What to Say and What Not to Say to a Mom With PPD

When I saw the Washington Post article “Know what to say when postpartum depression hits a loved one” by Leanne Italie on my Facebook feed today, I was reminded how much my anger about people’s ignorant comments used to inspire me to write posts.   Ignorant comments still tick me off…just not as much.  I think it took about 8 years to get all my anger out of my system, and this blog was instrumental as my outlet.  Yes, indeed….journaling thoughts is a way to let all the negative “chi” or energy out and thus help you keep your emotional/mental self balanced, which in turn keeps your physical self balanced and hence less prone to illness, in general.

This article mentions the kinds of things to say versus not to say to a mom struggling with postpartum depression (PPD).  A lot of the things are said by friends/family who think they know what they’re talking about but really don’t.  I mean, how can one person really know what another person is experiencing?  They can’t, can they?   A lot of the things said by friends/family diminish what a PPD mom is actually experiencing and only serve to make her feel worse and more isolated.  Words that come tumbling out of people’s mouths most often come from ignorance due to lack of personal experience.  It would really help if people read and become familiar with the difference between PPD and postpartum blues!

These are some of the kinds of phrases to avoid that are touched on in the article:

  • “All new parents have a hard time adjusting to having a baby…you’ll get used to it.”  (implying the PMD is not a real illness but a phase that all new parents go through….wrong!)
  • “I didn’t feel depressed when I had a baby.” (PPD is not imaginary; just because one person has never suffered from PPD doesn’t mean the experience of a mom with PPD should be invalidated or considered imaginary)
  •  “Just sleep when the baby sleeps.” (many new moms with PPD suffer from insomnia, like I did…here’s the link to one of my 2 most-visited and commented blog posts)
  • “Oh, I got the postpartum blues and it passed in a couple weeks on its own.  It will pass for you too. You shouldn’t have to take meds to get through this.  If I didn’t need any meds, you shouldn’t have to either.” (many new moms with PPD need meds to recover….here’s the link to the difference between having PPD vs. having postpartum blues)

As they say, if you can’t say anything to help, don’t say anything at all. In fact, words aren’t even necessary. Just being physically there to support her shows you care.

Bottom line, just be there for the new mother. 

The following image from Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, founder of The Postpartum Stress Center and author of numerous books on perinatal mood disorders (who’d given me permission to use this image) sums up the fact that what a new mom needs is non-judgmental company from loved ones…no words necessary.  This especially holds true for those who have never experienced a mood disorder like PPD, and are unsure of how to behave or what to say around a loved one who is suffering from it.  Although my book repeatedly mentions the importance of providing emotional and practical support to the new mother–whether she is suffering from PPD or not–the key to it all, should you be uncertain of what to say or do to help  her, is to JUST BE THERE FOR HER.  It is so important because the feeling of loneliness and isolation with respect to her experience of being home alone with the baby is one that is shared by many a mom with or without PPD.

Be there

Moms with PPD tend to be more sensitive, their feelings will hurt more readily, and they will be more prone to feeling unimportant. She will tend to lack self confidence especially with respect to her new mothering responsibilities. Certain well-intended comments or advice can end up hurting her feelings.

These were some of my past posts about how to speak to new moms (with PPD or even struggling with infertility):

  1. Women with PPD Need Support, Not Hurtful Comments (addressing online comments stemming from public ignorance about PPD)
  2. Dear Hospital Staff: Your Tone, Words, and Treatment are Key to the New Mom’s Experience (addressing hospital staff and the way they talk to new moms)
  3. Words Are Not Always Necessary……Comforting Those Struggling With Infertility (addressing the importance of just being there)

In my book, I offer the following suggestions for the ways friends and family members can be more supportive without being judgmental.  I wrote these suggestions, remembering how alone I felt in my PPD experience.

  • Do provide emotional support. Between practical and emotional support, it’s the latter that many men tend to have more difficulty providing. Practical help is only half the equation. This is a time when emotional support is as important as, if not more important than, practical support. Be affectionate and reassuring. Sit with her, hold her, hug her, hold her hands. Be there for her, to comfort her “in sickness and in health,” as the saying goes. She will need constant reassurance that things will be okay and you’ll be there with her every step of the way. It is very common for women with PPD to feel hopeless and convinced that things will never get better, and they will never recover and be happy again. It touched me when I read about a husband who wrote notes of encouragement onto yellow stickies and left them all over the house for his wife.
    1. Do reassure her that her illness is temporary, she will recover, and you will get through this together. Do offer words of encouragement as much as possible, like the following: “You will get through this … … you will get well …  … this is temporary … I will be there for you … I love you … we will get through this together.”
    2. Do try to be as sensitive as possible, as she may mistake your advice for criticism in her first attempts at taking care of the baby. First-time moms tend to be more sensitive to remarks people make about their mothering capabilities. That sensitivity tends to increase when PPD enters the picture. The first-time mom who also has PPD in most cases tends to lack self-confidence when it comes to taking care of the baby and may need a lot of reassurance from her husband and others around her that she’s doing a great job as a mom. Words have the power to heal or hurt; the power of words will never be more evident than during the postpartum period.
    3. Do encourage her to share her thoughts and feelings with you. It is common for a woman with PPD to tend to hide her thoughts and feelings for fear of negative reactions.
    4. Do listen to her feelings and concerns without criticizing or judging, and be patient with her, as she will no doubt repeat her concerns often.
    5. Do tell her it’s okay to make mistakes and there’s no need to try to do everything perfectly (especially if this is her first crack at motherhood and she has perfectionist tendencies).
    6. Do keep your communication lines wide open at all times.
  • Don’t minimize the thoughts and feelings she shares with you. Doing so will only make her want to hide her thoughts and feelings, which will only make her feel more isolated, hopeless, and desperate. Avoid using any of the following expressions that imply that all she has to do is try harder to get well.
    • Snap out of it (Just as you can’t will away diabetes, you can’t will PPD away).
    • Pull yourself together.
    • It’s all in your head. Or it’s mind over matter.
    • Don’t be so lazy.
    • Just relax and think positive. (Remember that the very nature of depression prevents you from thinking positively, appreciating humor, enjoying things you usually enjoy. If you’re upset, stressed out, or not feeling well, how would you feel if someone suggested you relax? No doubt you’d feel annoyed.)
    • After our years of trying to have a baby, I thought you’d be thrilled.
    • Enough is enough. I’m tired of your being like this. What is wrong with you anyway? Get over this already.
    • What happened to the woman I married? I liked you the way you were before.
    • You’re a strong woman. You don’t need any help. You can get through this on your own. I know you can.
    • Just go out and do some shopping … you’ll be yourself in no time after you buy yourself some new clothing.

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