May is Mental Health Awareness Month, where we can take a moment to recognize the importance of taking care of our mental health—something I feel we’re trying to get better at as a society. However, it is also important to raise awareness about the mental health challenges that are unique to new mothers, which is why the month is shared with Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, and World Maternal Mental Health Day is observed on May 4th (May the fourth be with you be damned).
Maternal mental health issues, such as perinatal depression and anxiety, can have a significant impact on a mother's well-being. As much as ideas like the “baby blues” are widely known, it’s not a conversation that’s escaped the stigma we have put on ourselves. A mother taking care of herself is still seen as indulgent and selfish, even when studies have shown that there’s a connection between the mental health of the child and their caregiver. In fact, the CDC has found that 1 in 14 children has a caregiver with poor mental health.
I still remember those first months with a newborn. After that initial excitement of meeting the baby had subsided, I found myself staring at this baby in a glass case and wondering, “Am I allowed to pick this thing up? Shouldn’t I ask someone for permission?” then the realization sank in that it was ME who was responsible for this thing. And they’re going to send me home with it. And I had to keep it alive. It may sound like a no-shit-Sherlock thing to finally grasp with the arrival of a baby, but the gravity of it really weighed on me. I even felt guilty about it, because I thought I should just be happy and excited and in bliss—after all, this is what I wanted, as the guilt-tripper comments would say, and also there are so many people who would KILL to be in my shoes, how dare I complain!
But also, there are starving children around the world and we all still left our carrots. Moving on.
This mental smoothie of shoulds and wants and love and guilt this and that took a toll on me, and I know that I had gotten off pretty easy. Even so, at one point in those early days I found myself sitting cross-legged on a couch, down in my skivvys, with two bottles connected to my nipples milking me like a cow, and I sobbed. And this wasn’t like in the middle of the night where miserable things like this ought to be happening, it was like dinner time so the lights were all on and my whole family (my husband and I lived with my mom and grandparents at the time) saw me and I didn’t give a flying fuck. Yeah, that’s how it gets. Hormones are wild.
So whether you just had a baby and are wondering if you’re being dramatic, or your friend had a baby and you’re wondering how they’re doing, let that image sink in a bit before you think to yourself whether maternal mental health is like, a THING.
It’s also really natural if you know it’s a THING, but you don’t know what THING to do for them. Because we’re talking maternal mental health I’m framing this as a way to support new moms who are probably hormonal AF, but if your friend is a new dad or if your friends welcomed a new baby via surrogate or adoption or marriage what have you, all of these things can apply. So here are 10 ways you can help:
1. Make sleep a priority, help her sleep. FORCE her to sleep
If you’re close to them and you have a bit of time to offer, tell her to go to sleep when you’re there. Sure, she may want to chat with you instead, but offer it anyway and go into her bedroom to lay her down and close the door. Maybe she’ll sleep, maybe she’ll scroll Instagram, but you are sure to be the hero of her day.
2. Help without asking what she wants without the need of a visit
You may be thinking, “Well, shouldn’t I ASK her what she needs?”
The thing is, delegating sometimes feels more daunting than the task itself. Ever been a manager? You know that delegation is a skill you need to learn. I’ve found myself feeling like, if I have to TELL them what to do, I’d rather just DO IT.
There are certain things that always need to be done. Notice and do them. You’re a grown-up, you know what it takes to keep a house.
Maybe you go visit and when you do, you bring over some shelf-safe pantry items that they can eat anytime like her favorite snack. If you notice some dishes in the sink, just do them. Say you’re going to run a load of laundry, take out the trash—announce what you’re going to do so that they can follow up with instructions or give you something else to do instead.
Another thing you can do for someone without needing permission if they’re far away, send them a gift card for food delivery service. No one never not needs that.
3. Instead of asking “How are you doing?” ask “What happened today?”
The difference is subtle here, but the first is an open-ended question where the person answering has to think about how to frame her answer. That’s why most of the time when you ask this, you’re going to get “Fine,” or some version of that as a response. When you have so much to say yet you haven’t had time to process it yourself, even the idea of divulging it could feel tasking.
Instead, ask closed-ended questions that have a limited range of answers or about something really specific: how much sleep are you getting, what’s the most exciting thing that happened, what was the hardest part this week, you get the gist. You’re much more likely to get an honest response that you can then dig into for a deeper conversation.
