Women who have recently had a new baby are prone to so many different emotions. With up to 80% of women experiencing some level of the baby blues, the fear is that it will evolve into postpartum depression, psychosis, or some other maternal mental health disorder. And so naturally, our first instinct, and the advice usually given to her support system, is to ask a new mom how she’s feeling.
And while the intentions of the popular #AskHer advice are good, it’s not always the most effective way of helping.
So don’t ask a new mom how she’s feeling. Because she’s going to lie to you.
Why would she tell you that she’s feeling exhausted? So that you can reply with “sleep when the baby sleeps” or “welcome to parenthood” or some other cliché bit of useless parenting advice?
Why would she admit that she’s sad and depressed? So that you can feel sorry for her and tell her to get help? Or maybe you’ll try to cheer her up by reminding her about the miracle she just created, ultimately making her feel much worse.
And tell me, why on earth, would she tell you that she experiences fits of violent rage and imagines doing bad things to herself or her baby? So that you can report her to child services? Or so that you can keep an eye on her and no longer trust her alone with the baby?
The truth is, opening up about postpartum depression takes a lot of courage and leaves a mother feeling extremely vulnerable. In order for her to answer your question honestly, she would have to have a huge amount of trust in you.
Instead of simply asking her how she’s feeling, here are some things you can do instead.
Don’t ask — DO
Don’t ask her if she needs help with anything, and then wait for her to politely decline as if it’s some sort of feat of strength for her to tackle everything herself. Don’t even give her an option. If there are dishes in the sink, wash them. Cook food for her — even if she claims she isn’t hungry so that when she does get hungry, it will be there waiting for her.
Sweep her floors. But don’t do it with a “your floors are so dirty” attitude unless you want to get slapped. Do it with a “put your feet up and let me take care of you” attitude. Encourage her to shower and sleep. Don’t wait for her to tell you what to do, take the initiative and make sure there is nothing else she needs to worry about other than herself and baby.
Don’t ask — LISTEN
Don’t ask her questions about how she’s feeling, but rather take some time to listen to what she has to say. Even if it’s nothing. Let her know that it’s perfectly fine to sit in complete silence and not have to say a single word. She shouldn’t feel the need to make small talk or converse about things when her brain is already overloaded. Don’t make unnecessary appointments or have a steady stream of visitors or outings.
Slow life down, don’t rush or schedule or make plans. Set aside some time each day to give her your undivided attention. She may not talk about how she feels right away, but knowing that you’ve dedicated time just for her, reinforces the fact that you will be there for her when she’s ready.
Don’t ask — PREPARE
If and when she finally decides to confide in you about how she feels, do you know what to do next? Do you know who to call or where to go for help? Make sure that you have a list of resources available. What will you say to her, and how will you say it? Keep in mind that mental illness can mess with a woman’s entire personality. She may normally be down-to-earth and have a great sense of humor, but postpartum depression can make her paranoid and easily offended. She may overanalyze everything you say or lose her temper. This is why it’s easier for her to speak to trained therapists or other mothers who have had similar experiences.
Don’t ask — RELATE
How well will you be able to handle the information she might share with you? Do you have any experience with mental illness? If not, better read up on it. Postpartum depression can cause mothers to experience scary things like intrusive thoughts, uncontrollable rage, and suicide attempts. Will you be able to relate to her when she confides in you about these things, or will you judge her and lose faith? It might help to read the stories of other women with postpartum depression and see what their experience was like.
By doing these things for a new mother instead of simply asking her how she feels, you will be able to earn her trust. A new mother’s emotions are private and hard for her to talk about with just anyone. If you want her to discuss them with you truthfully, she needs to feel safe around you. You need to prove to her that you will be there for her no matter what and will love her unconditionally despite the changes she is going through.
It’s a fact that more women need to talk about maternal mental illness. If they are surrounded by a support system of people who will DO more for them, LISTEN to what they have to say, PREPARE a list of helpful resources, and can RELATE to what they are going through, then perhaps they will.