It’s an honour to feature Dr Emma Svanberg who is a Clinical Psychologist and writer as this weeks Friday Future Female. Emma, supports people during the perinatal period, helping navigate pregnancy, birth and the early years of parenthood and she runs a number of free groups in North London.
I resonate with Emma’s feeling that post children gender roles become acutely defined. Discover her thoughts on gender equality, mental health, the NHS, birth trauma, and modern day parenting struggles. And take a look at Emma’s inspiring campaigns and groups via
FF: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
ES: This can mean so many different things, can’t it? Professionally, I am a clinical psychologist working in the perinatal period, which means I support women and their partners during pregnancy, birth and the early years of parenting. I have a private practice in North London.
Meeting many women through my work, I noticed that there were particular themes that kept emerging and felt that more people should know how common those themes were. So I started blogging in 2011, and post on social media to raise awareness of common mental health difficulties and parenting issues.
I’m also a mother, a partner, a daughter, a sister, a friend! A proud feminist. I’m mixed race, which is a big part of my identity. My parents are from cultures which couldn’t be more different, which left me feeling very much a citizen of the world. Although, having said that, I’m also a Geordie – which could be the most important bit….
FF: What does Future Female mean to you?
ES: Growing up, I would have said that Future Female means women being the same as men. But then I started working with parents, and heard countless stories of how their roles had suddenly become so gendered. And then I had my own children, and experienced that for myself. The loss of career and productivity, the physiological changes affecting only one partner, the unequal division of household labour, the lack of status of parents, the unfair mental load, the burden of financial responsibilities…. So many complex issues.
There felt such a stark conflict between the feminism I felt I understood – that men and women should be equal – and the experience of parents, where differences between men and women often become so stark.
And I look at my own children and how gendered their lives are – the toys they are sold, the language that is used to describe them, the different expectations on their behavior – and it becomes more complex still. In every way, men and women are clearly not as equal as I’d imagined.
I realized that I’d been happily going along with the idea that, to be equal, women needed to become more like men. Now, to me, Future Female means men and women becoming more like each other – in whatever ways suit them as individuals, couples and families. I’d like to see more legislation that makes that possible.
FF: The recent #MeToo hash tag caught the attention of many women who joined the conversation, what is your view and have you been affected by misogynistic behavior during your lifetime and is it something you feel comfortable discussing?
ES: There are many different sides to this movement. I find it heartening in many ways, because finally everyday sexism has become part of everyday conversation and that can only be a good thing. There’s a lot of discomfort around now, people are questioning what behavior is acceptable – to me that level of reflection in how we impact upon others can only be a good thing.
Haven’t we all been affected by misogynistic behaviour, just by existing in a society which privileges men? And of course men have been affected by this too as it privileges only certain men. I am quite thrilled to see how nuanced the conversation is becoming, in questioning so many things that have been seen as normal. It’s like the blinkers are slowly coming off and more and more is being examined.
I’m also mindful though of the many women who are not able to say MeToo, who are silenced, or traumatised, or marginalised. With that in mind, the conversation needs to remain wide reaching and inclusive.
FF: Describe your current work.
ES: Since I qualified, I have been working in perinatal mental health (an interest of mine since my early teens when my dad, Dr P.O. Svanberg, began working in a similar field). I worked in the NHS for most of my career, but set up my own (very small) private practice so that I could work more flexibly around my children. I wish people were aware of just how passionate people are who work in the NHS, how much people are fighting to keep services going often against all the odds. It felt too difficult to do that while raising small children in our particular family circumstances, but I plan to return again in the future because I feel very strongly that people should have easy access to free therapeutic support.
I started teaching hypnobirthing in 2010, as it seemed like a useful technique to prevent so many post-natal problems. I also run a parenting group in my local area, called The Village. I set it up to combat the loneliness so many new parents feel. We meet to discuss issues around parenting in a supportive environment, and we run on donations so there’s no obligation to pay. Since it’s inception, I’ve been involved in the Positive Birth Movement and recently took on a role with them as a perinatal mental health advisor.
