Today, May 2nd, is world Maternal Mental Health Day.
Why do we need Maternal Mental Health Day?
Because at least 1 in 5 mothers will go through some kind of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD). Because 70% of women hide or downplay their symptoms (last year I put together this piece to share women’s perspectives on how they felt and what held them back).
Because even after reaching out, many mothers have ended up in a worse place. I personally have listened to the stories of mothers in the Halton area reaching out earnestly to care providers and community organizations for help and not finding it, or reaching out only to end up feeling further stigmatized and more confused. Wait times, red tape, service gaps, the list goes on….this type of health care is desperately underfunded.
It’s a complex issue requiring complex solutions, but here are five ideas to keep in mind to *actually* support new mothers:
Ask her directly about her mood.
The less we tip toe around depression and anxiety, choosing in stead to acknowledge and accommodate mood disorders, the more likely it is that women who need help will get help. Normalize it! The same way you might ask, “How are you feeling?” or “How’s breastfeeding going?” you can also ask, “How are you coping with all of this?” or “What’s it like being a new mom?” or “What’s been the hardest part so far?”
This is especially relevant if she’s had a tough birth/recovery/breastfeeding journey but ultimately, all new mothers go through a massive physical and emotional roller coaster ride in the early postpartum period. Yes, even if she has the “perfect” birth and recovery with no obvious setbacks, she is still vulnerable to depression and anxiety. So, ask.
Actually help her.
If you visit a new mom, you BETTER bring food! Next, help with something around the house; even a five minute task leaves more time for her to rest. Empty the dishwasher, fold some laundry, or take out the trash. Bonus points: lead with “Can I ———- the ———-?” rather than “Is there anything I can do to help?” This normalizes the helping gesture and makes her more likely to accept it.
Above all, encourage her to use your visit however she likes. This could look like any of the following:
- She might want to shower and blow dry her hair, *just because*
- She might want to talk, to air out her thoughts about birth or motherhood or something totally unrelated
- She might want to go out for an hour on her own
- She might just want to nap (hell yes, rest!)
Remember who she was before all of this.
Babies are cool. We all love babies! Now that she has one (or two, or four) though, she’s some combination of her old self and her new self and it’s a huge shift to navigate. Be interested in her, not just her baby or her birth.
She might want to talk about work, or hobbies, or Real Housewives of Beverley Hills. Embrace and love all of her.
Avoid the tendency to fix, to give advice, and to minimize.
Many of us are uncomfortable with others’ anguish. This is human! Where we tend to go next is to downplay/rationalize/minimize the problem or to “should” (HATE THAT WORD!). If you’re not asked for advice, don’t give it. Other traps: “At least you have a healthy baby” / “All mothers go through this” / “Maybe you just need to sleep.”
You also don’t have to relate. If you haven’t been through it yourself, that’s okay. You can still support her by listening with complete compassion and non-judgment. It’s never wrong to say, “I’m sorry you’re going through this” or “You can talk to me about anything.”
Remind her that it’s okay to not be okay.
…and that she has a right to support. Perinatal mood disorders are common, and they are treatable with professional help. Ask her if she’s considered reaching out for help. Tell her that anxiety and depression are tricky; when you’re in them, you can become convinced that you don’t need support, or that you don’t deserve support.
Talking to a trusted care provider (doctor or midwife) is a great first step. Click here for an overview of maternal mental health resources in the Halton, Hamilton and Peel regions. Offer to go with her to an appointment or to stay close by while she makes a call.
Finally, check in with her. Don’t wait for her to reach out. “I’m here if you need anything” is great, but “How are you doing this week?” is even better.
Today and every day, maternal mental health matters.