Burnley's Snowdrop Doula project is a lifeline for struggling new mums in Lancashire
Michelle Bromley's early twenties not only brought her first child but a gruelling mix of anxiety, postnatal depression, agoraphobia and claustrophobia.
That was 13 years ago. Today, she's determined to help pregnant women and new mothers struggling to cope with the pressures of parenthood.
That's why she set up the Snowdrop Doula project almost eight years ago in her hometown of Burnley, which provides support to families with babies, who live in disadvantaged areas across Lancashire. It became a community interest company almost five years ago.
Michelle said: "After the birth of my first child, I couldn’t leave the house. I'd feel sheer panic: I’d be shaking and my heart would race.
“I struggled with the transition. Suddenly life changed and I was expected to know it all. The pressure on mothers is immense and I worried I wouldn’t be able to do it.
"I was fed up, full of anxiety and would feel angry and frustrated. I’d also feel guilty all the time. As a young mum I felt judged a lot. I was looked at like I’d already failed or was expected to fail in some way."
The word "doula" comes from the Greek for a female slave. Today, however, it refers to a woman without medical training who is employed to offer emotional and practical support to mothers during pregnancy and during and after birth.
Today's doulas bridge the gap between health worker and midwife - but they come at a cost. Michelle's organisation, however, offers the service for free.
Together, the Snowdrop doulas have experience from a range of backgrounds, such as in nursing, mother and baby units and support for victims of domestic violence.
Michelle, who's now a mum-of-three, a full-time director of the organisation and a university student in counselling, said: “For me postnatal depression wasn’t about lack of a bond. I was mostly feeling fed up, had a lack of motivation, yet was fidgety. I didn’t want to stay in yet didn’t want to go out either. I felt constant worry, anxiety and exhaustion."
It was only when a health visitor spotted the signs of mental illness that life began to turn around for Michelle. She put her in touch with a family support worker from the local children’s centre, who arranged both alternative treatments and psychological therapy.
“It was that one-on-one continuous support from someone who I had the chance to get to know and trust, which made the difference," she said.
"It made me realise: we need more of this kind of help. But we need it before women give birth, before they reach the point of mental illness.
“When you’re pregnant, you have all these expectations for how life will be. But you don’t really know the reality is.
“You need someone to explain what you can actually expect from parenthood, that you don’t need to know everything, and that’s its OK to feel rough. You don’t have to be perfect.
“The problem is, you get to know a midwife for a little while, but then you move on to a health worker. After that, you're on your own. So having one constant source of support from someone like a doula can make a massive difference to your well-being."
Last month, the Burnley Express revealed health and social workers have only 1000 days to make a difference to a child's future, if parents are struggling. And Lancashire ranks significantly worse than the England average in almost half of the measures which make up the "child health profile" of an area.
Jennifer Mein, a former Lancashire county Council leader, said mothers used to spend a week in hospital after having a baby to learn how to bathe and feed them, as well as learning the importance of talking to the child.
It's a problem which Michelle herself has lived through - and is hoping to help solve.
“There’s a huge need for doulas in Burnley," she said.
"It has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, depression and deprivation.
“My health visitor and support worker went above and beyond their job roles to help me. But today, because of cutbacks, it would be harder to do that."
That's where a doula comes in - the service offers two-hour appointments and is tailored to a family’s needs, including laundry, holding the baby and emotional advice.
"They’re there to help ease you into parenthood.
“We see women, including those who live in refuges, who change from being anxious and worried to calm and happy.
"They almost become like doulas themselves to their friends.
“Today, families and communities can be broken but we see women supporting women."
It's something which fellow Snowdrop director Michelle Plaiter is also passionate about.
She said: “There’s currently a 'them' against 'us' dynamic when it comes to motherhood.
"Women feel pressure to prove themselves as mothers. TV shows and adverts tell us we have to have all this stuff but it’s all about profits, not what you really need.
"There’s pressure for a child to develop quickly too, or else you feel like a failure as a parent, which is wrong. Each child's different and they develop at their own pace.
"I don’t know why we do it to each other as women. Is it because we're losing community spirit? Do we feel pressure to follow our parents? Are we trying to have it all and but then struggle when going back to work? We need to empower women without scaring them.
“At Snowdrop, we’re giving them space to ask for what they really need.
“But we also help dads, who are often excluded from services.”
Before joining the Snowdrop team, the mum-of-seven ran a breast-feeding enterprise in Darwen.
“Birth and breast-feeding are so emotive," she said.
"But we want to normalise them. When you see a birth on TV, it’s always dramatic, even in the show One Born Every Minute [on Channel 4].
“In the West, breast-feeding is seen as scary and medicinal but it’s normal.
"I want to help women choose the birth which is right for them, when they can. We’d never go against medical advice though. [A doula is not medically trained.]
“Things don’t always go to plan, but we can help families adapt.
“As far as I know, this enterprise is a unique model which hasn’t been done before in the UK - and the beauty of a doula is they’ve been there and done it.”
There is also a hub in Parker Lane, Burnley, which caters to up to three-years-olds. The pair’s vision is to create a “one-stop shop” which offers a store, baby yoga, advice, counselling and massages.
For now, the organisation is hosting a celebration event with lunch, cake and toys on Friday at noon at the hub. Doulas will be on hand to speak to.
Donations of baby items to the Parker Lane shop are also welcome. They will be sold to raise funds for the services or given to families in need.
For more information visit http://snowdropdoula.co.uk/