Anna Williamson: Breaking the stigma of peri and postnatal mental health.

Awesome mama of two little ones, bubbly presenter and talented author Anna Williamson chats to The Mummy MOT about her passionate crusade to improve maternal mental health, not being afraid to ask for help, and not being to live without nipple cream!

Anna is a doting mum to eight-week-old Eleanora and three-year-old Enzo. She has been very open about the fact that she suffered severe peri and postnatal depression with her first pregnancy. She recently hosted a film on BBC One’s Inside Out about perinatal anxiety. In it, she highlighted the amazing work being done by the NHS community perinatal mental health teams all over the UK. She credits the team in Hertfordshire for giving her the pregnancy and birth she always wanted the second time around.

From April, 60,000 women a year who have babies in England will undergo an assessment of their health and wellbeing with a GP or practice nurse at their surgery. This move will no doubt be welcomed by Anna and others who work hard to raise awareness of peri and postnatal health.

The busy mum is a dating agent on E4’s Celebs Go Dating, her most recent book is ‘Breaking Mum and Dad: The Insider’s Guide Parenting Anxiety. Anna is an ambassador for Mind.

Hi Anna! How is your day going?

I’m at home with both of my kiddies which is always lovely. I’m very lucky, I have a very lovely nanny who has been invaluable because I’m working and what I do for a living doesn’t afford maternity leave, but I’ve had a good morning and I’m fairly rested which is always a good start.

What’s it like having a newborn and a toddler?

It’s a lot nicer than I thought it would go! I’d braced myself for the worst. We deliberately wanted the age gap that we have. I wanted my older son to be able to understand a little bit more. He’s wonderful, he’s so helpful. He’s happy to wait if I need to do something with the baby. The love that he has for her has completely bowled me over. It makes me feel very complete having the two of them.

Describe motherhood in three words?

Totally all-consuming.

Are you surprised that so many women are still suffering from peri and postnatal anxiety and depression?

I’m not shocked but mental health is something we’re talking about a lot more. I’ve been campaigning for well over a decade. I don’t think motherhood and parenthood have caught up, tackling the stigma that surrounds it. Motherhood is such a personal experience and inherently I think mums worry that people will think that they’re not a good mother, that they’re in some way ungrateful. I think with mental health and motherhood, there’s this added pressure, that you’re not enjoying it. You, know, what’s lovelier than a little baby? But for the parents that are dealing with that little baby, they are very much a 24/7 cycle. I’m not surprised by the statistics. But, people are starting to understand more that peri and postnatal health is a massive thing.

You mentioned mums only get three minutes to talk about their mental health at the six-week GP check. How would you suggest making this appointment more valuable for the mum?

One thing I’ve learned with mental ill-health is that people aren’t mind readers. Mental illness isn’t easy to pinpoint physically, you have to be brave to reach out for that help. I think we can all be quite guilty of answering the ‘how are you?’ with the bog-standard ‘I’m fine’, but I think it’s important for GPs to answer that question twice. I think after you answer it a second time you tend to get a bit more real. I think it’s important for any new mum to utilise that appointment and to talk about how you’re feeling. If you feel you are going to freeze up in that session, make some notes before you go in or even share those notes with your GP. That way you’re opening yourself up to them to help signpost you and give you some options and solutions hopefully.  I just had my six-week check yesterday. I was asked ‘How are you in yourself and is there anything you want to talk about?’ and that was an opportunity for me and I said ‘I am feeling fine’. I have a history of ill mental health, particularly postnatally. We did the PHQ test and the GAD test. They are a very good guide on how you’re feeling. I think they can be very helpful in identifying your mood.

How important is the work of perinatal mental health teams?

They are vital. There should be so much more awareness and more resources placed into the perinatal health teams. You can self-refer, you can refer via your GP, your midwife. If you in any way feel that your mental health is suffering, that it needs a little TLC, you can access these guys. What they offer is amazing, They offer you psychological support, psychiatric support, medication if you need it. For me, they’ve been in helping me process my first birth which was very traumatic and resulted in very poor mental health. They supported me from preconception to conception and then pregnancy and postnatally as well to make sure that my mental health has been stable. That’s the think about mental health, it’s very personal and bespoke. There’s no one size fits all. The teams work with you. Even just having that safety net of knowing that you have that wonderful team if you need them. That on its own is enough for me to feel supported.