4. Be their one no-judgment zone
Mothers get judged a lot. Sure, it’s not always negative or malicious or overt, but every step you take as a parent feels like it’s being analyzed, calculated, and evaluated by friends and strangers alike. If you are ready to take on the mental load of being that person for your friend, let them know that when she’s with you, she’s safe from all of that. It would be helpful to establish this early and often, not just when they’re sharing a story with you but outside of those moments too just to say, “Hey I know you’re doing okay right now, but just so you know even if you start to feel really bad about something you did, I hope you’ll remember that you can tell me anything. This (draw the circle around you) is a no-judgment zone.” It’s hard to put in words how much that will mean to a mother who’s feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. And make sure to follow up on that promise.
5. Take pictures of her and the baby
Take a look at my camera roll and you’d think that the only members of my family consists of my children and my husband. Take a look at my husband’s camera roll and you’d think that the only members of my family consists of… his children and himself. No joke, he has more selfies with the kids than photos with me in it. Now I don’t fault him for this, it’s just not in his nature to remember to take photos of me and the kids.
There are exceptions to the rule but I’m willing to bet that a mom will not have many photos with her in it. When you go visit, no matter how shitty she says she feels or looks, snap some pictures and send her the most flattering ones. Those photos will mean so much to her.
6. Visit and then kick them out of the house
Now I’m not saying all visits have to be like this at all, totally visit them and hang out with her and her family. But once in a while, especially if you two have established a bit of trust as it pertains to baby rearing, offer yourself as a babysitter and kick the parents out of the house for some much-needed connection time or for a solo mom outing. Don’t worry, they’ll feel bad and come back within a couple hours or so especially since the baby will likely have to eat or sleep or something, so you won’t be stuck with the baby for the whole day.
7. Don’t give advice. Listen, share your own story if they invite you to. Give her permission to do all the things.
We’re all natural “fixers,” and we tend to want to offer solutions or advice when someone opens up to us. Try to remember that this is her KID we’re talking about, a being that she loves more than anyone else in this world could love it. So if there’s some hack or advice out there in the universe, you can be damned sure that she’s already googled it and come across it when she was feeling anxious at midnight one night.
Instead, share something that can’t be found online. Listen to her, and acknowledge her feeling. Offer to tell your story and if she wants it, make sure all you’re doing is sharing and not attempting to impart wisdom or establish superiority. Then, at the end of it remind her that no matter what she does, she is the best mother for her child.
8. Invite them for a low-key hang out and set out a play area for the baby.
When she feels up for it, offer your house as a low-key outing so she can leave the house with the baby. And set up a little play mat for the baby—nothing fancy, just laying out a blanket and a couple toys that maybe you’d planned to give as a gift anyway will make for a nice little baby parking spot. She will appreciate that you’re truly hosting both of them.
9. Offer to take the older kid out on a date.
When I had my second, I realized that babies are easy—a realization that only comes when you finally escape that debilitating self-doubt that comes with first-time parenting. In fact, my favorite thing to say is that “I can newborn with my eyes closed… but my first one is… damn,” because yes, the existence of another child is what makes the baby hard second time onward. It’s also guilt-inducing if the older one is having trouble adjusting to the new normal. Instead of just visiting the mom and new baby, offer instead to take the older kid out on a date with you. Doesn’t have to be a whole-day excursion to the zoo or anything, a park or going out for ice cream will make the child feel special and allow the mom some one-on-one time with the baby. The reverse is also nice, offering to watch the baby while the parent goes on a date with the kid. Let the mom have her pick.
10. Check in, without expecting a response… and keep checking in past the newborn age.
I am notoriously horrible at replying back to text messages, but LOVE receiving ones that seem to not need a response from me. Maybe you finished a book they recommended, or saw a snack that made you think of them—send these low-stakes text messages as an invitation for the mom to spark a conversation, or if she’s not in the mood just a reminder that you’re thinking of her. If possible, this will be amazing for you to continue past the newborn stage and check in every few weeks or so. Everyone is very gung-ho helping mom the first month or two, then phase out because they’re like, oh she got it… but the baby doesn’t go away, so neither should your check-ins.
If you or someone you know is struggling with perinatal depression or anxiety, there are resources available to help. The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline is available 24/7 and can provide free, confidential support in English and Spanish. Call or text 1-833-943-5746 (1-833-9-HELP4MOMS) to speak with someone. Additionally, healthcare providers can offer guidance and support to new mothers struggling with mental health challenges.
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