Dina Pataki is an ICF Certified Integral Coach specialized in Perinatal Mental Health. On this occasion, we wanted to have an expert on the subject of motherhood and fatherhood, to normalize little by little the feelings that parents have and that everything can be discussed.
We were lucky enough to interview Dina Pataki and learn a little more about her. Read on to find out what we discovered.
We saw that one of the reasons you felt inspired to serve as a coach was your experience with your children. You experienced firsthand what many women go through today. Tell us a little more about your story and how you managed to overcome the obstacles.
The arrival of each of my boys has brought a massive shift for me. With my eldest I became a mother for the first time, and like many parents, I found the transition not quite what I was expecting. I was expecting to feel an immediate rush of love upon seeing my baby for the first time. I was expecting mother nature to kick in and nurse with ease. I was expecting to feel happy, fulfilled, and complete. I was lucky to have a blissful pregnancy, and I thought that I would equally experience a euphoric and wholesome “new mother” experience.
But I found it hard to bond with my baby. Breastfeeding was a terrible and painful experience and had to give it up in the end. I was overwhelmed and utterly exhausted and could not find joy in my new life. I was thinking that perhaps I had done a horrible mistake and was unfit to be a mother. I missed my old life and my confident self. And the more I was having these thoughts, the more guilt I felt, creating a vicious circle of self-doubt and shame. But what scared me the most was a profound feeling of hopelessness, like it was going to feel like this for ever. I realized that there were so many myths surrounding early parenthood.
With my second boy, there was a different kind of shift. A shift in my notion of time and how I want to spend it. I realized that I was stuck in an unfulfilling job. It just didn’t make sense for me to leave my kids at a day care, so that I would spend my day doing something I no longer felt connected with in any way. I wanted to work, but I wanted my work to be meaningful.
What helped me the most in both these transitions was talking about it. I am blessed to have a very supportive partner and extended family. I remember reaching out to so many people about how I felt, asking whether it was normal; above all my mother, friends of my mother, and colleagues who were parents before me. I also started to educate myself on the postpartum period and I was blown away by how common emotional wellness complication are after birth. I was even more shocked by how many different perinatal mood disorders affect parents and how prevalent they are! I found it strange that it was never discussed in the prenatal courses I had attended. Not short after I was introduced to coaching and I just felt it in my gut, that this was my calling.
What work experience did you have before coaching, and how did this help you do what you do today?
I was always drawn to understanding human behavior and being of service to others. My hunch as a young adult was quite right when I decided to study psychology. Unfortunately, back then in Greece (my country of origin) it was still very new as a profession, and so opportunities were scarce. I started to work in the hospitality industry instead and later when I came to Switzerland, I moved to the FMCG industry. In total, I have 18 years of experience in multinational companies, and looking back to all the different positions I ever held, they were always service oriented. But frankly, what has helped me the most is experiencing firsthand, what the return to work after maternity leave feels like.
It’s beyond the practical stuff (like finding a day care or nanny, rearranging your schedule and baby routines, etc.) even though this is still very challenging on its own. And, it’s beyond performance at work, the level of workload, or missed promotion opportunities, which again these are very challenging on their own. On top of all this, there is an emotional and identity component, which is most frequently overlooked.
Imagine if you’ve struggled with the transition into parenthood; returning back to work with a bruised emotional self, to take on added work pressure, isn’t a good idea. 1 in 7 mothers and 1 in 10 fathers experience Postpartum Depression or Anxiety. There needs to be some emotional healing before or at least during the return to work.
Finally, becoming a parent is a seminal developmental stage in an adult’s life. You are the same, and yet you’re not the same person anymore. Your values, your priorities, your entire identity shifts. A lot of working parents feel guilty to see their kids again after a day’s work, only for 30 minutes before they go to bed, and they don’t know what to do. Some want to redirect themselves to different jobs but find themselves stuck not knowing what else they could do or how to get there. I can assure you, very few, if any, would ever open up about this to their line manager.
Having experienced all of this and witnessing other colleagues going through the same “return to work journey” deeply touched me and I decided to specialize as a perinatal coach.
Do you think that the topic of motherhood is a topic that is rarely talked about, and how do you think we could normalize the process of motherhood and what it entails?
