A dear friend texted me last week, after coming home from a pediatrician appointment for her newborn daughter. When the pediatrician did the obligatory check-in on Mom’s mental health, my friend was honest and shared that she had been struggling, and experiencing some postpartum mood symptoms. The pediatrician responded:
“You want to take care of yourself, because your mental health can have long term effects on the baby.”
Last night, another friend texted me, describing a recent visit with a Lactation Consultant. They had asked her how her 3-week old baby was feeding, and she responded honestly - well, but she had been dealing with a lot of painful clogged ducts. The practitioner responded:
“Well, as long as the baby is eating well it’s fine.”
My heart sank, remembering times when words of a similar sentiment were spoken to me - the most memorable being when I was just shy of 37 weeks pregnant, terrified after my hopes of safely carrying my baby to term and going into spontaneous labor had been upended by a high blood pressure reading.
After being in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices all week (and a good ole’ sprinkling of coercion), we had finally agreed to begin the induction process. I was disappointed, scared, and needed to process the new health threat and sudden change of plan with a kind ear. I confided in a good friend whom I trusted, who responded:
“I would just try to be thankful that your son’s health won’t be compromised by a longer pregnancy.”
The Tidal Wave of Complicated Emotions
Of course I was so grateful that my baby had a better shot of being born healthy this way.
It doesn't mean that I wasn't scared for my life, after being told I was at risk of seizures and a stroke at any second.
It doesn't mean that I didn't need someone to hold my hand and let me know it was okay to take a little time to wrap my head around the new plan.
It doesn't mean I didn't need someone to remind me of my resilient heart and innate strength.
Throughout the entire childbearing year, when I heard statements that supported my baby’s health but dismissed mine, it opened the floodgates to a tidal wave of emotions that I didn’t understand until much later, ranging from hostility and despair over not feeling seen, heard, or encouraged, to guilt and feelings of inadequacy around the fact that while I was suffering from a postpartum imbalance, I couldn’t seem to just ‘snap out of it’ for the benefit of my baby.
But most of all, I felt heartbreak -- over the fact that my health - the health of my body, mind, and soul, something that used to matter because of my own inherent worthiness as a human being - now only seemed to matter to society in relationship to my baby. I had never felt so unseen and disregarded in my entire life.
I imagine that my friends who shared these stories with me experienced something similar in those vulnerable moments.
Society Perpetuates the 'Mother as Martyr' Archetype, Despite its Best Efforts.
Every day, I continue to be fascinated by how deeply ingrained the ‘Mother as Martyr’ archetype has become in our culture, and how shameful one can feel (or be made to feel) if they or their family structure represent anything but.
Often, the first thing you’ll hear when presented with a choice is what’s ‘best for the baby.’ It's less common to hear any sort of follow up on if that is also what's best for the entire family.
It’s present in the OB or Midwife’s office, as the pregnant person is making decisions about diagnostic procedures and birth/feeding preferences.
It’s present at cash registers, family gatherings and baby showers, as the pregnant person is asked how they will feed their baby, and if they will continue to work.
It’s present in the labor and delivery room, as the new parents are navigating the labyrinth of birth, and are faced with choices at various turning points.
It's present in the Lactation Consultant appointments, as 'breast is best' is driven at all costs, often at the detriment of Maternal rest and mental health.
It’s present in the pediatrician’s office, as the new parents are just doing what they need to do to survive, and get told they’re completely messing up.
Don’t get me wrong, I know people's intentions are generally good and kind. I truly believe that most people aren’t trying to be dismissive, rude, or hurtful. We all know that new parents want what’s best for their child and their development, and I assume that this is where it comes from- a desire to affirm their parental instincts.
However, forgetting to affirm the parent as an individual with their own needs can feel uncompassionate and demoralizing, and can illicit feelings of self-blame over struggling in a certain way. All of this, in turn, can then cause the newly postpartum parent to refrain from sharing openly about their experience, during a time when they need support in remembering that their health is also important.
We can to do better by new parents.
It doesn't have to be either or.
We can help them transition into their new responsibility while also reminding them that THEY matter - their health, their feelings, their experiences, their grief, their fears. And although 'happy parents make a happy baby' is absolutely true, they are also just inherently worthy of feeling a sense of integration and well-being.
We can ask what support they need, and follow through.
We can ask if their current methods (whether it be feeding, diapering, sleep, potty... whatever) are sustainable. And if not, what would be.
We can make sure the new parent remembers that their needs are also important.
Let's bring a kind and compassionate ear to any trusted sharing that comes our way.
Let's remind them of something they might have forgotten: that they matter.
Yes, as parents, but more importantly, as individuals.
You might be the first person to remind them of that.
Together, let's flip the script.