When you struggle as a mom you’ve got two BIG things working against you. First up: the popular perception that becoming a mother is a blissful event, filled with gender reveal cakes and light-infused family pictures. Second: our societal discomfort around mental health.
Most of us are flat out afraid of the topic, which means misperception and fear may inform people’s responses when you open up to them. And that makes it even harder to ask for and get help. But the fact is that as many as 1 in 5 of women experience perinatal mood or anxiety disorders (such as postpartum depression) during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth.
If you are one of them, you may recognize one or more of these old stigma-soaked chestnuts.
1. “You can pray this away.”
2. “Snap out of it.”
3. “You’re just too sensitive.”
4. “Mental health or psychotherapy is for ______________.” (Fill in the blank)
5. “You’re too strong to need help.”
6. “You’re being selfish.”
7. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
8. “You just have to get through this.”
9. “Be positive!”
10. “This should be a happy time.”
11. “What did you do to cause this?”
12. “We don’t talk about our private business outside the home.”
13. “Don’t make our family look bad.”
14. “You just need to _____________.” (get outside, exercise, eat better, sleep more, try harder)
15. “But you’re not crazy!”
16. “Therapy is the easy way out.”
17. “You’re just being dramatic. Everything is fine.”
None of these is helpful. And none of them are about you if you are a mom who is having a tough time. You are listening to yourself. Don’t let other people stop you from doing that.
Here’s how to get them on board the Make You Feel Better train:
Explain that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are medical conditions that happen to a lot of women.
“Start the conversation with the basic message: “Lots of women have this, there are a million ways to treat it. I want you to know that I am going through this, and I need your support,” says Wendy Davis, PhD, the executive director of Postpartum Support International. Try these conversation starters:
- “Turns out a lot of people have depression and anxiety in pregnancy and after a baby is born. It’s way more common than I realized, and I think that is what is happening with me.”
- “I’ve been feeling really badly, and I’ve learned that what I am going through is not uncommon and there are things I can do to help me feel better, and I need your help to do them.”
- “I’ve learned that taking care of your mental health is a really important part of having a strong family, and I want to take care of mine now. Will you help me?”
Know that when people are scared they sometimes shut down.
Just like you may not want to admit even to yourself how badly you are feeling, the people in your life may want to minimize your feelings as a way to protect themselves from their worry about you. That’s human nature. If you can figure out what their concerns are, you can address them so that the topic is less scary for them.
Think about what will motivate the people in your life to help you.
Just as it’s important to understand the fears that may hold people back from helping you, think about what matters to them and appeal to those issues to elicit their support.
“There will be people—and there are cultures and communities—who don’t believe in mental illness or medication for mental health,” says Katherine Stone, founder of Postpartumprogress.com who experienced postpartum OCD after the birth of her son. In those cases, you can get folks on board by “helping them think of it as getting parenting support.”
If they are opposed to the use of medication, open the conversation by explaining that therapy is one of your options. If your culture or community values the well-being of the group over that of the individual, explain that by helping you as a mom, they will be strengthening your family and, by extension, your community.
If all else fails, appeal to their concern for your kid.
You deserve to feel better and enjoy motherhood and your life, and that is all the reason in the world you need to take care of your mental health. But the welfare of kids is a big motivator for folks, and if you need to, you can certainly play that card.
Research shows that when moms are struggling with an untreated mental health disorder, their children suffer too. They are at greater risk for emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems as they get older. So when women are treated effectively and feel better as moms, their kids are healthier and emotionally stronger.
Share that information with the people you need to help you. Or pass the buck to a health-care provider, such as, “My pediatrician thinks that it will be better for the baby if I get some professional help to feel better.”
Let them know that treatment works well and quickly.
With the right support, most moms with PMADs find themselves feeling better sooner than they thought possible. So the faster someone gets on board with helping you, the quicker these conversations can be a thing of the past.
Realize it might be hard for people to “get it.”
“It’s very hard to help someone understand something they haven’t been through and that they can’t see and touch,” says Stone. If you find that the people you love can’t wrap their brains around what you are saying about how you feel, Stone recommends sticking with a more informational approach. “You have to say, ‘These are very clear signs of an illness. It happens to 20 percent of mothers, and if I don’t get help for it, it will get worse. In order to avoid that, I need your help.’ There are practical arguments you can make that take the emotion out of it.”
And if they don’t come around? “It’s really important that women not wait for the endorsement of others to get help,” says Stone. “In the end, you have to take care of yourself, because you’re all you’ve got.”
So keep talking until you find someone who will listen and help you. If you don’t find that person, get on the horn to Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773.
Someday, these outdated notions of mental health will truly be a thing of the past, but you don’t have time to wait for that.
This piece is excerpted from Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Happy, Healthy, and (Most Importantly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood by Kate Rope, copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press. On sale May 1, 2018.