Nothing fascinates me more than the transformation of a woman into a mother. Motherhood is a wonderful experience—it is also very stressful. It changes your entire life in an instant. Here is a short list of things that change after the baby is born: hormones, feeding baby, sleep schedule, freedom, self-esteem, reliance on support systems, spousal roles and responsibilities, identity, body image, etc.…
It’s no wonder that 1/7 women struggle with a Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD), commonly referred to as just “postpartum depression”. PMAD encompasses anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, bipolar disorder and postpartum psychosis.
When I struggled after the birth of my daughter, people often made comments or asked questions that made me cringe. I created a list of things NOT to say to someone who is struggling with PMAD or the transition to motherhood. This list is not intended to single out anyone who has made these comments, but rather shed some light onto why they are hurtful.
1.) “You look tired/exhausted/overwhelmed.”
Well, we probably look tired because we are. We’ve just given birth to a tiny dictator that we can’t get to stop crying. We also can’t turn our brains off enough to sleep. Maybe we feel lonely and sad and unmotivated. Maybe we are filled with anxiety and panic every second of the day. Instead of telling someone they look tired, ask them what you can do to help.
2.) “Just sleep while the baby sleeps.”
A lot of us struggling with PMAD try so hard to sleep and we just CAN’T. It’s very counterproductive to hear someone tell us to take a nap or sleep while our infant is sleeping. If only it were that easy. Instead of telling us to sleep, just tell us to take some time for ourselves. Offer to watch the baby while we read, clean, go for a walk or just chill for a second.
3.) “When are you having your next one?”
Well at this point in time we are thinking we are NEVER having another. We feel like we aren’t even good enough to take care of the baby we do have, how on earth could we have another?! This question promotes panic and guilt in a new mother.
4.) Any comment related to feeding the baby like…“Are you already done breastfeeding?” or “Breast is best.”
Look, some moms really want to breastfeed their baby but they can’t due to medications, abnormalities or milk production. If a mom hasn’t brought up feeding methods on her own, just consider it off limits to ask about.
5.) “Aren’t you just loving every moment of motherhood?”
Quite honestly, no, we aren’t. This question may also make us panic because we think we are the only ones not enjoying every second of this new life. We already have media images portraying perfect motherhood as well as the selective memory of those with older children. Right now we are in the trenches, we just need someone to empathize with us and tell us we are doing a good job.
I completely understand that a lot of these comments are said with love and no intent to cause harm. I ask everyone who is visiting a new mom, to sit with them and really ask them how they are doing. Don’t just ask about the baby, ask about the mom. Offer to help with something specific (food/laundry/watching the baby). Help her not feel so lonely and isolated.
And to someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have anxiety or depression after giving birth—just imagine second guessing everything you do. Imagine feeling guilty 24/7. Imagine not knowing how you are going to survive this motherhood thing. Imagine comparing yourself to every other new mom and thinking “What is wrong with me?” Imagine hearing phantom babies crying in the middle of the night/while you’re in the shower/whenever you finally relax. Imagine watching your baby sleep because you are sure that s/he will stop breathing. Take some time and imagine how you felt during a hard season of your life. It’s my guess if you really stop and think—you can identify with the emotions of sadness, guilt, anxiety and shame. You may not understand the circumstances surrounding the emotion, but you can certainly understand the emotion.
If you are currently a mom that is struggling with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder or the overwhelming transition to motherhood, know that you are not alone. Many choose not to talk about their struggles for fear of judgement and stigma. It’s amazing the friendships you can form with other moms when you are open and honest!
Let’s not forget the dads. 1/10 dads struggle with depression after pregnancy. The symptoms may look a little different– irritability, aggressiveness, “checking-out”, staying extremely busy with distractions/new habits and/or feeling isolated due to the new mom and baby partnership.
Finding balance and the new “you” after motherhood can be difficult. Don’t hesitate to seek support from loved ones and outside professionals.
Postpartum Support International warm line: 1-800-944-4773
There are weekly anonymous chats for both moms and dads here.