I believe that there has been an improvement over the last few years. There is a healthy conversation now around diversity and inclusion, slowly seeing women better represented in senior positions. We see more and more countries and companies extending equal parental leave to both parents, which is huge. And in general, there is talk about mental wellness at work.
I feel however, that perinatal mental health specifically, is still taboo and far from being sufficiently addressed both in and outside the work environment. It’s a very uncomfortable discussion people don’t want to have. Having a baby is such a joyful and celebratory event, it’s very distressing for parents to share how much they’re struggling around an experience that is meant to be joyful. People around them are also not aware and frequently brush it off as “it’s just hormones” (for women) and “you need to be the strong one” (for men).
Let’s not forget that in our society we value and admire parents who sacrifice themselves for their children. Some parents think that this is it! Like generations of parents before, just do the best you can and don’t “complain”. Also, a lot of parents feel that they have no right to feel anything bad, because they live in a nice country, they have a job, a partner, a healthy baby, so they should not “complain” either – this is called comparative suffering. Finally, in cases of postpartum depression, anxiety, rage, obsessive / compulsive thoughts, etc. parents are often afraid that their baby may be taken away from them, if they share what they are experiencing. There is definitely a lot more work to be done on educating, normalizing these experiences, and actively supporting mothers and fathers.
Education for me is the first step. All health service providers that meet new parents, no matter their specialty, should inform parents of basic symptoms, so they are aware, and normalize reaching out for support. Screening tests for depression and anxiety should be part of the regular antenatal and postnatal checkup routines. Parents sharing their experience – their whole experience – with new parents. And more mental health professionals to specialize in perinatal mental health, to be able to support the unique needs of parents during this extremely vulnerable phase in their life.
What are the primary needs for which your clients come to you, and how do you go about helping them?
First of all, I support both mothers and fathers. My clients are primarily either expecting parents or new parents, who are not feeling like “they’re supposed to feel”. They usually feel very overwhelmed, like everything is hanging by a thread. They usually do not enjoy parenthood and they don’t know why (plus feel guilty about it). They usually are driven by a lot of myths around parenthood; the “perfect parent” being one of them, which creates a lot of anxiety, self-doubt, and self-judgement. They feel like they’ve lost themselves and grieve for their old life. In this respect, they especially find it very difficult to process so many contradictory emotions – like being happy and sad at the same time – but also to allow themselves to feel all these “negative” emotions.
They also may be struggling within their relationships. Afraid that they’ve lost themselves as a couple; that they will never be “us” again. They may also feel jealous, angry, or resentful towards their partner, and compare who does more chores or who has more “me-time”. The Return Back to Work is another very frequent area of support I provide, primarily on the emotional and identity part that we talked about earlier.
A lot of times, what my clients experience – their presenting issue – is the outcome of something else deeper. So, my purpose is not only to address their current feelings and experiences, but also to find out where all of this is coming from and to work towards healing in that deeper level. For example, a new mother who constantly doubts herself, may be struggling with perfection – trying to be the “perfect mother” and setting herself up for “failure”. It’s very likely however that she struggles with perfection in other domains of her life too. Perhaps this is part of her “way of being” long before she became a mother, and so there needs to be deeper work.
This is the Integral Coaching methodology, where we do not coach the problem, we coach the person. Another advantage of Integral Coaching is that it is a holistic approach. It focuses on the mind, heart, and body. This makes it the perfect coaching method as parents need both emotional and somatic healing, following the birth, sleep deprivation, and overstimulation from a crying baby.
Finally, is there anything that you’d like to leave us off with
Yes, I would also like to mention that I support parents beyond this first journey into parenthood. I support parents who had to put on hold their personal needs, and now feel that they can focus on their own dreams and self-development. A lot of parents find themselves in this phase of “reclaiming themselves”, once their little ones have grown a little bit. But they may feel confused, disoriented, and stuck, not knowing where to start from. They want to create meaningful and sustainable change in their life and need guidance to do so. I know I certainly found myself in this phase, and what an honor it is for me now, to be offering support to other parents.
I believe that Becoming a Parent is an amazing opportunity for self-growth: to build self-trust, to align your values with your career and to grow into the person you are meant to be. Becoming a Parent is a rite-of-passage. And like any rite-of-passage it can be painful, overwhelming, and scary. On the other side, however, awaits an expanded – deeper, richer, stronger – sense of self.
Special thanks to Dina Pataki for being part of this excellent interview.