StoriesPart of How to belong
Part5

Belonging, babies and self-belief

Becoming a mother is transformative, but also disorienting. Tanya Perdikou reflects on the importance of support networks to new mothers, and how she navigated the isolation of early parenthood by reconnecting with herself.

Words by Tanya Perdikou|artwork by Naomi Vona

  • Serial
Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows the original head of a young girl from the photograph beneath. The girl is pictured from the chest up and is smiling to the camera. Apart from her head and face, the rest of the image is a painted cyan background covered in small blue dots and purple lines forming cell like structures around the blue dots. The girl's clothes are painted differently, with a yellow background, covered in orange dots, surrounded by loops of purple lines, arranged almost like scales or feathers.
Belonging, babies and self-belief. Tanya. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

Feelings of fear, inadequacy and insecurity have been my bedfellows throughout my life – ghosts of the trauma and alienation suffered by my mum, dad and grandma. When I became pregnant these feelings intensified. Set against the love I felt for my unborn child, the anxiety that something would go wrong was crippling.

When he was born – in Bangkok, miles from my support network – I was at once elated and isolated. I loved my child intensely, but had also lost sight of who I was, and what my place in the world had become.

The resolution to these crises lay with rediscovering my sense of belonging.

Why we need neonatal networks

There will always be a dichotomy at the heart of belonging. The need to be true to our beliefs, even when it puts us at odds with others, exists alongside the need to have a place within a wider group that loves and accepts us.

In motherhood it’s still important to fulfil both of these needs, but it can be harder than ever as our identities are shattered and our social connections reconfigured.

Medical professionals are under no illusions about how important it is that new mothers feel connected and supported, and that there’s somewhere they belong. Pregnancy health charity Tommy’s advises women to consider their support network before even trying for a baby.

Social isolation and exclusion are consistently cited as predictors of postnatal depression, and further research shows migrant mothers, living away from friends and family, may be twice as likely to experience it.

Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows a painted cyan background covered in small blue dots and purple lines forming cell like structures around the blue dots. The texture of the paint can be seen.
Belonging, babies and self-belief. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

“In motherhood... it can be harder than ever as our identities are shattered and our social connections reconfigured.”

When I contacted Kemi, a Nigerian refugee who became pregnant after she arrived in the UK, she said dealing with pregnancy without her support network very nearly overwhelmed her. “Sometimes I thought about getting an abortion because it was too hard,” she told me. Kemi’s experience was alleviated slightly by getting access to healthcare with the help of Doctors of the World UK.

On the outside looking in

When I became a first-time mum away from home, concerned friends and relatives would often ask if I was going to baby groups. I was, but I still felt disconnected.

My friend Emma-Claire Phillips, a psychotherapist, shared some notes from her research into motherhood and identity with me. This line really sums up why, for me, baby groups didn’t always feel like the best way to connect: “It is quite common at playgroups to exchange details about children’s names and ages and discuss all kinds of information about their sleeping and feeding patterns, without knowing anything (including first names!) about the parents.”

It's hard to feel that sense of belonging and connection when you’ve become anonymous.

Dr Vivek Murphy, author of ‘Together: Loneliness, Health & What Happens When We Find Connection’, stresses that it’s not the number of interactions we’re having in a day that matters, but the quality. As he puts it in one interview, “If we’re not careful, we can go for long periods of time without having an open, honest conversation with a friend or being vulnerable with somebody we love.”

Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows the original head of a young girl from the photograph beneath. The girl's face almost fills the image and she is smiling to the camera. Apart from her head and face, the rest of the image is a painted cyan background covered in small blue dots and purple lines forming cell like structures around the blue dots. The girl's clothes are painted differently, with a yellow background, covered in orange dots, surrounded by loops of purple lines, arranged almost like scales or feathers. The texture of the paint can be seen.
Belonging, babies and self-belief. Tanya. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

“It's hard to feel that sense of belonging and connection when you’ve become anonymous.”

As a new mother a long way from close family and friends, those conversations were hard to come by. I often felt ill at ease in mum groups. Lack of sleep fogged my mind and aggravated my anxieties and insecurities about being an outsider. I would watch the mums I’d just been chatting to exchange numbers with each other but not me, and feel a lump in my throat.

The people I needed around were the ones who understood the chaotic context of my life. I was too spent to prove myself to anyone new.

Finding strength in vulnerability

“The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. No one belongs here more than you,” says Brené Brown in her treatise on belonging. In other words, our sense of belonging doesn’t come from a particular group or place; it starts inside.

It was the dawning of this truth that saved me in those lonely, early days of motherhood. And it came about because, in pregnancy, I did something I had always thought would cost me my sense of belonging: I admitted vulnerability.

Our sense of belonging doesn’t come from a particular group or place; it starts inside.

Before I was pregnant I didn’t believe I had enough inherent worth to be loved simply for being me. Better to reflect back what I thought the other person wanted me to be.

I was known as the “white sheep” of the family. I’d regularly step into the stable, supporter role – there to listen to my dad when he was using, or to see other family members through various difficulties. Asking for help would have compromised this, and while it wasn’t true belonging, it was the closest I could get to it.

Artwork created by painting over the surface of a black and white photographic print with colourful paint. The artwork shows a painted yellow background, covered in orange dots, surrounded by loops of purple lines, arranged almost like scales or feathers. The texture of the paint can be seen.
Belonging, babies and self-belief. © Naomi Vona for Wellcome Collection.

“I learned it was okay not to be all things to all people. That it was possible to fall, and reach out for someone to lift me up.”

Pregnancy away from home forced me to part with this vision of myself. I had to navigate the mental health crisis I faced for the sake of my child, but I couldn’t do it alone. I started therapy. I began to believe in my value outside of pleasing others.

My therapist prepared me for motherhood by teaching me to trust myself and my instincts. She showed me that prioritising my own needs would ultimately benefit my child above all else.

Being a mum hasn’t been easy, or even smooth, but it has been joyful in many ways. The sense of belonging I feel with my son is intense and healing. I’m not sure I would have had this had I not made peace with myself and gained a deeper understanding of my anxieties before he was born.

I learned it was okay not to be all things to all people. That it was possible to fall, and reach out for someone to lift me up. So I asked my husband to leave behind the glamour and prestige of our life in Thailand to be closer to family. It was a lot to sacrifice, but I’d realised that nothing can sustain us like strong, honest connections.

About the contributors

Photograph of Tanya Perdikou

Tanya Perdikou

Author
tanyaperdikou.com
@tperders on Twitter

Tanya Perdikou is a freelance writer. She specialises in telling stories of how the human experience intersects with society, nature and travel. Among others, her work has been published by the BBC, the Huffington Post, the Guardian and the Bangkok Post.

Photograph of Naomi Vona

Naomi Vona

Artist
naomivona.art
@mariko_koda on Instagram

Naomi is an Italian artist based in London. She defines herself as an “archival parasite with no bad intentions”. Her works combine photography, collage and illustration, and her research is focused on altering vintage and contemporary found images, creating a new interpretation of the original shots. Using pens, paper, washi tape and stickers, she gives every image new life. Her work is basically composed of three elements: her background, inspirations and subconscious, which are also the glue that pulls everything together.