I started blogging seven years ago, but got more involved in social media in the last couple of years, because there’s more chance of a discussion. I have run a number of campaigns mostly via Instagram, one of which was the Make Birth Better campaign, which has grown over past months to raise awareness of traumatic births. Most recently I ran the I’m In Your Village campaign, to highlight the support available on social media and how important social support is to parents. Campaigning is something that feels common sense to me – I have seen so many clients who are struggling with their mental health because of societal problems, not personal ones – so I feel that change needs to happen on a larger scale, not individually.
I also write quite a bit, for articles, guest blogs, research and some fiction. I’m working on some children’s stories at the moment. I always wanted to be a writer growing up, in many ways psychology really compliments that as, in many ways, it involves helping people make sense of their own stories.
FF: What do you love about being your own boss, and what are the challenges?
ES: The first answer that came to mind was that I’m not my own boss, my bosses are two small children who are the most demanding employers I’ve come across!
That aside…. One of the benefits of working for myself is that I fit it entirely around my kids. There are challenges to that too, often things just get dropped halfway through and maybe aren’t picked up again for days, but I’m learning that I have to be ok with that. It’s also meant that I can focus on the work that I really enjoy or find rewarding.
I still haven’t quite resolved not working in the NHS and needing to charge for my services, and I’m often flexible about fees so that I can reach people who might not access help otherwise. I run a number of free or donation only groups and talk to a lot of women that way, and I’m always happy to speak to people over the phone or via email if they just want some help thinking things through.
FF: Can you tell us about a project that is inspiring you at the moment?
ES: I hope it’s ok to talk about my own here, because I’ve met so many people through it who have been incredibly inspiring. I started the Make Birth Better campaign last year during Birth Trauma Awareness week. It grew out of a post I did on Instagram talking about the difference between PTSD after birth and Post Natal Depression (PTSD is often misdiagnosed as PND and so not treated correctly). Women began telling me their stories, so I invited people to send in their birth stories over that week and received over 75! I analysed them (my research background is in qualitative research) and pulled out five key themes. These centred around: the physical impact of birth, the (positive and negative) influence of individuals including professionals and birth partners, the culture of secrecy around birth trauma, the far-reaching impact of trauma and women’s own ideas about how to improve birth. I put these together on a website www.makebirthbetter.org
Since then, I have been (in whatever time I can find!) trying to make the website a comprehensive site containing information for anyone who might have been touched by a difficult birth – not just women and their partners, but also healthcare professionals. I’ve linked up with Dr Rebecca Moore, a Perinatal Psychiatrist specialising in birth trauma, as she has been instrumental in creating a Birth Trauma Network of professionals and parents who are interested in preventing birth trauma. We’re aligning the two projects in the coming months, and hope to work together to bring about some positive change.
All of the people I have met and spoken to while learning about birth trauma have been a constant source of inspiration. The women who sent in their stories, who have raised children and battled on despite feeling very distressed by their experiences. The women who couldn’t send in their stories because it’s still too upsetting to go there. The women who had positive births themselves and sent messages of support and solidarity. Partners, often vicariously traumatised, who manage to keep going. The midwives who work with them, often without a break for many hours, and with little support. The obstetricians who work in emergency situation after emergency situation with no room to reflect or debrief, in a culture where a mistake means litigation not support. The parents, volunteers and other birth professionals who work tirelessly to raise awareness and try and make things better for others. There are incredible grassroots movements throughout the birth world and people working with such passion. We’re lucky to have them.
FF: Is their enough support for mental health for women in pregnancy and beyond for new parents?
