May is the time for both Mothers’ Day and Mental Health Awareness Month. Coincidence?
I think not!
And with the pressure from social media to only show our best moments, it’s easy for new, already-overwhelmed parents to get sucked into a vortex of doom, gloom, and hiding to eat snacks and cry in the bathroom.
So it makes sense that we try to lift new parents up with strained optimism, but when we do that, we sometimes make things worse. It’s called Toxic Positivity — and it can invalidate a person’s feelings and add an extra layer of guilt on top of everything else they’re already dealing with.
I took inventory of both the triggering and tear-jerkingly helpful things well-intentioned people said and did for me during my pregnancies and my first years as a parent.
Then I took notes from other parents too, and what I found was a striking similarity.
So I’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts for well-meaning people who want to avoid the trap of toxic positivity — and actually want to help a new parent not feel like the world is closing in on them.
1. Avoid Unsolicited… Anything
Most people know never to ask a woman if she’s pregnant; you should probably also just never say or do … well, pretty much anything – at least not without consent.
Don’t feel her tummy, give unsolicited advice, or ask platitudinous questions like “How are you feeling?”
Ask before striking up a conversation, like “Do you mind if I ask about the pregnancy?” or “Is it all right if I do X for you?”
If the answer is no, a simple, “No problem!” will do.
2. Don’t Make Assumptions
Anything starting with a negative inversion — like “Aren’t you wanting a boy?” “Isn’t it wonderful?” or “Don’t you wish this stage would last longer?” — should never exit your mouth.
It puts the listener in a place of feeling like they have to agree.
Ask about their own thoughts and feelings because (surprise!) we often think differently, especially when it comes to such complex issues as bringing a life into existence.
Alternatives to the aforementioned questions could be:
- “What is it like having four girls?”
- “What emotions are you feeling at this point in parenthood?”
- and “What are some good and bad things about this current stage?”
Then actually listen. Don’t listen to respond; listen to understand.
And finally, act.
Asking and listening without offering to help just adds mental load. You can take off some of that load by responding to the parents’ needs based on their responses.
“Four girls sound so fun! Can I take them to the park some Saturday to give you a break?”
“I’m sorry you’re holding on to so much fear after your miscarriage. How about you come over, we watch a movie, and I’ll make whatever snacks you want.”
“Yes, I’ve heard people call them ‘threenagers.’ I’m sure that’s exhausting, though it’s cool to see him grow in his independence. What if I came over once a week or so to help out around the house so you can focus on that behavior?”
3. Don’t Call Parents ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ Unless You Are, in Fact, Their Children
(Even then, if you’ve said it more than three times a minute, maybe give it a rest? Talking to you, kids!)
They have names and identities outside of parenthood and not addressing them by those names not only feels lazy but can make them feel like nothing more than a diaper-changing and/or milk-producing machine.
(Now, if this is a bedroom thing, that’s a different matter. Y’all can figure that out on your own time.)
4. Use Early Birthdays to Celebrate Parents
Here’s an easy one:
At early milestones/birthdays, don’t just focus on the kiddo.
Get a gift for the parents too. They’re the ones you really need to celebrate.
The one-year-old won’t care much for that vibrating rattle with flashing lights this time tomorrow, but the parents will definitely appreciate the coupon for a night out and babysitting on you!
5. Don’t Talk Only to the Baby
The parents probably ache for adult conversation about something other than the baby, like — heaven forbid — their own interests and passions.
Again: ask, listen, and treat them like a person.
“Have you had any time for yourself lately? I’m so happy you’ve found joy in playing video games. Escapism FTW! How about I take the kid so you can level up this weekend? Or maybe you’d like to play something together?”
(Sensing a theme here? If you really want to help, you can never go wrong with free babysitting.)
6. Don’t Glorify How Much the Parents Are Doing
Yes, she is a superwoman, and yes, it is amazing how many things he’s juggling, but it’s not a good thing.
Parenting is not a one-person job, and they probably feel too ashamed to ask for help.
Check in on them, encourage them, take the baby, do some chores, cook a meal, or take them out. Let them rest.
If you need something to say, think Coco’s mom Bella from Bluey: “You’re doing great.”
7. Fellow Parents, Ask Before You Share
A lot of parents tend to share in the hopes of showing support and solidarity. Honesty is great. Open communication is fantastic.
But empathy is equally important.
Before you share, realize your experience is not everyone’s experience.
Every parent, pregnancy, labor, child, and family is different.
Maybe you’re one of those people who felt like your life was not complete without kids. That’s great! But maybe the person you’re sharing your joy with is someone who struggles with infertility.
Maybe you had a traumatic labor experience and you want to warn a new parent labor is not all zen music, oil diffusers, and beautiful at-home tub births. Before you share, consider the person you’re talking to may already be overly anxious about labor.
Ask before you share, and then if the listener is agreeable, yes, share how your pregnancy/labor/parenting was/is, but realize your experience is your experience and read the room.
I knew that parenting would be difficult, but I didn’t know it would be this difficult.
When others were commenting about the bliss of parenthood, it made me feel more and more like I was doing something wrong.
To me, as a new parent who struggled with perinatal depression, it seemed blatantly obvious to me certain comments and behaviors were not helpful at all; but it has since become apparent how non-intuitive this actually is.
So now consider yourself among the educated–and actually helpful!
Taffeta Chime received a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MA in English/Foreign Language from Middle Tennessee State University. She has two self-published novels (Stoodie, 2007, and The Last, 2011) and several short stories, poems, and articles printed across many publications (including Palisatrium’s Poetry Substack, Leaping Clear, and The Renew Network). She currently works as a freelance writer and editor in Tennessee with her husband Shane, daughters Beili and Ailin, and cats Firmin and Buquet.