Yesterday, a new mom said to me, "I love coming to your group. I'm sick of the baby books and people telling me what to do. I just want to come here and say what's on my mind." Her remarks were met with murmurs of approval from the other mothers present. A mom who was at the group for the first time said, "Yeah, it feels good to be around people who are telling it like it is. I'm so glad I came here today!"
As a facilitator of groups for new moms, my goal is to create a safe, welcoming space where mothers can "tell it like it is" and speak candidly about what they're experiencing. Early parenthood brings many highs and lows, and new moms are often bombarded with information and advice about parenting, but have no space to process their feelings and experiences. New moms need that emotional space to talk, vent, process, and express their feelings without judgment from others.
Moreover, much of the focus during early parenthood is on the baby, and new mothers are given very few opportunities to talk about themselves. A few weeks ago, a mom remarked, "This group is one of the few places where I can actually talk about myself--what I want to do with my career, what I am going through with my husband, and just what I THINK in general. Everyone always asks about the baby and her sleep and her weight gain, but when I come here, I can actually talk about myself and know that people will listen." In response, another mom said, "Yes. The first time I came to this group, I cried because it was the first time someone asked me how I was feeling about breastfeeding. Every other conversation was about the baby's weight and my milk supply, but no one ever asked me how I felt about any of it."
Mother-centered support groups give new moms an opportunity to share what they're thinking and feeling. When I attended the MotherWoman facilitator training in June of 2014, I found that much of my own experience with facilitating mothers' groups was validated by MotherWoman's approach and support-group model. MotherWoman believes that speaking honestly about our experiences as mothers is a radical, revolutionary act; no statement about motherhood rings truer to me. When mothers are able to speak honestly, they can affirm what is true for themselves, regardless of the glut of images, advice, and instructions about how they should parent. Moreover, when mothers speak honestly, they can help other mothers feel validated and less alone.
Particularly for a new mom who is experiencing anxiety, depression, or other perinatal emotional complications, being in a space where she can speak honestly can be therapeutic and beneficial. Anywhere from 10% to 20% of mothers will experience postpartum depression, and 15% will experience postpartum anxiety. If you do the math, in a room of 12 new moms, it's likely that a couple of them are experiencing a mood-related complication. I remember one mom who started weeping while listening to another mom talk about how she was feeling down and anxious. When it was her turn to speak, the woman who was weeping said, "This is the first time that I have heard someone else say that being a mom is really hard. I had thought that there was something wrong with me because I'm having a really hard time." And a third woman said, "No, it's not just you."
And we were all silent for a minute as we let those words ring in our ears... It's not just you. As a facilitator, I wanted to jump in and validate these statements and feelings, but I stopped, took a breath, and just let those words settle into us for another few seconds. It's not just you.
For those of us who work with postpartum women--as midwives, doulas, lactation professionals, physicians, or friends and family members--it is incumbent upon us to create spaces where new moms feel safe speaking honestly. Part of creating that space is modeling that honesty ourselves. As a facilitator, I have talked about frustrations with my kids, challenges with navigating my work-life balance, and my own previous postpartum depression and anxiety. I speak about these issues not as problems that I have solved, but as experiences that are part of who I am. When one woman left my group to return to work outside the home, she said, "It made it easier for me to talk about what I was feeling because you were not afraid to say that you struggled at times...You put yourself out there with us and showed your own vulnerabilities." Another woman responded, "Yeah, it's easier to tell it like it is because you tell it like it is."
In addition to speaking honestly, listening and bearing witness to another mother's words is extremely powerful. We can be quick to offer advice, suggestions, and possible solutions, and we usually do this out of genuine kindness, care, and desire to help, but sometimes the act of listening, and letting someone say whatever it is they need to say is much more helpful. Many moms have come to my group and said, "I just needed to come here today and say what I needed to say and know that people would listen and just GET it and not tell me what I'm doing wrong."
In a mother-centered support group such as a MotherWoman group, mothers are empowered to listen to themselves, tune into their own parenting instincts, and carve their own parenting path--with the solidarity of women who will listen, validate, and support them through it. If we as mothers can create this space for each other, we can cultivate a culture of honesty, confidence, and trust in our own communities.
Divya Kumar, Sc.M., CLC, PPD
Divya has a Masters in Public Health and is certified as a postpartum doula and lactation counselor. Currently, she provides comprehensive perinatal support at Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center and also facilitates several support groups for new parents at Mama & Me in Jamaica Plain. Prior to working with new families, she worked in the fields of reproductive health, and violence prevention and response. Divya tells it like it is and brings honesty, compassion, camaraderie, and humor to the transition to parenthood. She lives in Jamaica Plain with her husband and two children.