Something I didn’t expect to give birth to in addition to my first child was an open invitation to family and perfect strangers to give me well-meaning advice along the lines of, “Enjoy every moment; you’ll miss this someday,” or the more recently popularized, twist-of-the-knife notion, “You never know when a last will be a last.”
These seemingly innocent comments always felt like a sucker punch to the gut as a new mom. They were nice enough on the surface but held undertones of shame, guilt, and even condescension that I was expected to smile and accept with wholehearted thanks. Now that I’m a seasoned pro at this parenting thing, I understand why these adages rub me the wrong way, and I’m curious to see if it strikes a chord with other moms.
There are many reasons why I have so much beef with telling moms things like, “You’ll miss this someday,” that I could make a stir-fry.
It Denies a Mom’s Experience.
When you interject something a struggling mom may be complaining about with what I can only describe as sweet-guilting, you’re conveying the message you’re not allowed to feel that way. You’re saying that it’s wrong and unnatural because her experience doesn’t match yours or the ever-happy and patient ones we like to showcase. It’s as if you’d rather throw up Oz’s curtain to conceal unsightly truths than let Mom be human.
It Gaslights Moms.
Even worse than denying a mom’s experience is silencing her. By censoring a mom who needs to vent when motherhood gets hard with, “You should be happy!” you’re implying that she can’t have bad days, and if she does, it’s taboo to let anyone in on it. Speaking negatively about one’s journey is the We Don’t Talk About Bruno of motherhood.
It Silences Moms (Which Can Be Dangerous).
If a mother who is having a hard time coping or adjusting finally gathers enough courage to confide in someone and is met with “You should feel blessed!” she may feel shame and embarrassment. She might try to stuff her negative feelings down the next time they arise instead of bringing them up again. She may feel alienated, wondering Why are other moms able to handle this so well and without complaint? Am I not mom enough?
Motherhood presents differently in each of us. Some will adapt more easily and take things as they come with grace, and some will experience things like postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum rage, intrusive thoughts, and postpartum psychosis. If she doesn’t receive the support she needs, she may feel like she has no one to turn to. As in some recent and tragedies that have made national headlines, like the case of Lindsay Clancy, things can turn fatal for mothers or children when a parent feels they have run out of options.
It’s Not F*cking Helpful.
You might genuinely intend for your unsolicited advice to be a helpful, cautionary glimpse into the looking glass of the future now that your kids are older and you realize that time is a thief, but a mom in the trenches cannot receive or even grasp what you’re saying because she’s so deep in survival mode.
It Cultivates Guilt.
Mom guilt is something she already has an overabundance of; she doesn’t need you to add more. Before a mom decides to vent or ask for help, assume and trust that she has already exhausted all other options and has likely tried (and failed) to deal with things on her own.
When a mother reaches out in this way, it is an act of bravery, not a sign of weakness. So to be told that it’s un-motherlike to complain and unnatural to struggle, she is assaulted with an extra serving of mom guilt. She beats herself up inside worse than you ever could. Promise.
The kicker, though? The absolute Mortal Kombat “Finish Him” of all? It’s the truth. It’s true, and we know it, but we are so muddied down by everything that we aren’t able to stop in our tracks and take it in. Some moments simply are not enjoyable, and that’s OK. Still, knowing in the back of our heads that we don’t know when some experience we have with our child will be the last due to them aging out of certain things and behaviors—the last time we’ll breastfeed, the last time we’ll rock them to sleep, the last time we’ll carry them—puts us in this state of anticipated dread and premature mourning. It’s a blessing and a curse to know that we should slow down while wishing time would fast forward because it can be too much.
So, no, you will not find me telling a new mother to enjoy her children while they’re young, no matter how much wisdom I may now have as a mother of two or how much I think she needs to hear it. Instead, I will try to step in and take some things off her plate so her day is a little less overwhelming.
How To Actually Help.
Here are some things you can do to make the burden of motherhood a little less heavy:
- Be kind and nonjudgmental.
- Listen when she’s venting and then ask if she wants support or advice.
- If you’re at the store and see that a new mom struggling, talk to and entertain her children.
- Offer to clean her house.
- Offer to bring over food or coffee (or just do it).
- Offer to watch her child or any siblings she may feel guilty about not paying enough attention to.
- Offer to come over so she can tap out long enough to take a shower or a nap.
- Offer to run errands for her.
- Tell her she’s doing a good job.
- Invite her out even though she will likely decline; she still wants to be included.
- Check in, tag her in posts, send her memes, do anything that sends the message, “I’m thinking about you. You haven’t been forgotten.”
Motherhood is hard, especially in the throes of the early days with a newborn when everything is new and overwhelming. Even when the most experienced mothers have been through it all and feel obligated to impart their wisdom to first-timers, their intentions are always good. But, if you’re one of those veteran mamas, think back to when you didn’t know what you know now, when you were unaware of how quickly the years would go by; try to remember the last diaper you changed or bottle you fed. Did you learn anything from the unsolicited advice you were given? Did it change your perspective or how you raised your child? Is that what you really needed, or did you need an extra set of hands, a listening ear, or the camaraderie of another mom going through the same experience? And did you enjoy every moment?
As different as the parenting experience can be for everyone, it’s also very similar. It is beautiful, exhausting, life-changing, frustrating, expensive, messy, wonderful, lonely, and brief. We all figure this out on our own, eventually, and nothing anyone tells us will prepare us for any of it.