Many people just do not know what to say when talking to a new mother who is going through a post-partum illness. That is not surprising since we cannot get into another person’s head to really understand what is happening, and most of us have a deep-seated fear of somehow making things worse.
Based on my own experience with post-partum anxiety, I recommend people not worry so much. Generally, anything you say that is nonjudgmental is just fine. If you can manage some kind of sympathetic yet supportive murmurings, even better. And if you have been there and done that, and can reassure the sufferer that she too will make it through…well, I wish I had met you a year and a half ago.
Notwithstanding all that, there are definitely some things you should not say to a woman going through a post-partum illness. Now, you may think the following things are self-evident, but I beg to differ. In fact, all but one of these things were said to me by healthcare professionals, or by people working in mental health support. So, if I may:
It’s just new mom jitters.
This was actually said to me more than once, and I cannot tell you how frustrating it was. True, I have been told that I am pretty poker-faced. However, the fact remains that each time this was told to me I was in the process of reaching out to a medical practitioner for help. More than that, I did not sugar-coat my symptoms. Yet, in the middle of my descriptions of the non-stop panic attacks, inability to sleep at all, constant nausea when I forced myself to eat, and distressing intrusive thoughts, I was dismissed as a case of an overly emotional new mom.
To put it mildly, this was not very useful to me. Not only did I not get any help for my PPA, but I also started to think that perhaps I could never be a mother to my little girl. After all, if what I was feeling was something that everyone went through, but that I somehow was unable to deal with, I must not be cut out to be a mom. Right?
You need to get off that medication as soon as possible.
Medicated mommas + newborns always get the controversy juices going. My experience was no exception.
After I did manage to connect with some help, I was prescribed some medication to help with the sleep and panic-attack issues. For various reasons I subsequently went to a walk-in clinic to get my iron levels checked. When the, otherwise lovely, doctor heard about the medication I was on, I received a lengthy rant about how that medication was the equivalent of devil spawn, and I should, no must, stop taking it that very same day.
But you know what? I didn’t need to stop that medication right away. What I needed was to get better. That medication was an important tool to help me do that.
I am not saying people should not be informed of the negatives of medications or treatments. Of course they should. However, I had already been given the lowdown by the doctor who prescribed it, and we decided it was the right course to take. All that walk-in clinic doctor, who was not treating my condition, accomplished was to make me worry. Because, you know, when you are going through crippling anxiety a little more worry can’t hurt now, can it!
Come back if you are thinking of killing yourself or your baby.
Alright, on the face of it this seems like sensible advice. If anyone is truly thinking of killing themselves or their baby, they should get help immediately.
But what if I told you that this was said by the same doctor who said number one on this list? And what if I said that I had already been diagnosed with PPA by that time, but that the doctor insisted I didn’t actually need help unless I was in immediate danger of offing myself (or my baby)?
I do not think it will be a shock to anyone when I say there are a lot of steps between reasonable health and suicide. Apparently, however, I was only of interest to that doctor if I had made it to the latter extreme. And although I was able to brush it off and keep seeking treatment, I couldn’t help worrying about what other women he had told this to. What if it took all her courage to reach out for help, and that was the response she got? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Have you tried exercise?
On a lighter note, this is perhaps my favourite, if you’ll pardon the term. Honestly, what woman doesn’t hit the gym five days after giving birth? Time’s a wastin’! However, the poor young man was so earnest that I could not do much more than patiently explain that, between trying to look after my sweet little girl and trying to recover from having her, I hadn’t so much as glanced at my running shoes for hours.
Most of the people who said these things were, I believe, genuinely trying to be helpful. But that, in itself, is problematic. These things were, as I mentioned, all said by healthcare professionals, or people working in mental health support. And if they don’t know what not to say, then we all need to do a lot more talking.