First published by The Herald on 22 October 2019
ANYONE who has ever given birth will have recognised the look in Meghan Markle’s eyes when ITV News reporter Tom Bradbury asked her about the impact the past few months have had on her physical and mental health.
“Would it be fair to say that things are not really okay, things have been a struggle?” he asked during the Sunday-night documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey. “Yes,” she almost whispered back, her face screaming “and then some”.
Good for her. Having a child has got to be one of the hardest things a woman will ever do, with the hormone-ravaged reality of life with a newborn baby falling well short of the socially constructed vision of bliss we are led to expect. Far from basking in the love-soaked afterglow we are told comes hand in hand with the creation of a new life, most new mothers struggle with the impact having a child has on their mental health. The fact so few of us feel able to talk about it until we are well and truly back on an even keel only serves to make things worse.
But while coping with the reality of life with a new baby is hard enough at the best of times, doing it under the watchful gaze of a tabloid press pack that has turned against you, that wilfully pours scorn on every word you say and every move you make, has got to be a whole lot worse. That Ms Markle, who said in the programme that she had recently tried but failed to adopt a “British stiff upper lip”, found the courage to speak out at all is nothing short of remarkable.
Only, somewhat predictably, not everyone seemed to think so, with the fact that Ms Markle’s already privileged life became even more gilded thanks to her marriage to Prince Harry apparently meaning she should no longer be party to human feelings.
“I don’t want to hear another word about Meghan (and Harry’s) “struggles”,” railed The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, adding that as “so many young mums are genuinely struggling – too much work, guilt, costly childcare, credit card debt” it is “tactless and unfeeling” for a Royal with “boundless wealth, beauty, staff at her beck and call” to complain. Because wealth, beauty and a gaggle of well-trained nannies is all it takes to secure a person’s emotional well-being, of course.
Though Ms Pearson’s words were roundly criticised by many of her followers on social media, not everyone disagreed, with narcissism and a lack of self-awareness just two of the charges that were levelled at the young royal. Such attitudes are unfortunately nothing new, with the mistaken idea that the rich are insulated from pain and suffering by the mere fact of their wealth proving to be a common one.
Only last month The Guardian had to apologise after running an editorial suggesting that the grief former Prime Minister David Cameron felt on the death of his disabled son Ivan was somehow tempered by the fact he had led a privileged life; that his pain was made easier due to his wealth and position. Mr Cameron, the paper said, “has known pain and failure in his life but it has always been limited failure and privileged pain”, the death of his child seemingly made easier for him because he had been cared for in “the better functioning and better funded” parts of the NHS.
Though the publication later conceded that the attack “fell far short of our standards”, the idea that it would be more tolerable to watch your child die on a well-staffed ward than on a cash-strapped one is as ludicrous as to suppose an army of nannies can somehow make the post-natal experience an easier one.
It is certainly true that a lack of cash can make problems with mental health worse, with the charity Mind making the point that just as poor mental health can make managing money harder, so too worrying about money can make poor mental health worse. But there is nothing to suggest the opposite is true; that having no money worries can make poor mental health better or that living a life steeped in privilege can make you immune from mental health issues in the first place.
It has become more common in recent years for people with a public profile to speak openly about their experiences of mental health, with Prince Harry himself talking often of the struggles he has faced since losing his mother while still a child. Having spoken about the counselling he received after fearing a complete breakdown in his late 20s, Harry told Tom Bradbury in Sunday night’s programme that he still does not feel he is out of the woods and that his mental health is something he feels he has to constantly manage.
Yet while the message that in general terms it’s okay not to be okay seems to be getting across, the image of a perfect mother holding a perfect baby remains something most women still try to live up to, with discussions of post-natal mental ill-health remaining something of a taboo as a result. Perhaps that’s because for most women the effects are temporary and once we have recovered it is easy to forget how debilitating it can be. But we owe it to each other to be honest about our experiences, whether we have put them behind us or not.
The truth is that there is nothing on earth that can prepare a woman for the emotional impact that giving birth has, with even those who, like Meghan Markle, appear to have it all likely to be hit. After nine months of waiting, planning, blooming, there you are – breasts leaking, body aching – wondering why, when the very thing you wanted is in your arms, all you feel capable of doing is crying.
For too long women have been conditioned to hide that reality; to straighten their hair, put on their lipstick and get out there with their babies pretending everything is alright; to, as some might have it, adopt a stiff upper lip. We need to stop that, though, because, as Meghan Markle told ITV News, “what that does internally is really damaging”.
In conceding that things have not been easy, that life has been a struggle since she gave birth to baby Archie in May, Ms Markle will have given more women the courage to admit that life with a newborn can be unimaginably tough. We should thank her for it, because while many of us know that it’s okay not to be okay after the birth of a child there are still too few visible women willing to take the risk of standing up and saying so. Having that platform and choosing to use it is where Meghan Markle’s true privilege lies.