Today I want to talk about the power of silence over our wellness. To start I want to reflect on the first outing with my daughter when she was a newborn. She was probably 2-3 weeks old and I went with Taylor (NMP co-founder) to a Birth Network Central New York meeting. It couldn’t have been a better setting to take a newborn. It was a small group of mothers discussing birth advocacy in our area. If anyone would help me brave this first outing it would be this group. I was anxious about my first adventure as a mom. If I showed you a video of this outing what you would see is me in a comfy chair nursing my little one, me walking her around, me putting her in the carrier, and me once again sitting in the chair nursing. I’m pretty sure I looked like an average loving and attentive new mother. Our friends were excited to meet my daughter and see me after the birth. No one asked to hold the baby and a few asked about how things were going, but mostly the focus was on our meeting. I was actually kind of surprised I didn’t get more attention. I left the meeting thinking that things went OK, but being a little disappointed I wasn’t lavished with attention, encouragement, and inquiries about how we were doing. This was my first introduction to the private world of a mothers’ inner experience.
If you had the ability to read my thoughts you would have gotten a different account of the evening. Here’s what my private experience of the evening was like:
“Oh my god, all she wants to do is nurse, I can’t nurse her for 2 hours straight.”
“Ok, how and where do I change her diaper, do I need to change her diaper?”
“She’s crying, I should help her stop, I’ll put her in the carrier, ugh she doesn’t want the carrier, I am a failure.”
“Everyone probably thinks I’m an idiot and have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Why isn’t anyone offering to help?”
“How come they’re not paying more attention to me?”
“I wonder if I look as frazzled as I feel.”
Clearly my experience was filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and a desperate need for connection and validation from other moms. This was the group of moms to offer that support, and in the future they did. But what was happening this evening, was that I didn’t share what was going on, so they probably assumed I was fine.
I imagine many of you have had similar experiences throughout your lives. In the dominant American culture there are many values around self-sufficiency, independence, resilience, and pleasantness. These values discourage new parents from speaking up about what’s really going on for them. We also tend not to pry into others’ private lives. So when a new parent gives a brief but vague response about how they’re doing, a friend accepts this at face value rather than digging a little deeper. What happens when we don’t talk to each other about what’s really going on is that we make assumptions. You assume you’re terrible and no one cares about you and your friends assume you’re doing fine and don’t need the help.
I have had some illuminating conversations with friends about the assumptions I make based on what they tell me. For example, when my dear friend said she couldn’t come to the park because all of her kids were napping I pictured her enjoying some quiet time to herself. I also assumed this was her regular routine. She cleared things up by revealing that “everyone’s napping” means baby sleeping on her chest and that all three asleep at the same time is a rare occurrence. When we let assumptions drive how we think about ourselves we often judge ourselves more harshly than others. What assumptions do you make about other parents? I know that I generally assume everyone else is doing things better than me, I’m guessing you’ve done this before as well. If we think everyone is doing things better than us, we aren’t likely to admit we need help.
So, if you are finding yourself in the pattern of making a lot of assumptions about other family’s lives and judging your worth as a parent based on those assumptions I want you to know that you’re not alone. I do this to. I find myself feeling inadequate as a mother more days than not. I find myself assuming my friends are all happier and better than me, but I know this is not true. I know we are all doing the best we can and that no one truly has it all together or enjoys every moment. At NMP we believe that so much of the private life of new parents should actually be public. We believe that by talking more about postpartum days all new parents will benefit. We want you to share what’s going on in your head so you can get support. We also want you to share it to support those other parents who have the same inner experience but are too scared to share.
Here’s what you can do to help yourself and help others.
- Realize that people don’t know what’s going on with you. They are busy figuring out their own lives.
- Accept that people probably think things are better than you think they are. That’s right, you don’t look like a disaster on the outside, even if that’s how you feel inside.
- Be honest with friends (especially parents) about your struggles. This will help you get support by hearing that others are struggling too, and it will help your friends know that they too can be open and honest with you.
- Ask for what you need. Unless you are open, honest, and direct, people won’t know you need help. If you need some strategies to help you get help, check out our Social Supports Guide.
- Prioritize self-care. We say this over and over. If your well is running low or dry, you can’t give to others. Find ways to take care of yourself when you need it.