use of social media which often portrays mothers as goddesses, immune to the tiring and stress-inducing features that rearing a child entails. Lifestyle magazines regularly commit this crime, but online platforms such as Instagram have become the main perpetrators.

There is a growing trend for women to snap weight-loss pictures of their post-baby bodies, and portray motherhood as an ongoing experience of elation, absent of the fears and drawbacks that accompany it.

Subverting these social-media norms, beauty vlogger Louise Pentland recently posted an online video about her real-life experience of rearing a child void of all the frills, which has garnered traction around the world. The writer and mother-of-two detailed her distressing 36-hour labour which left her unable to bond with her baby and to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


Speaking honestly in the 30-minute video, she said that after giving birth visitors continually congratulated her but never ask about her own wellbeing. Adding to this, Ms Pentland explained that she often had flashbacks to the birth, felt very little connection with her new-born daughter, and would have traumatic thoughts about her child dying.

After concealing her feelings about the experience to the public for seven years, she is now keen to “let things out” in the hope it will help other women.

To the surprise of some, the experience Ms Pentland described is not an anomaly, as many mothers-to-be and those already with children are susceptible to developing PTSD and the tumultuous effects that accompany it.

About 3-8% of pregnant women develop a fear of giving birth, otherwise known as tokophobia. The symptoms vary but usually include worries specifically about pregnancy and birth, fear of physical harm or death related to the birth, and poor sleep. Everyone is susceptible to it, but a history of anxiety or depression is a risk factor, as is having a history of childhood abuse, whether it be sexual, physical or emotional.

Other studies have shown younger mums may be more vulnerable to developing it, as well as those with weak social connections. But giving birth doesn’t end these anxieties, and may just be the beginning of them.


About 9% of women experience postpartum post-traumatic distress disorder, usually caused by a real or perceived trauma during delivery or postpartum. This was the case for Ms Pentland who said in the video: “The birth experience was really, really traumatic. I was left on a ward for 31 hours of a 36-hour labour with no drugs except for codeine.”

She added that her hospital room felt like a “cell”, the numerous midwives checking in on her was uncomfortable and that she vomited after giving birth. Following this, she was unable to bond with her child, and continually questioned her role as a mother.

According to Margaret Parkes, a member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, PTSD can cause intrusive thoughts and effect our self-esteem including how we behave. Trauma, she says, is anything that happens to us that we don’t feel we have control over.

“What happens is that we feel very alone and vulnerable and if we can actually have an opportunity to share what we’re thinking with somebody and for those thoughts to be either normalised or just shared about what’s going on in her head, then that can be very healing,” Margaret says.

She adds that “some people can’t handle change very well”, and that the transition from working with a busy lifestyle to now being at home taking care of a new child can cause anxiety.

For women experiencing PTSD in the context of childbirth, symptoms range from flashbacks and nightmares to feeling a sense of unreality and detachment. Although it’s rarely talked about, mothers may also develop postpartum OCD.

This entails having intrusive and disturbing thoughts about harming your child or imagining that they will die, for example, by dropping them down the stairs. Indeed, a study from Northwestern University dating back to 2013 found that 11% of new mothers experience significant OCD symptoms and that these compulsions can interfere with the daily duties of rearing a child.

On top of this, around 80% of women experience what is commonly called “the baby blues”, which entails a temporary period of sadness, anxiety or fear after giving birth.

Statistics like these portray the true reality of motherhood, and undermine the frequent claims that it shouldn’t feel burdensome or isolating.

Margaret says that women today and people in general are pressurised to fit into the stereotype of perfection, and feel underwhelmed and panicked when they don’t meet this standard.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on people to be the perfect everything and then the child should be the perfect child. And then to get the perfect figure back, so I think there’s pressure in lots of ways there. We lose then who we really are,” she explains.

“That’s a huge part of my work – co-dependency. We become what other people want us to be rather than who we are. And then the children are the same. We mould the children into who we think they should be as opposed to who they really are. And until we become who we really are as parents, we don’t become the best parents.”

Although it may seem like a dizzying labyrinth impossible to escape from or climb over, there are ways to treat PTSD and other diagnoses closely associated to it.

Margaret says her job is to give clients the tools and skills to help them not give power to these thoughts. Usually, realising that there are other women with similar experiences to yours is the first step on the journey to recovery. If symptoms become too pervasive and frequent, it’s recommended that you speak to a doctor or emergency service to seek help.

As a psychotherapist, Margaret emphasises that the neurological side of PTSD is also “really important to understand”, and so that is also an outlet to be explored. Some people may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy or a method called eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) which aims to help the client process the traumatic events, and speed up re-adjustment and recovery.


Whatever path is chosen, it is vital to remember that you or someone experiencing PTSD is not responsible or to be blamed for developing it. It is not a volitional choice, but emerges without consent or knowledge.

Despite this, recovery is possible. Ms Pentland, describing her experience seven years on had another child this year, calling the childbirth process “beautiful, calm and relaxed”. Her story is a message to everyone that social media can be a contrived platform, distant from the hard-hitting realities of normal life.

Her experience reveals that what’s really needed today is not affectation but affection; one that is honest, understanding and healing.