As a therapist I would say one of the best tools for recovery from any difficult life transitions or mental health issues is a strong support system. One of our basic human needs is the need to feel connected to others. And during times of stress, depression, or anxiety we need to feel supported and held by those that matter in our lives.
One of first things to consider when building and utilizing your support network are the traits and attitudes you will need to develop in order to actually utilize your support network.
–Being vulnerable and opening up to others. Unfortunately our culture sometimes values people that are closed off and act as if nothing bothers them. But being a new mom is particularly vulnerable place. It may not be comfortable but it helps you becoming stronger and more courageous when you put it all out there. To those that you trust you do not need to put on a mask of happiness or having it all under control. Remember that those who love you unconditionally love you no matter what issues you lay at their door. So start simple by practicing sharing something vulernable with a member of your support network and when applicable asking for what you need. For instance saying to your partner, “I’m very tired today. I need some time to sleep” or saying to one of your mom friends, “I’m having a hard time being a mom today.” These are simple steps that tighten your web of support and lift some of that emotional weight off your shoulders.
-Asking for practical help. Independence is something that is heavily valued in our society but if you think about it, it is really not the way we are meant to function. We can not continue the human race without each other, we can not build pyramids or strength communities without each other either. We need each other. So remember when your pride holds you back from asking for help that you are going against the very nature of human existence–connecting with others and depending on others. Again with doing this over and over again you will get more comfortable. It may be helpful to set a small goal this week of asking someone for help such as “I’ll ask my mom to come over and watch the baby once this week so I can take a nap,” or “I’ll take up my cousin on that offer to bring dinner over.” And remember, if you wouldn’t judge someone in your shoes asking for help then your own support network is not judging you either.
-Being open to building new relationships. As we enter a new stage of motherhood we may look around and see that we don’t have many people in our existing support network that we can relate to in going through the same thing in the here and now with us. So that means we have to open ourselves to add some new relationships into our lives. For some people it can be hard to meet new people and let relationships grows. This can be especially hard for people that have trust issues due to their past. It is simply a fact of life that we have to put some blind faith into trusting others. We let trust grow with time and experience in our relationship with another person but there will always be an element of uncertainty in how things will turn out. Protecting ourselves from being hurt by someone by not opening up or meeting new people can hold us back from some amazing experiences. Sometimes we need to close our eyes, jump in, and let ourselves trust in connection.
-Make sure you have different types of support covered. Support from our network can come in many different forms. You need a person just to listen and provide emotional support and encouragement (a partner, friends, family, a support group). You need a person that can provide information when you need it (a doctor, professional, trusted community that specializes in what you need information for). You need a person that can provide concrete resources that you need (time, babysitting, assistance with daily living tasks, money when times are tough). Take a moment to reflect on your support network and ensure that you have various people in your life that can offer you each of these types of support.
So now let’s talk about how to actually build that support system.
5 Ways to Build a Support System
–Join a local mothers group. For some new moms it can be intimidating to walk into a new sea of faces of mothers whom you are not sure will accept you, support you, or judge you. In therapy we know that anxiety decreases the more you expose yourself to the very thing that makes you anxious. Going out over and over again to meet new moms will become more comfortable as time goes on and you will find through your interactions those that you feel can be a part of your tribe. Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) is an international network of mothers groups that welcomes moms of younger children, usually 0-6. Usually there is a small fee for membership but at times you can attend a couple of meetups before you are required to pay. Meetup.com is also an excellent place to meet new people. This is where I found my own tribe and then started my own meetup group for Parents of 0-5 year olds. Meetup.com is free to sign up for an account and can link you with groups of any interest near you. Some groups on meetup.com may ask for yearly due (my own group is 5 dollars to help manage the monthly subscription to meetup.com). Another option is to see if there is an early childhood PTA in your community. This is helpful to meet other moms and some of them are very active. Also you can begin to befriend mothers that live in the same town as you and may send their children to the same school once they reach the age.
– Join an online group. Although not at personal as face to face interaction the world wide web can provide you with the support and connection you need when getting out of the house seems insurmountable or you are having difficulties opening up to those closest to you. Facebook has an immense amount of groups based on your area of interest. Simply typing it in the search bar can help you find one. You may want to find smaller online communities that fit with a particular point of view rather than just general moms groups. General moms groups may be very active but can also be a hotbed of judgement and drama. Groups that focus on maternal mental health or postpartum mood disorders like postpartum depression are anxiety may be an extremely helpful resource. You can search “Postpartum Support Group” or “Postpartum Depression Support Group.” Also websites like thebump.com and babycenter.com also offer online communities and forums. You can also find Facebook moms groups that may be local to your city and state and may have their own meetups as well.
However, when it comes to sharing your emotional struggles and issues surrounding maternal mental health the best online groups are associated with nonprofits and community organizations that specialize in this. One of the most powerful first steps you can take towards recovery is learning that you are not alone and that comes from meeting other moms that are struggling in similar ways and are on their path to recovery too.
-Find a local support groups. Usually local hospitals or churches offer free support groups or playgroups. I went to a new mom support group and a breastfeeding support group. Support groups are an excellent way to not feel alone and also be connected to someone who can provide you with local resources that you may need if you decide to seek treatment. Postpartum Progress offers a list of U.S. and Canada support groups here.
-Strengthen your current support system. Make sure you are keeping regular contact and connection with those that have already been a support system. Sometimes when we become moms we are so focused on finding moms that are going through the same things at the same time we forgot the people that have been standing beside us this whole time (friends, our moms, family, partners, etc.) Make sure you are calling them, talking to them, and opening up to them- most likely they are the ones to provide you with the most unconditional support.
–Connect with others the “old fashioned” way. It may seem awkward to strike up a conversation with another mom while in line at Target but I have found random connections to be very healing and a form of support. When I took my son on his first flight and he got a little fussy an older women told me about talking her son on his first flight and how he cried the whole time. In that moment my anxiety decreased knowing I was not the first mom to deal with this situation and I certainly won’t be the last. We all survive somehow and get through it. When you offer a mom a kind glance when she’s struggling to get groceries in the car with a tantruming toddler or asking how old a mom’s newborn baby is you never know how you’re impacting them. And you never know where the conversation will lead. Whether or not you see them ever again it is a reminder that we aren’t alone, that we are all out there trying our best, and no matter how well we know each other, we’re all in this together.
When it comes to overcoming our fears of showing our pain to others and asking for support I think this excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams helps us think differently.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”