As a mental health counselor I often find myself trying to elicit information from clients about their wellness. I’ve found over the years that just asking a general “how are you doing?” Doesn’t really get me much information. There are some folks who are open books, and can’t help but give a genuine in-depth answer to this question, but most people respond in brief. New mothers are no exception. Finding out how a new mom is doing can by difficult because of the pressure many new moms feel to keep up a certain appearance. At New Mama Project we are working to create a culture of talking openly and honestly about the postpartum experience. We believe that through conversations about postpartum experiences moms get the support they need, build community with other moms, and normalize the idea that becoming a mother is a challenging emotional time.
If you want to support new moms you have to find out how they’re doing. If you’re a new mom and you need support, you have to let people know how you’re doing. Not sure how to talk about this stuff? Read on for some of my ideas on eliciting information from new moms and sharing information with your support network. But don’t tell any other mental health counselors that I gave away all our secrets!
To Friends, Family Members, Partners, and Professionals
Follow your shot. One of the first skills I learned from my counseling lab teacher in graduate school was to follow my shot. She was a big sports fan and used a soccer analogy to help us learn this counseling skill. She said – imagine a soccer player dribbling up to the goal to score. They kick the ball and then they continue to run in the direction of the ball to make sure their shot goes in. When asking clients questions, you need to “follow your shot.” That phrase has stuck with me throughout my development as a therapist. It is sometimes uncomfortable and awkward to follow my shot in conversation with clients, but my follow-up questions have led me to information, feelings, and insights I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. This skill is key when talking with a new mom if you really want to know how she is doing.
Ask the right questions. Persistence is important, but without some other key skills it might just make for an awkward conversation. You’ve got to be creative about what you ask and how you ask. Ask open ended questions that indicate you know this can be hard. Start general and then get more specific as she steers the conversation.
Try some of these: How are you adjusting to being a mom? What’s been most challenging so far? How are you recovering from birth? How are you feeling about the birth? How are things going with your partner and/or extended family? Do you feel supported or do you feel like you’re not getting the help you need? What have you been doing to take care of yourself? What do your nights look like? How are you coping with that? What can I do to help?
Validate and normalize her experience. New moms also need to know that you can relate to what they’re going through, and that you will not judge them for what they express. I know that when I was postpartum I was desperate for reassurance. I felt like I did as a teenager. I was unsure of myself, assumed everyone else was cooler and more confident than me, and convinced I was the only person struggling. As a new mom I was always looking for someone who made me feel like my experience made sense. If you get what she’s talking about say so, if you’ve experienced it, say so. Tell her that she makes sense and you understand.
Use non-verbal signals to show empathy. Use your body to show empathy, warmth, and understanding. Make sure the mom knows she’s you’re # 1 priority in that moment. Put your phone down, turn towards her, touch her warmly (if appropriate), look her in the eyes, smile, frown, let your eyes water, let yourself feel what she’s feeling and it will be reflected back to her.
Avoid giving advice. Most of the time people are just looking for emotional support rather than advice. By giving advice you might imply that you are better equipped to solve her problems. Trust me when I say new moms have more than enough people giving them tips and ideas.
Don’t “Yes, but…” Even if you’re thinking it in you’re head, do not respond to a new mom with a “yes, but…” statement. Here are some examples, “yeah, this is hard now, but aren’t you so happy to have a new baby?” or “yes I know that you didn’t want a c-section, but what’s important is that you have a healthy baby.” These responses, while probably meant to be reassuring, feel incredibly invalidating and infuriating. Just try saying “yes” instead.
To New Moms
Tell your friends what’s really going on. As a new mom we know it’s hard to open up about what’s going on. We have both experienced guilt and shame that has kept us quiet. This is why we started New Mama Project. It takes courage and vulnerability to tell the truth about what it’s like being a new mom, especially if you’re struggling. Not everyone wants to hear this version. Not everyone will really get it. Find the people that will.
Talk to the right people. I can usually tell pretty quickly when my postpartum experience is not connecting with another mother’s. The eyes glaze over and the conversation quickly dries up – I try not to read too much into these moments because there are so many times when my story does connect with someone else’s experience. In these moments it feels like we are both getting validation and encouragement from knowing we are not alone.
Be courageous. When I was postpartum I was embarrassed to even admit some of my thoughts and feelings to Taylor (my close friend and doula). She seemed at ease, confident, and appreciative of her new-ish baby. I, in turn, was feeling unsure, overwhelmed, and anxious. Sharing these feelings with Taylor, though, helped me learn more about her postpartum experience with her first child. Knowing that she had had similar feelings and challenges helped me know that I was not alone. It helped normalize my experience as an intense adjustment period to a new life. It also helped me keep talking about what was going on.
Accept help. Because I felt safe to continue sharing my feelings I was able to get support when I needed it. I accepted offers of help from friends and family members and sought out community groups where I felt safe and nurtured.
I like to think of friends and family as the front line of mental health. treatment. Who gets sent to the front line? The new and untrained soldiers. As a friend, doula, midwife, or partner you may feel under-equipped to manage any postpartum mental health issues, but you’re probably the first person who is going to notice something is wrong. You don’t have to have the skills or knowledge to fix the problem. The truth is that you probably can’t solve her problems. She might be going through the baby blues, having some challenges with normal postpartum adjustment or experiencing postpartum mental health issues none of which you can really fix. You are there to listen and offer support. If you think someone needs more support than you can provide you can refer her to a mental health professional check out our resources page for referral sources.
*We understand that postpartum mental health issues can not be fully avoided and that supportive friends and family are often not enough to manage postpartum depression or anxiety. If you are concerned that you or someone you know is experiencing a postpartum mental health issue please visit our resources page to get more info on where to go for support.