But for some mothers, those negative emotions don’t go away. Instead, they linger, fester and evolve into serious mood disorders that transform new motherhood from a challenge into a nightmare.
Two of these disorders are postpartum depression (PPD) and its lesser-known cousin, postpartum anxiety (PPA). PPD may feel like baby blues at first, but persists long past a week or two. A mama with PPD may feel isolated, overwhelmed and hopeless; she might withdraw from family and friends, or have difficulty making decisions or doing things she once enjoyed.
Conversely, a mother struggling with PPA may seem like she’s always on red-alert. Her thoughts will race constantly, fixated on panic and disaster, and she’ll live in a constant state of dread. Both PPA and PPD can include physical symptoms, like nausea, fatigue and panic attacks, and both disorders interfere with a mama’s ability to take care of herself or her baby.
If a friend or family member is struggling with PPD or PPA, it can be difficult to know how to help. If you feel moved to say something to them, be sure to come from a place of love, understanding and support, rather than from fear, confusion or control. Here are some phrases to try—and some to avoid.
What to say to a mama struggling with PPD or PPA
“I know you’re going through a lot. How can I help?”
What not to say: “Just hang in there!”
If you’ve never experienced a postpartum mood disorder like PPD or PPA, you may not know how to reach out to someone who’s going through it. It’s tempting to throw out a familiar platitude, something well-meaning and positive but ultimately hollow. However, it’s far more meaningful to ask an open-ended question and listen actively to the response. Try not to project what kind of help you would want in this situation, or what you wish the person would say in return. Just listen, then make a plan to help. Most importantly, follow through.
“Would you be open to talking to a doctor?”
What not to say: “My friend had PPD/PPA and she said yoga/meditation/gratitude lists fixed everything!”
PPD and PPA are both diagnosable health conditions that can be medically treated. It’s important that mamas know this, because it means that they can get professional help. Rather than throw out anecdotal evidence for miracle cures, encourage your loved one to see a doctor. If they’re open to it, you can even go a step further and offer to help make them an appointment, drive them there, or treat them to lunch afterward. PPD and PPA make it difficult to seek help, so if you’re able to, do what you can to ease the burden.
“This isn’t your fault.”
What not to say: “If you had made better choices during your pregnancy, you wouldn’t be dealing with this.”
Any new mama can experience PPD or PPA. It can develop after the birth of any child, not just the first. There are certain factors that can raise the risk of these disorders, such as a history of mental illness, recent stressful experiences, or relationship difficulties. However, if someone has PPD or PPA, they in no way caused it or brought it upon themselves. If your loved one is feeling guilty, telling them it isn’t their fault reminds them that they did nothing wrong.
“I’m here for you. You’re important to me.”
What not to say: “I promise that everything will be OK.”
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to guarantee that your mama friend’s struggles will end when we say so. Promising that everything will turn out for the best may make them feel invalidated or frustrated. Instead, the best thing you can do is remind them of their inherent worth and of your presence in their life. Taking care of a new baby can feel lonely; PPD and PPA make that isolation even worse. Make sure your friend knows you’re in her corner.
“I’ll check in with you again tomorrow morning.”
What not to say: “Fine. I’ll leave you alone.”
Everyone has bad days. Someone suffering from PPD or PPA may be having quite a few of them. If you reach out to your loved one and they lash out, give you the cold shoulder, or otherwise react negatively, it can be tempting to stop trying. However, just because they hurt your feelings doesn’t mean they don’t still deserve help, love and support. Let them know you’ll reach out again later, and at a specific time. It gives both of you time to cool off and lets them know that you’re not giving up on them.