Mum / 18 April, 2023 / Illy Morrison

What Is A Birth Debrief? And How To Deal With Maternal Burnout

Midwife Illiyin Morrison shares her advice on the importance of a birth debrief and how to deal with maternal burnout.

What is a debrief

A birth debrief (or birth reflection) is an opportunity for you, or anyone involved in the birth, to talk about your birth experience, the good and the bad bits, with a trained professional in a safe, non-judgemental and affirming environment. Think of it as your chance to speak, tell your story, review your medical notes, ask questions, get clarity and have your unresolved feelings heard, validated and understood. Sharing your birth story is a powerful way to anchor your experience in the present, make sense of it and legitimise it. The act of telling also helps provide insight and perspective on what happened and, in the case of a difficult birth, releases the pent-up emotions around it. I see debriefs as new beginnings – the start of discovering and standing in the truth of your birthing experience.

Why Debriefs are important for fathers and birthing partners

I remember the first time someone emailed me and said, ‘I know this might be a strange request, but would you mind if my husband attended the session too?’ As I read the email I thought how sad it was that, societally, partner trauma has been dismissed to such a degree that it might be seen as a ‘weird’ request for them to join a session to unpack their feelings about the birth of their own child.

Fathers and partners need to be heard and their feelings affirmed, too. Their experience, perceptions and emotions will be different from yours. They were with you through the birth, but they will have viewed everything through a different lens – as spectator, not active participant. They’ll have had a different responsibility and load to bear. But they can be affected by a traumatic birth too, and their feelings are no less valid.

‘Maternal burnout’ and how to deal with it

Let’s be real: parenting is exhausting. As a newborn’s sleep–wake cycle tend to last one to two hours, sometimes less, it’s inevitable that tiredness and exhaustion feature as part of your life as a new parent. And as your baby gets older, they may still wake multiple times a night. You may have other children to care for and other responsibilities during the day, and so you may feel as though you are ‘running on empty’ most of the time.

Symptoms of a burnout

Tiredness and exhaustion, left unchecked, can lead to burnout and sometimes even depression. These can be hard to recover from, so if you are feeling too tired to care about yourself and sleep isn’t making you feel better, it’s vital that you take this seriously. It’s a sign that you might need some support.

It was only when I became a parent that I understood how ‘burnout’ – a term I’d always associated with stressed-out execs and employees – could also apply to motherhood. Because, well, they’re basically the same, aren’t they? You are giving of yourself continuously, and you’re stressed out, overworked and definitely underpaid. But, unlike a job, you can’t walk out on your baby.

It can happen at any time

I didn’t actually feel burnt out until my daughter was over one. In the first year of a baby’s life, most parents are operating on autopilot. Particularly following a traumatic birth, all we’re trying to do is get through each day, get our babies fed, get them washed, play with them and get them to sleep.

When Ihsan was about eighteen months old, I had a bit of a crash. And that’s what burnout is like, a crash. Extreme exhaustion caused by high levels of stress around parenting is your rude welcome to parental burnout – you feel depleted, have nothing left to give, and even the simplest demand on your time feels crushing. You may feel low, irritable, tired (no, make that shattered), guilty, overwhelmed, trapped and resentful. To cope, you may under-eat, overeat, or rely on caffeine or other substances to keep you going. Literally, everything feels like it’s too much.

You won’t be surprised to read that many of the things we have covered in the last few chapters – perfectionism, falling for the ‘perfect mother’ myth, feeling overwhelmed by your mental load, and more – are primary causes of burnout, along with prolonged parenting-related stress and inadequate rest.

Dealing with burnout

Maternal burnout is real. It’s not a sign of failure if you have it, and you’re not a bad parent; it’s just a sign that you have been doing too much and that needs to change – immediately. You need to stop, recognise that you can’t do it all – especially without adequate rest, support and time to yourself – then you need to recalibrate.

Safeguarding your relationship in the face of the challenges of new parenthood

You and your partner have brought this wonderful little human into the world, and it can seem like a cruel trick to now have to work to reconnect with each other, right? But it is possible, and it’s so worth the effort, especially when you understand how normal it is to feel like you need to readjust to life with each other now that your baby is here. The key is to keep talking. Open and honest conversation, it doesn’t always have to be deep and heartfelt but just open channels.

But sometimes those deeper conversations need to happen. You may find you are able to have these conversations with your partner quite naturally, or you might need some help to get the conversation started. That’s OK. You can use your birth reflection session as a starting point for a conversation if you like. If not, pick your moment and gently broach the subject you are wanting to speak about. You can keep circling back, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t worry if it takes time. Most good things do!

Article by Illiyin Morrison, author of The Birth Debrief: Reflecting on pregnancy, reframing birth, redefining post-partum published by Quercus.

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