When I gave birth to my daughter in the summer of 2013, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I knew labor and delivery would be tough. I knew there would be soreness, discomfort, aches and pain. I knew the newborn days would be trying, and that exhaustion would hit like a freight train. Sleep deprivation, they said, was a bitch. I knew breastfeeding would be hard, and full of missteps and false starts, and I knew I would be overwhelmed — isn’t every parent? But I didn’t realize how difficult those early days and weeks would be.
I didn’t realize how much I would struggle, and how I would lose myself.
For me, in those early days, something was wrong. Very wrong. I was sad and despondent, scared and absent; I was distant and apathetic. My heart was frozen cold. I was emotionless. I felt like I was living in a haze. I should have realized something was wrong when I wanted to cuddle a tray of sushi instead of my newborn daughter — my fresh, wriggly and wet baby girl. I should have realized something was wrong as I wandered the streets of Brooklyn absently, vacantly, walking for hours without point or purpose. And I should have realized something was wrong when the tears began flowing freely, constantly. When I cried over cold coffee and spilled milk.
But I didn’t. Instead, I kept moving. These were supposed to be the “best days of my life.” Plus, everyone told me things “would get better.”
“It,” they said, “gets better.”
But things didn’t get better. I didn’t get better, and as the days and weeks wore on, I felt helpless. I became increasingly hopeless, and I was certain I was a bad person. A bad parent — someone who never should have been a mom.
Of course, I now know that my feelings were normal. And that is because I was one of millions of Americans living with postpartum depression. I was 1 in 7. But I didn’t feel normal — not then — because of those three little words: Oh, sweetie, it gets better. Because when things didn’t get better, I thought there was something wrong with me — or worse, my daughter. I thought my life was unmanageable and doomed. That I was unsalvageable.
But saying “it gets better,” is dismissive. It fails to acknowledge how hard things are in this moment, right now. And it minimizes thoughts, fears and feelings.
I know that may seem silly — and perhaps it is. After all, telling another person “it gets better” is not malicious. It’s an empathetic comment, one designed to inspire and uplift. But saying “it gets better,” is dismissive. It fails to acknowledge how hard things are in this moment, right now. And it minimizes thoughts, fears and feelings. Plus, when you’re tired and sleep deprived, when you are navigating new waters and are mentally unwell, your mind takes well-meaning remarks and twists them. Words of hope become hellish, and start to fill you with uncertainty, doubt and fear.
So what can you say instead of “it gets better?” How can you support a new parent without saying these three words? Personally, I try to avoid catch phrases and cliches. Instead, I sympathize and empathize. I share my own experiences in a candid, raw and real way. I focus on the positives. I tell new moms (and dads) things like “you’ve got this” and “you’re doing great.” And I listen. I give new parents the space to speak and breathe.
I also try to be honest. I say things like “parenting is tough. It’s okay to be frustrated and sad.” But, I add, “you are not alone.”
Is this failproof? No. The trials and tribulations remain real. The early days of parenting are rough. But if I had a realistic picture of what to expect — if I knew it was okay to be angry, that it was normal to mourn my old life and feel sad about parenthood, I think I would have coped better. I would have felt less crazy and certainly less alone.
So listen to the new and expectant parents in your life. Love them. And listen to them, without telling them about their brighter future on the horizon — the one they can’t quite see just yet. Because everyone just wants to be heard.
If you’re a new parent who is struggling, speak to your doctor and visit Postpartum Support International to find resources near you.
These public breastfeeding protest pics show just how amazing new moms are — whether they know it or not.