Tell us about your own experience of perinatal and postnatal anxiety?

I had perinatal anxiety with my son. I didn’t enjoy pregnancy as a result of it. I didn’t seek any help at that time but now I’m passionate about recommending to other mums to not suffer in silence and to get help. The pregnancy physically was great but mentally I was highly anxious about the birth. I had 40-hour labour. I had a forceps delivery where I hemorrhaged very badly and some people may not know but the symptoms of anxiety are very similar to being anemic. It was all mushed up in one. I was feeling very shaky, heart palpitations. My initial burst into motherhood was very marred, because of the trama of the birth. I struggled to bond initially with my son. It affected my ability to feed him properly. So, it was a very difficult time and it took me about six months to pull myself through that.

When was the turning point, when did you emerge from the darkness?

It was thanks to my son. He smiled at me for the first time. He was about six weeks old. I genuinely remember that feeling, the oxytocin, the bonding love hormone, and it just kicked in. I remember him smiling up at me on the changing mat and I was looking down at him. It sounds cheesy, but it was like the curtains had opened a little bit and I was looking at him and thinking, ‘ oh wow, he likes me, and you know what? I think I like you too.’ From that moment I knew things were going to get better. It was the moment I needed for you know what? ‘You need me and I need you and somehow we’re going to figure this out together.

What did that experience teach you about yourself?

I am a very strong person. I can be vulnerable like anyone else. I think the greatest strength comes from being vulnerable. And the moment I allowed myself to be vulnerable and asked for help was the moment I became stronger as a person. Motherhood has shaped me into what I would consider, a much more fulfilled person. I know no matter how challenging things can get, with taking the time and taking help, you can get yourself into a much better place. I never regret any of the struggles, the ups, and downs, because it’s shaped the person that I am – the incredibly lucky and loving mother that I now am. My children are everything to me.

You’ve had a better experience of pregnancy next time around?

It was a lovely experience and I loved pregnancy second time around. Originally I wanted three. Then I thought I probably won’t get any more than one with the problems I had but now we’ve got two and I’m enjoying having two so much, if the old eggs are still working in a couple of years, I definitely like to try for a third.

What keeps you sane in the chaos of modern life?

I treat myself every so often to a guilt-free full body massage and I love it. I’ve just been signed off my post six weeks and I enjoy exercising. I think that’s highly important for physical health. That keeps me sane too. Also, a very large glass of red!

What one thing can you not live without as a mum?

At the moment nipple cream! I’m breastfeeding so an inexhaustible supply of nipple cream. Probably a little bit too much information but it’s also extremely important as a mum and also a handbag full of snacks. I literally need a coffee IV too.

You’re very honest on Instagram, how important is it to ‘be real’ in this age of perfect selfies?

I think it’s really important, there’s a place for everything on Instagram, just take it with a pinch of salt. There is no other way for me other than what I am. I am extremely authentic and I like to be who I am. Where that comes from is when you hit rock bottom, which I have, several years ago, and you pull yourself back up there’s a sense of achievement and empowerment, of being warts and all, that’s how it is. It’s a nice position to be in. If people don’t like honesty then they’re welcome to scroll by.

How do you juggle motherhood with being a successful presenter and author?

Help. I have a wonderful nanny. I didn’t have one when I had Enzo. The only way I’m able to do Celebs Go Dating and do my work, I don’t have set hours, I don’t have a set job. I’m also a huge advocate and fan of a work/life balance. I always make sure that my children are my number one priority.  No job is more important than my children. It has been known for me to drop everything if they need me. Make sure you’re giving enough time to everybody.

Thanks, Anna, you’re an inspiration!


Breaking Mum and Dad: The Insider’s Guide to Parenting Anxiety, published by Bloomsbury. £8.99