It takes a lot of courage to be open about mental health, especially if you're a mom struggling with a disorder like postpartum anxiety. Many folks still buy into the misperception that the brain is the only organ in the body that never gets sick. So when people talk about their struggles, instead of empathizing as they would if someone was physically sick or hurt, people respond like the individual has a character flaw rather than a legitimate illness that requires treatment. Some of the things people say to moms suffering from postpartum anxiety are shockingly callous and unhelpful, but common nevertheless.
Regardless of what anyone else may say, please know that you matter and your well-being matters. You are not obligated to be a superhero in order to be a mother, and no one benefits from your suffering. So while you don't necessarily need to, you should absolutely feel empowered to stand up to anyone who tries to belittle you or dismiss what you're going through. You are not less of a person or less of a mother for experiencing postpartum anxiety, and there is nothing wrong with seeking support and professional help. You deserve to be healthy and whole, and you need to be your best self to take the best possible care of your children.
Truly, you shouldn't feel at all obligated to share your struggles with people you don't already know will understand, nor should you feel obligated to keep talking to someone after they reveal that they're not trustworthy or understanding or supportive or anything else that you may need. In many cases, it's really not worth your time or energy, which is probably in short supply as of late. Sometimes, however, when you're talking to a family member or someone else who is really important in your life, you may feel it's important that they understand what's going on, on some level. If you do feel like responding to what they say, the following suggestions for responding to common misperceptions about postpartum anxiety might be a good place to start.
"That's Normal. All Moms Worry."
It's true that all moms worry. However, there's a difference between run-of-the-mill worries, which motivate you to be vigilant and take reasonable steps to protect your children, and anxiety, which can be so mentally and physically overwhelming that it prevents you from being able to eat, sleep, or function. If your "worries" are preventing you from meeting your personal, social, or financial obligations, they're not normal.
How to respond: "What I'm going through goes beyond ordinary mom worries. It's interfering with my life, so I'm getting help."
"It's All In Your Head"
Yes, it is — like most things we experience in life, because our brain is where we process all information and emotion. But just like it doesn't make sense to tell a person with a broken femur that "it's all in your leg," it doesn't make sense to treat a mental illness like it's less real because it happens in your brain.
How to respond: Check their belief that mental illnesses are less real than physical ones. "If my arm was broken, I'd get it checked out and treated. I'm doing the same thing to protect my overall well-being right now, by dealing with my anxiety."
"Put On Your Big Girl Pants"
It's not immature or "whiny" to admit when you're struggling — it's courageous, especially in a society that just waits to judge moms for anything we do. The suggestion that "moms these days" just need to grow up dismisses the fact that maternal mental illness is real, and has nothing to do with a person's maturity or their capability to handle their responsibilities, is ridiculous at best and extremely harmful at worst. Making sure you're healthy enough to meet those responsibilities is the most mature, responsible thing you can do.
How to respond: Counter their attempt to sweep your problems under the rug. "Pretending I'm not struggling when I am doesn't help anything. I'm grown enough to understand that I can't do my best for my kids unless I'm doing my best for myself."
"That's Just Part Of Life. Deal With It."
Few things are more painful than hearing something as dismissive as this after you've taken the emotional risk to open up to someone else. The idea that "it's just part of life" suggests that people should "just get over it" on their own, instead of seeking support and professional help where needed. Yes, struggle is part of life, but that doesn't mean that we need to just let every struggle we have completely overtake our lives. If left unchecked, that's exactly what postpartum anxiety can do.
How to respond: Challenge the unspoken assumption that it's somehow wrong to name and get help with your problems. "A lot of things are part of life," you might say. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't get help dealing with them when we need it."
"At Least You Have A Healthy Baby. You Should Be Grateful."
This is one of the most hurtful things anyone can say to someone suffering with any postpartum trouble, whether they're dealing with birth trauma, postpartum depression, or postpartum anxiety. For starters, not everyone has a healthy baby, and folks shouldn't just assume they know the full story about others' families. Moreover, a mom's mental health struggles have nothing to do with whether or not she is grateful to be a mom or whether or not she loves her child. Being reminded that you "should" be happy right now just inspires shame.
How to respond: Defend yourself, and set the record straight. "I'm quite grateful for my child. That doesn't change the fact that I'm having difficulty right now, and that I deserve to feel better. Becoming a mother doesn't mean that my needs no longer matter."
"In My Day, We Didn't Have That"
Sometimes, moms of previous generations will react with disbelief when they hear certain diagnoses, including postpartum anxiety. However, that's not because they didn't exist back then. They did, but because medical professionals (and society as a whole) lacked the awareness and language to describe what many women were experiencing, many moms were forced to suffer in silence rather than getting the help they needed and deserved.
How to respond: Challenge their implicit assertion that postpartum anxiety is either new or made up. Neither is true. "It's likely many people did, it's just that they and their doctors didn't have a name for it. Fortunately, people can get treatment now."
"You Should Try [This Unproven Remedy]"
After opening up about your struggle with another person, some well-intentioned people will respond with suggestions they think are helpful, but are either insufficient for what you're going through (like when people suggest eating certain foods or getting more exercise) or are totally unproven (like recommending prayer, essential oils, or other non-medical interventions). While a good diet, healthy movement, and adequate rest are the foundations of health in all situations, they're often not enough for people who are struggling with a specific mental health condition. While prayer, etc. may enrich some people's lives if they're into that, it can't cure anything.
How to respond: Recognize that they're trying to be helpful, but that what they're suggesting isn't necessarily what you need. Try something like "I appreciate your concern. I'm working with professionals to get better. If you'd like to help, it'd be great if you could..." and then ask for a specific thing that you'd find helpful; like assisting with meals, tackling chores around the house, or (if you trust them enough) handling childcare while you see a therapist or take some time for yourself.