No one right way to be a good mother says Women’s mental health counsellor

by Rachel Cunningham
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BY Rachel Cunningham

The Dublin Gazette is covering a year in the life of pregnancy, where every second week this page will cover different facets of the pregnancy journey.

 In our last two editions, we looked at key things to consider when you’ve made the decision to become a parent and spoke to a dietitian on how to approach diet during pregnancy.

 This week, the Dublin Gazette spoke to Irene Lowry, an accredited counsellor with the IACP (Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy). With a professional background in sales and marketing, Irene experienced the power of counselling firsthand before making the decision to switch careers and pursue it full-time.

She founded Nurture Health, a clinic with the primary focus of supporting women and their partners who may be struggling with mental health issues in the areas of conception, pregnancy and childbirth health-related issues. Irene spoke to the Dublin Gazette about how she founded Nurture Health and why her key aim was to ensure that the clinic could operate without waiting lists.

During pregnancy, there is intense scrutiny of the pregnant woman’s body but the experience can also come with mental health challenges.

Irene Lowry, an IACP accredited counsellor and the founder of Nurture Health, points out the areas of pregnancy she feels still aren’t spoken about openly enough and how Nurture Health came to exist.

Ms Lowry said: “Society sets pregnant women up to expect that they will go into hospital, deliver a perfect baby, come home and live happily every after as a ‘super mum’. This is not reality but women are constantly trying to meet these extremely high expectations.

“There is no one right way to be a good mother but sometimes mothers may feel that they are falling short and begin to compare themselves with others. Our counsellors are trained to break down that perception of feeling ‘less than’. The bar is set so high for mothers that they’re going to be disappointed. No one has it all, no one is perfect and that’s a great thing to remember.”

Ms Lowry was working in sales and marketing when experiences in her personal life introduced her to the world of counselling. She explained: “I was introduced to Rainbows Ireland, a support group for children who are grieving a death or separation, through my own separation, then later trained in the area and began leading some groups. I set up the first adult group because I saw these mothers dropping their small children off at the centre and realised that they needed support as well.

“I did that every Saturday for a couple of years and then spent four years and over twenty grand training to be a counsellor. After that I remarried, moved to Rush and set up my own counselling practice.

“The practice was doing very well at the time but an experience with two young women changed the trajectory of my life. It’s crucial to mention that both women were on the public health waiting lists for over nine months, while battling postnatal depression. These women ultimately died by suicide and their cases remained with me. I wanted to do something and wasn’t sure what but began researching postnatal depression.

“After seeing women stay on the public services waiting lists for far too long, to the detriment of their mental health, because they didn’t have the funds to go private, I decided to set up a charity support that would have no waiting list and that would be affordable.”

Ms Lowry explained that the first treatment step for postnatal depression is reaching out to a GP or counsellor: “There is no time limit on postnatal depression and an estimated 50 per cent of women don’t realise that they are suffering from it. They know that something is wrong but don’t get the diagnosis for one reason or another. Sometimes there’s a reluctance to seek mental health support because they feel labelled or they think that they should be able to manage on their own.

“It’s a progressive illness that needs professional intervention but the good news is that, by reaching out, you can feel really well in a relatively short space of time. It’s very important to emphasise that there is hope for anyone feeling trapped but you need to seek help, which isn’t easy.

“I’ve spoken with a number of public health nurses, as well as new mothers, and it can sometimes be the case that a woman is reluctant to discuss how she feels out of fear that she will lose her child. This is still happening in 2021 and I don’t see it changing because, in my opinion, women’s mental health issues are often still stigmatised.”

In 2011, Miss Lowry spoke about her new charity on Matt Cooper’s The Last Word, which led to calls to the clinic from men and women based all over Ireland. She commented: “This made it clear what an enormous issue we were dealing with. The charity was based out of my home for four and a half years and, in 2015, we got a premises in Skerries.

“I applied for Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and won it, which gave us an investment of €100,000 into our work and a two-year business programme. We then managed to gain funding from the HSE but that was later cut in 2017. This meant that we had to wind down the charity, which we thought meant the end for us.

“It took a year to close as a charity and, once that was complete, we were encouraged to continue by our partners Irish Life, Laya Health Insurance and VHI. Fortunately, they had just expanded their commitment to women’s health, which complemented our manifesto nicely. We remain the only independent organisation in Ireland that is working in a timely fashion with no waiting list in our specific area of mental health support. In January 2022, we will be going into our third year as Nurture Health.”

Irene’s main advice when it comes to a birthing plan is to anticipate deviations so that you are not taken by surprise: “It’s wonderful to have a birth plan in place but when things don’t go to plan the expectant parents can struggle to cope. You can only prepare so much and remember that it is very normal not to feel ready during your pregnancy.

“A lot of women will say that they don’t feel heard in hospitals or that their wishes weren’t respected. We must appreciate that the hospitals are very understaffed and a lot of that side of things isn’t their fault because they’re trying to treat the medical needs and get the babies delivered safely. However, I bring this up to prepare expectant mothers, as this is a common complaint. Most women deliver their baby and are out in two days, which is extraordinarily quick and can be a shock. It’s been especially tough with Covid in the mix because they haven’t been able to get the same support from their partners and have had to take on a lot of information on their own, in addition to going through huge physical and mental challenges.”

Irene spoke on how loss of control during pregnancy also comes into play physically: “It can be a struggle to come to terms with the changes of the body, especially among those who may be suffering from an eating disorder, but it can be hard for anyone. The changes occur so quickly and we’ve met some women who truly want to be pregnant but are frightened to see their body alter.

“To a certain extent, we all try to exercise control over our lives and our image and pregnancy is about accepting a loss of some of that control and, hopefully, enjoying the process. If these concerns are affecting a woman’s enjoyment of her pregnancy, she needs additional support, either from a counsellor or a more specialised organisations, such as Bodywhys.”

“I would like women or partners reading this article who may be expecting a child or are young parents to feel a sense of hope. The most important thing is conversation, talk about how the unexpected may happen. I don’t say this to act as the devil’s advocate but it’s best to be prepared to meet challenges rather than to be knocked sideways when everything isn’t always running smoothly. 

“For example, you may have postnatal depression, familiarise yourselves with the signs and symptoms and know that there is professional support out there ready to help you. It won’t always be this hard, the supports are there for you and we can help to signpost you to them”, Irene concluded.

Click on link to read more in this weeks digital edition

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