In life, and especially in motherhood, many feelings can coexist. For new mothers, feelings of joy and love often share space with anxiety, frustration, impatience and depression. Many times, well-meaning people will repeatedly tell you how lucky you are, how blessed you are and to "soak it all up" because babies turn into big kids in no time. While all of these things can be true, being told how to feel can be invalidating. Particularly during a time when your emotions are so raw and vulnerable, and all you want to do is be the best mama you can be for your baby—but you're struggling.
This is one example of toxic positivity and the negative effect it has on mothers.
Toxic positivity undermines what someone is actually feeling by insisting that person feel grateful and optimistic even in the face of immense hardship. It's what happens when someone that is uncomfortable feeling difficult emotions projects that onto another person by sweeping their valid feelings under the rug and glossing over it with unhelpful platitudes.
After I had my first baby, around day three or four, the post-birth afterglow began to wan and I started to feel something I'd never felt before: anxiety so intense, I couldn't eat or sleep. I would escape to the shower and quietly sob, wholeheartedly believing I was failing my child before she reached a full week of life outside my body. I lost 30 pounds in three weeks, and it surely wasn't from breastfeeding alone. I called my doctor and begged to be seen immediately because I was spiraling, but even that didn't help. I kept a roll of toilet paper next to me on the couch because I was crying so much, I kept running out of tissues. Because I had never felt it before in that way, I didn't know I was experiencing postpartum anxiety. I just knew I wasn't myself, and that my postpartum period was utterly miserable and not how I had envisioned it at all.
I tried to put on a brave face for the influx of visitors that were all clamoring to see the new baby, but I could see the panic in their eyes. The judgment. The confusion. How could I be so low when I was now the recipient of life's greatest gifts?
"Go get a pedicure, that'll blow the stink off you and you'll feel better."
"What do you mean you can't eat? You don't want your milk to dry up and miss out on the experience of breastfeeding."
"Aw, just look at her face. How I wish I could go back in time to this moment. You'll miss this one day."
"Bring the baby over here and have a few drinks! Don't you want to show her off? What's wrong with you?"
"You're so blessed. Remember, positive things happen to positive thinkers!"
"Look on the bright side; you were able to get pregnant. So many women would kill to be in your shoes."
"You have a happy, healthy baby. What else matters more than that?"
"It's just hormones, honey. It could always be worse."
These are all examples of how the toxic positivity of others deeply affected my mindset as a new mom. Telling someone that is very clearly struggling, as all new mothers do at one point or another, completely negates the difficulties of the postpartum period. Nothing on earth can prepare you for the reality of how long the period of adjustment can take, and how windy the road is to get there. And when someone, even someone who loves you, tells you to essentially just "buck up buttercup," you feel like you're wrong for feeling the way you do.
The last thing a postpartum mother needs is to feel shame, but sadly, this type of "positivity" is everywhere and new moms can't entirely escape it. Social media is rife with influencer and life coach accounts that infer that feeling anything less than confident and grateful at all times is somehow a failure on the follower's part. Hustle culture makes people feel like if you simply work hard, wake up early, exercise daily, and eat a certain way, all of your life's problems will be solved and all of your goals are achievable.
The problem with these ideals is that they're full of flaws and unrealistic expectations—for everyone. Toxic positivity is detrimental to maternal mental health. It comes from a place of privilege because it basically denies socioeconomic imbalances of parenthood. Hard work has nothing to do with overcoming hardship, especially for people who don't have help. Toxic positivity lacks the nuance that's a necessary component of life: You can feel many things, all at once, and not all of them have to be "good."
Toxic positivity just suppresses feelings that will eventually need to be processed. It has no place in a new mom's life, because all it does is perpetuate shame and make her feel like she's doing something wrong when she's not exuding joy 24/7. New moms need support more than anything else, and giving them the space to feel however they genuinely feel is the most validating thing you can do.