"If you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you're depressed, everyone runs the other way. That's the stigma." Kevin Breel, honest comedian
We probably all know this impulse, to move away instead of lean in. I know it. When I was hit with Postpartum Anxiety and Depression for the third time, and this time actually had the language to understand what was happening to me, I looked back on friendships in my past where I hadn't understood how to be supportive. Where I'd ran away. Where I'd been annoyed, even. I found myself guilty.
So what can we do instead to support our friends in the swell of hormones and emotion? This advice is good for standing by any postpartum mother, not just those with PMADs. Postpartum is the time of great transition, and solid ground may feel elusive as a woman shifts into her new expression of motherhood. How can we be a good friend to postpartum moms? How can we help her create a village of true support?
Ask her how she’s doing. Then ask her again.
Don’t presume to know anything about her experience. It doesn’t look the same for everyone. It also changes from day to day or moment to moment so keep asking. Become adept at listening.
Know that she’s not the same person anymore.
When a woman gives birth she is a different person. This likely feels like a loss to her, possibly a traumatic one. She is different and needs you to know that. Do not expect her to be unchanged. New mothers struggle when family, community, work, and cultural expectations remain the same while her experience of the world is now different. Physically, chemically, hormonally, emotionally, spiritually, energetically: the act of birth has left its imprint on her.
Take time to know this new person. Talk to her about her as much as you talk about the baby. Ask how she feels about her birth experience. Ask how new motherhood is different than she expected. Remember that she is in the process of learning about her new baby and her new self. Radical recalibration is happening inside her. Your old friend is there, taking inventory of all her parts, sorting what fits and saying goodbye to what is no longer needed, some pieces of her life gone before she could see them go, new parts awakened in her that she needs to marvel at.
Don’t judge her.
There’s a good chance she is already judging herself. The stigma surrounding postpartum depression and anxiety makes a mom question her competency and worthiness. Wether or not a PMAD is present, birth and motherhood require a greater letting go than we have ever known. We are asked to be powerful at our most vulnerable and sleep deprived. There are many things you cant know until you know - motherhood is like this and each time is different.
She may be feeding, sleeping, dressing, working, weighing, eating, and thinking completely different than she thought she would be. Opinions change. Exclusively breastfeeding, offering a bottle, letting the baby cry so she can get some sleep, or co-sleeping so she can get some sleep and on and on … Enough people are already judging her, explicitly or just through common media messages. Do not be one of them.
What she needs is a nonjudgmental ear, someone she can trust so that she can let out all the internal voices that she can’t tell anyone else. When she shares her heart or her fears, you may need to recommend a therapist or trip to her doctor, but because you are not judging her you can offer this as a trusted ally, not an adversary.
Find out what her boundaries are and respect them. If she doesn't want visitors, do not just show up. If she doesn't want you to hold the baby do not pass him around when she finally offers him up. If she requests a 30 minute visit have something to do right after so that you can respect her time frame. There are so many boundaries that may seem silly on the outside. They are the ways she has devised to feel safe and in control in a time that may feel the opposite.
Offer to help in whatever way she wants. Suggest ways to help and don’t get your feelings hurt if she suggests something else. You may ask: What can I relieve you of? What plan could we make to help you get more sleep? How is your partner? What can I do to help your partner understand? Is there a way I could make going to therapy feel easier for you?
Give her grace for not being the best friend right now.
She may not return your calls anymore. It may take her 2 days to text you back. She may not be able to come out to your birthday party. Love her anyway. Don’t expect a thank you note.
People don't tell you that becoming a mom can be hard on your friendships. It can be so hard, and believe me, the new mother is feeling it, too. She is wondering where she still fits in. Postpartum spirals us in and out of life cycles, birth and rebirth and the weird space in between. It's hard for her to be a solid friend when she isn't on solid ground herself.
Know that it takes time, so keep asking, keep respecting her process. There isn't a straight line to healing. The first two weeks are not necessarily the hardest; many mothers are struggling in isolation at 3 or 5 months postpartum. If you are really there, she will not feel so alone. There is no magic time that a mother will feel ready to take on the world again. Hopefully, she will have gorgeous, glowing days peppered in between the really hard ones. Celebrate those moments with her. Celebrate her own process. Encourage her by not pressuring.
See her now as she is and love her anyway, and you will be her deep ally. She can trust you. She will share with you. She needs you. She needs to be honest with her experience of postpartum, with the thoughts she is having that scare her, or make her feel guilty, or keep her in bed. She needs to share this in a trusted relationship so that she can hear them, too. Then she can see what is real and what's not. What is worthy of keeping and what needs to be released. She will value you as a part of her transition to motherhood. She will never forget you.