If not Kate, then who?: Questioning privilege and perinatal health.
"Kate Middleton's 'overwhelming' is pretty different to, well, pretty much everyone else's - yet if mothers have have experienced poverty and mental heath issues can't speak out either, then who can?"
When in May last year, Kate Middleton suggested that motherhood could be ‘overwhelming’, Barbara Ellen in the Observer quickly told her to check her privilege. How could a future queen dare use such a word when other women need food banks? And yet, when activist and food writer Jack Monroe gave an interview about her own experience of living in poverty when her son was small, the vitriolic and abusive comments posted in response were so abundant that she tweeted screen-grabs of them, prefaced by the line ‘Who wants to hear a story about why I’m in tears, on a train, with my 7 year old?’
To be fair, Barbara Ellen does have a point; poverty is a risk factor for mental health, so as an extremely wealthy new mother, Kate’s ‘overwhelming’ is probably pretty different to, well, pretty much anyone else’s. Yet if mothers who have experienced poverty and mental health issues can’t speak out about their own overwhelming either, then who can?
It was only after the birth of my second child that I found out that the biggest killer for women in the six weeks after giving birth is suicide.
I didn’t suffer a mental health crisis after my own traumatic birth experience though when I became pregnant again and had to start talking about what had happened, a whole load of anger bubbled to the surface. I will forever be grateful to my amazing midwife who suggested a group for women who would have difficult birth experiences. One of the women tearfully described how agonising she found the expectation that her birth story was something she’d be able to chat about over coffee as baby group small talk and I felt angry again, but this time at myself. I’d had so many conversations with friends about awful experiences they’d had given birth, but I honestly didn’t think I’d ever really, truly asked them how it had affected them. I was totally complicit in expecting birth stories to be small talk.
I don’t think I’m great at tackling difficult topics or knowing how to broach mental well-being with my friends, but I want to learn how to. And I do wonder if this is where Kate can help. Perhaps her stab at talking about her own experiences was a way of opening up the conversation, trying to get us to be that bit more honest.
When she held a discussion on maternal mental health in November, Kensington Palace tweeted that she is ‘keen to develop an understanding of the issues surrounding maternal mental health, and to learn what support is available as ‘At least 20% of women are affected by mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year following the birth of a child’.
Her event wasn’t published in advance leading the The Express to ask ‘What is Kate up to?’ with her ‘secretive’ meeting. Maybe it wasn’t promoted as she was worried she’d get a load more eye-rolling in response to her desire to ‘learn’ and lend her profile to an issue she cares about? I’m with her on this one though, trying my best to better understand and be involved any way I can.
In the meantime I’ll continue reading Robyn Wilder’s excellent ‘Up with the Kids’ column on The Pool (to note: her pieces on birth trauma and postnatal depression) and following Milli Hill, founder of the global Positive Birth Movement and birth rights campaigner (I particularly loved her tweet of herself reading Mary Beard’s Women and Power whilst using Cbeebies to keep her kids quiet).
So until we’ve all learned what the term perinatal mental health means and until that 20% comes down, we are going to have to let anyone who wants to speak out, no matter how privileged they are. Because when it comes to discussing the real dangers around childbirth, someone has to get the conversation started.
Words: Amy Foster