EM: The short answer is absolutely not. There are things in place – protocols and guidelines, so that every pregnant woman and new parent should be asked about their mental health and should access support if they need it. But there’s a difference between being asked how you’re feeling by a midwife who you’ve known throughout your pregnancy, who has the time and headspace to listen – and being asked by a stranger who you know has a queue of women waiting outside. A recent report by the Royal college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists found that there is huge variation of perinatal mental health care across the UK, with nearly half of the UK having no access to specialist perinatal mental health services.
When I first qualified in 2011, I worked in SureStart Centres. We offered therapy in that comfortable, non-stigmatising environment, within people’s communities. We were also involved in baby groups, attended team meetings with family support workers, midwives and health visitors so that everyone had a psychologist available to them to discuss cases and, often, for their own support. When someone was referred, they’d be called within a month and usually seen within 8 weeks. If they felt they needed more support after our relatively short term interventions were completed, they would be referred on to other services and, again, usually seen within 8 weeks.
Those services have been dramatically cut, SureStart centres have been reduced and their remit expanded beyond early intervention. Often, Family Support Workers take on the role of semi-Social Workers. So only the most in need families are seen, and even then they may have to wait for some time. Funding to primary care psychology services has also changed and been reduced, with a greater emphasis on short term therapies delivered by members of staff who are brilliant and work incredibly hard, but who are trained in just one therapy (usually Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). You will often initially see a more junior member of staff too. So, you may see someone who does not have the breadth of understanding or experience of risk required for the many factors which influence mental health in this period. And we know that people who have an unhelpful experience don’t complain about it, they just don’t come back. Or they look elsewhere to paid-for therapies which may not be evidence based or therapists who may not be regulated.
Funding is going into specialist perinatal mental health services, which is incredible. But we need to fund both specialist and primary care services, so women and their partners are supported throughout their journey from pregnancy to parenthood. If we can properly support pregnant women and new parents at the beginning of their journeys, we can prevent so many problems arising later on for them and their children.
FF: If there was one thing you would change about your life as a woman what would it be?
EM: Nothing at all. I love being a woman, being with women and working with women! I’d maybe hope to include more men in my currently very female-focused life.
FF: Are there key messages you are passing on to your children when it comes to gender equality, how important do you think it is to change your story around gender?
EM: I speak to my children a lot about the ways in which men and women, and boys and girls, are presented in popular culture. We talk about how different bodies are not well represented, the different pressures there are on males and females. We talk about gender fluidity and view gender as a spectrum rather than a fixed entity. I was very conscious having a daughter about bringing her up to value herself and question expectations placed on her. But actually having a little boy has been more enlightening for me, in helping him to challenge the still very ingrained assumptions about boyhood.
Somehow we’re striving to get a balance between wanting them to explore their gender however they wish, while remaining questioning. It’s a big challenge, and we frequently make mistakes. I also do feel sometimes like we’re pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill because what they hear from teachers and peers is also clearly influential and they’re surrounded by messages like ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘be a good girl’ which do make me despair at times. It’s made me and my partner examine our relationship too, and what we’re modeling.
I really like the books that are coming out recently – ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ and ‘Boys who Dare to Be Different’ and was delighted to hear that Quercus books are publishing a book for all children too. But I’d love to see more fairytales where boys and girls (or princes and princesses, or elves and fairies) work together to solve a challenge rather than one of the two having to be in a weaker position. I thought about writing some fairytales about women and men meeting and sort of liking each other, then flitting around for a while until they decided to enter into a fully consensual relationship where they had a lovely time but also argued about whose turn it was to do the laundry… I’m not sure it’d be a bestseller.
FF: What are you reading at the moment?
EM: A lot of research into birth trauma! And ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ which I’ve found very thought provking. I don’t get much time to read these days but I love podcasts.
FF: How would you describe your style?
EM: Pretty much stuck in the 90’s. I was a grunge kid, and I’m still most at home in loose dresses and DM’s!
A big thanks to Emma for taking the time to be part of our Future Female series and add such insightful thoughts to our growing community.