Working as a clinical psychologist for the past 22 years, I constantly meet mothers who, like most, face challenges such as sleep deprivation, loneliness, relationship adjustment or low mood. But over the last decade, and particularly over the past five years, I have been seeing something different, a new trigger causing suffering among clients. I call this trigger BS: Bombardment Stress.
What is BS?
BS may sound irreverent – even funny – but it is very real. Mothers suffering from BS have lost sight of, and confidence in, their internal compass – the primary tool for making decisions that reflect or support their own values, emotions, needs and logical reasoning. The reason for this loss? Instead of trusting their own instincts or reasoning, sufferers of BS rely instead on the ever-changing, often-unreliable torrent of information from others, including well-meaning but ill-informed friends, the anachronistic advice of relatives and, increasingly, from social media.
Simply put, Bombardment Stress is what happens when a mother is overwhelmed by a mass of contradictory opinions, information or advice, often coming from multiple sources, and commonly expressed as reliable, even absolute, facts. Sufferers of BS experience feelings of confusion and self-doubt, resulting in inertia, paralysis or repeatedly changing course.
The following example of BS is hypothetical but informed by real-life experiences of clients and friends.
You are a new mum with a 10-month-old baby. Here are some typical BS ruminations:
I just don’t know how to care for my baby well enough. I know he seems safe and well, but I just can’t decide which parenting approach to take. Routine-led or baby-led? I’m losing sleep over what to do and I know that can be dangerous. I Googled what could happen if I don’t get enough sleep and I’m scared I could get depressed again, but I also read that if I leave my baby to self-settle, he might get stressed and his cortisol levels could lead to permanent damage.
But then a friend told me that she’s read online that cortisol levels can’t be accurately measured. White noise gets him to sleep which means that I am less fragile, but I read that he could develop autism from white noise. Also, I would like to go back to work but I read that for my relationship with baby it’s better I stay at home. That’s what my mum did with me.
But what happens if my husband’s work starts drying up? I’ll need to help pay the mortgage, but that means putting baby in childcare. I don’t want a stranger looking after him, especially if he hasn’t learned to self-settle…
The effects of BS on new mothers
I notice that four different things tend to happen when new mothers feel overwhelmed and confused by a multitude of polarised parenting opinions:
- You might get lucky if the techniques or style you choose work for you and your baby first time.
- You might choose a technique or style that objectively works for you and baby but nonetheless remain unconfident that you are doing the “right” thing.
- You might chop and change your techniques or style as new and polarised information comes to you, losing sight of whether what you are doing suits you and baby.
- Grab and Freeze. You might grab at information that is offered and, even if the technique or style doesn’t work for you or baby, freeze your position because a multitude of opinion urges that you are doing the so-called right thing. This is risky because parenting needs to be flexible.
BS and competition
In all my years in practice the mothers I have met have one fundamental desire: they want to do the best for their baby. Because so much parenting opinion is expressed as fact yet is ever-changing, and because we so want to “get it right” it is tempting to push our opinion via social media or at mothers’ groups to convince ourselves and other mothers that we are taking the only certain path. When different mothers vigorously push their varied opinions, it can trigger feelings of anger and hurt. At its extreme, this kind of opinion-pushing has been dubbed the “Mother Wars”.
So what makes a good enough mother?
The combination of evidence and experience provide a number of proven approaches to good parenting including:
- We need to tune in to and look after our own physical and emotional health
- We need to form a secure relationship with our baby
- We need to use kind words and gentle hands
- We need to touch our baby and talk to them
- We need to be sensitive to our baby’s cues and, some of the time, read and respond to these cues correctly. Remember your baby knows when you are trying.
Above all we need to be Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind. We need to be calm.
The rest is pretty much up for grabs.
I will explore these paths to self-care and good mothering in my videos.
It pays to remember that, before the internet and a multitude of how-to books, our parents faced their own parenting challenges: fewer choices to make, less effective medication for perinatal disorders, addiction to sleeping pills. But they also had space to think, to reflect and to listen to the advice of the seminal baby guru of the time, Dr Benjamin Spock: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
If a mother presents with BS, I of course check for underlying problems such as depression, general anxiety, OCD, trauma, hypomania, or psychosis.
Often, my clients have a clear bill on those fronts.
Well, I say, you have BS.
The reaction is usually shock.
“What?!” (Did my psychologist really say that?)
“Bombardment Stress,” I say. And then I explain what it is.
“OK,” they say, “I get it – it’s so true. But how can you help me?”
My intervention for BS is a targeted, two-step approach: first, learn how to separate science from opinion or misinformation. Second – the hardest part – learn how to make decisions based on your values, your needs and your wants. In other words, discover how to trust yourself again.
So Mamas, how to cut through the Bombardment Stress and come out on the other side? When it comes to separating fiction from fact, there are key cues to consider:
- Who is disseminating the information and what are their qualifications?
- Is the information science or evidence-based? If there a number of studies with different findings it is likely that there is, as of yet, no definitive answer.
- Think about the language used. People who are trying to sell an idea for money, or just because they want to vigorously defend their opinion, often use words like “must”, “the secret is”, “10 bad things about…”. Solid research usually uses phrases like “shows a relationship between”, “trend towards”, “could mean that”, “preliminary results”.
As for step two – learning to tune in and trust yourself – it can be a slow process that necessitates reflection, self-compassion, patience and mindfulness. Up against these resilient internal tools, Bombardment Stress doesn’t stand a chance.