Insisting that mothers be happy and positive all the time does not permit us to recognize or fix the foundational problems.
My friend was recently mom-shamed on social media.
She was venting about the challenges of parenting during a pandemic, and another mom—a stranger—messaged her to tell her to stop complaining. You should feel lucky for all that is good in your life and stop focusing on the bad. When you complain, you bring everyone around you down. Motherhood is beautiful, enjoy it more.
Now, this friend is one of the more positive people I know, so the feedback missed the mark. But more important than the irony of misguided feedback was that rather than changing my friend's perception about her situation, it made it so much worse. It shamed her. It belittled and isolated her. And it hurt motherhood as a collective.
The following statements are all truths:
Optimism is beautiful.
Finding the silver lining is a gift.
A positive outlook will take you far.
And sometimes life is really hard.
In order to live a full, human life, that last part has to be acknowledged, and even welcomed, into the conversation.
To ignore or shame it is to practice toxic positivity—and it's a huge problem right now.
Toxic positivity is the extreme preference for positive emotions while ignoring or rejecting anything negative. It is looking at the spectrum of emotions that people experience and stating that the happy ones are okay, but the unpleasant ones are not.
We are living through unprecedentedly difficult times when every day brings an onslaught of sadness, stress and anger. Yes, there are periods of joy and they should be celebrated. But ignoring the hard stuff, asking each other to only talk about the positive, and shaming people when they acknowledge the bad are all symptoms of toxic positivity—and it is hurting mothers.
As a general rule, our culture is not one that tolerates much discomfort. We try pretty desperately to avoid it. Think about when a child cries—our immediate reaction is to make the discomfort go away. "Don't cry, everything's okay!" Our culture has conditioned us to think that only positive, happy emotions are good.
We tell people to cheer up, chin up, buck up and snap out of it all the time. We print "good vibes only" on t-shirts. Why are we so averse to feeling or expressing or hearing about anything less than perfection? Aren't we braver than that?
Toxic positivity presents itself in many ways in motherhood. Here are a few examples:
Shaming a mother who complains about an aspect of motherhood. This is what happened to my friend (and happens to many others regularly).
This might sound like, "You have it so good, you have no right to complain."
When mothers are given the space to be honest and vulnerable, something beautiful happens: Mothers everywhere feel seen. This allows us to feel less alone. But when we swoop in to make mothers feel bad about venting, we are shutting down this call for help and the attempt to find connection. In doing so, we are not only doing her a disservice, we are hurting mothers everywhere.
Ignoring problems that have harmful consequences. Insisting on an overly positive view of the world risks causing us to turn our back on the very real—and very harmful—crises that exist all around us. A glaring example of this is racism.
This might sound like, "He wouldn't have said that to you. He's so nice," or, "I know that some people are racist, but the majority are not. I truly believe that most people in the world are good at heart."
Toxic positivity would have us believe that there are occasional problems here and there, however, on the whole, everything is fine. But we know that that's not the case—not even close. Denying the existence of huge societal problems, or using the notion of "staying positive" as a means to ignore problems, only elongates the existence of the problem. It is dangerous and unhelpful.
Toxic positivity can lead to over-glorification, which is another way that problems get ignored. A prime example of this is mom burnout.
This might sound like, "I know you've been diagnosed with postpartum depression, but try to focus on all the wonderful aspects of motherhood. It's such a magical journey, isn't it?"
Motherhood has been put on a pedestal—and yes, it is wonderful in many ways. But there are significant fundamental issues that make motherhood incredibly difficult right now: lack of paid parental leave, lack of universal childcare options, lack of support around mental health and so much more.
Toxic positivity surrounding motherhood—insisting that mothers be happy and positive all the time—does not permit us to recognize or talk about the foundational problems. And if we don't recognize and talk about them, how on earth can we fix them?
It also prevents mothers from being fully human. We don't stop getting mad or sad the moment we become mothers. We are still people with complex emotions. To insist that mothers only focus on the positive is asking us to play into the stereotypical, patriarchal role of "the mother, who lives and dies for her children's happiness alone."
Gas-lighting, minimizing or placating a person's difficult experience. The parenthood journey is full of beautiful and impossibly difficult moments—and they are all valid. But so often we only grant people permission to talk about the positive.
This might sound like, "You shouldn't complain about your birth. At least you and the baby are healthy," or, "I'm sorry you had a miscarriage, but it's time to move on; you were only 6 weeks pregnant, after all. Just be grateful that you can get pregnant in the first place."
Forcing someone to move through tragedy and trauma before they are ready doesn't work and is emotionally damaging. We have to process and grieve before we can begin to heal. And honestly, it's disrespectful.
Toxic positivity isn't just something we do to each other; we do it to ourselves, too.
When we shame ourselves for feeling negatively, we are forcing toxic positivity on ourselves.
"I shouldn't be upset that I lost my job, I have so much to be thankful for," or, "I feel guilty for being stressed during the pandemic. I have my health, I should just focus on that." When this happens, we feel shame. Shame is problematic because it can often prevent us from taking action to get help.
For example, if we are ashamed of our postpartum depression, we are much more likely to hide it or tell ourselves we need to snap out of it. "I should be so happy right now. I shouldn't feel like this." On the other hand, when we permit ourselves to have bad feelings too, we can approach them with much less self-judgment. "Wow, I have been feeling really unhappy recently. I wonder if something is up. I am going to call my doctor."
The solution to toxic positivity is three-fold: welcoming the negative, increasing our empathy and embracing the phrase, "Yes, and."
On welcoming the negative: Here's the thing about life: The shadows are just as real as the light. They're important, valid and full of lessons—plus ignoring them doesn't make them go away. If we could learn to tolerate discomfort a little more, learn to sit in the fire, we'd learn things about ourselves we never thought possible. And if, when someone vented, we resisted the urge to say "stop" and instead said "yes"—imagine how much more compassionate our world would feel.
On empathy: The next time someone feels called to "remind" a mother how lucky she is, let them be reminded that they cannot and should not presume to understand that mother's whole story. Please consider that she may have battles you know nothing about.
We need to increase our empathy levels and work the toxic positivity out of our culture.
On embracing "Yes, and": Our human brains want to put things into either-or categories. This is good and this is bad and it can't be both because that is messy!
But life is messy! And part of becoming an adult is coming to terms with the duality of life—an experience can be more than one thing at any given time.
You can be grateful to have your health and stressed during the pandemic.
You can believe that there are good people in the world and fight against institutional racism.
You can love motherhood and be overwhelmed by it; love your child and dislike aspects of caretaking; feel lucky to be a mother and miss your pre-motherhood existence; love your child and need a break from them; love your job and look forward to the weekend. And on, and on, and on.
Because that's what life is. It's gorgeous and tragic and boring and riveting and breathtakingly hard and breathtakingly beautiful all at once.
And how lucky we are to be here for each other through it all?
So let's actually be here. In the muck. In the fire. In it—because that is real and we are brave enough.