The Trap of Toxic Positivity in Maternal Mental Health

I dedicate this to all the mothers, the would be mothers and the should be are all warriors 💚

It’s maternal mental health week, so it’s time talk about the mental health problems that can affect women during and after pregnancy. The theme of the awareness week this year is journeys to recovery.

I took my time to consider what to write about in this article. My story is not unusual in that when I think about the psychologically difficult aspects of my journey into motherhood I have a multitude of different “incidents” to choose from that demonstrate some of the mental health challenges that a mother is faced with. Those of you who know me personally will be well aware that since trying to have my first child the road has been somewhat bumpy.

Yet here I am with my seemingly picture perfect 2.4 children, a boy and girl, a big and a little, we are all safe, we are well and life is good. So all’s well that ends well right....

If I am honest things are well, and for that I am grateful and proud in equal measure, because luck didn’t get me out of the ruts I was in, hard work, learning to be compassionate to myself and the right support did. However for a time on more than one occasion things were very much not ok at all, but for me and many other mothers I found myself immersed in toxic positivity at almost every turn.

Toxic positivity can be hugely damaging for our mental health, this incessant need for us to tell other humans that things could have been worse, to look on the bright side and to keep thinking positively and things will work out just fine. This rejection of anything negative and the kind of “good vibes only” approach can be invalidating and cause shame and secrecy for those who feel anything but ok.

So I dont subscribe to the idea that everyone is just an a*#$ole and for the most part this positive approach is well meant, but it’s time to stop and think about what we are really saying and what message that gives to people.

This reminds me of something a mentor said to me long ago when I began my mental health training...when someone is crying don’t immediately pass the tissues or say “oh dont cry” because maybe they need to cry and even the silent act of passing a tissue is telling someone to stop and dry their eyes. I mean clearly if there is snot, they need a tissue, but sometimes people don’t need or want us to dive in with a positive platitude or praise they need to be heard, be seen, and be listened to.

There is a whole bunch of examples that I can give of things that have been said to me or friends that were meant well but just didn’t have the problem solving impact the person saying it intended.

“At least you know you can pregnant”

“You can always try again”

“If breastfeeding is painful your not doing it right” “At least you are ok, baby is”

“You would have made a wonderful mum“

“It could have been worse”

Replacing these types of phrases with more validating words that are a genuine enquiry and acknowledgement of someone’s difficulty can be helpful.

“That sounds really difficult/ upsetting/ painful” “This sounds tough, what can I do to help”

“ It is ok to be upset and cry, you are human”. “You can tell me what your going through/ have been through, I am here for you”

And as for breastfeeding or any other type of feeding related stuff if your opinion ain’t actively sought then maybe just keep it to yoursel!

I guess this comes down to thinking before we speak, not thinking about what can I do to fix this or make the person “feel positive” but thinking about what someone might need when they are struggling. If in doubt ask, I remember as clear as day asking more than one friend this exact question and getting different responses despite similar events having occurred, just saying wow that’s so crap, what do you need? This shows people you are there and gives them the chance to tell you what is best for them.

If you or someone you care about need help with mental health issues then the maternal

mental health alliance has a treasure trove of resources for accessing the right support. Individual therapy such a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and EMDR can be helpful for those with a diagnosed condition.

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