After my son was born I found myself thrown into the darkest period of my life, overtaken by postpartum depression and anxiety. My days were awash in panic attacks from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed, with crying spells that hit without warning in between.
Most of my visitors didn’t know any of this.
When they stopped by to deliver a meal or meet the baby, most people asked the question we all ask of new mothers: “How are you doing?” I answered with the automatic response we all give when asked this question: “I’m doing okay,” adding with a sideways glance and shrug, “Tired, but that’s just how it is.”
“How are you doing?” It’s a great question to ask when we see a friend on the street or sit down for coffee to catch up on life. But when we ask it of a new mother, we subconsciously ask her to take the complex period after birth, with its hormonal shifts and emotional ups and downs, and boil it down to one sentiment.
The postpartum period deserves a better question.
The reality for each mother is different, and the answer to such a simple question may be kept private for fear of making her visitors uncomfortable if she senses they expect a glowing new mother, drunk on oxytocin.
A better question for any visitor, or even if you see a woman with a new baby on the street, is: “How are you feeling, emotionally?”
This question doesn’t just invite a response, it shows a new mother that you are ready and unafraid to hear about her feelings, whatever they may be.
It shows her you understand that she may be delighted in her new baby, but are open to the possibility that she is also feeling grief for her past life, sadness at the lack of support, disappointment in the grueling and unforgiving schedule a newborn demands.
This question is even more important today, where most women are not surrounded by a village following the birth of a baby. They may be alone, doing the hard work with just the help of their partner, or if they’re lucky, close friends and family. They may have no space to process what’s happened to them and so they begin the habitual process of setting themselves aside for the sake of others.
A few weeks ago I was at a friend’s cookout. A woman entered the backyard with a newborn. She sat down and I watched her carefully, as I do all new moms since recovering from my PPD. Scanning for signs that she might be in trouble, or struggling to maintain a facade of togetherness. I didn’t see anything, but that didn’t matter.
“Hey,” I said. “How old is he?”
“Two weeks,” she replied, shifting the peacefully sleeping baby from one arm to the other.
“That is such a crazy time,” I said, painfully recalling the chaos of my own experience at two weeks postpartum. “And how are you feeling,” I ventured. “Emotionally?”
I didn’t even know her name. But it didn’t matter. I saw a flash of surprise on her face, followed by a faint smile radiating from inside her. And with the door swung wide open, we talked for a long time about what it really feels like to be a new mother.
So how are you feeling today mama, emotionally?