You’ll never forget the day your friend told you she was pregnant. You both giggled like school girls as her eyes danced with excitement. You pondered gender, names and birthing options. You teased her saying it was probably twins. You joked that you should get pregnant too so you could raise your babies together.
But now the baby is here and there’s something wrong. Not with the infant, but with your friend. She eventually confesses she’s been diagnosed with postpartum depression. You scramble your thoughts together as you try to fetch the right words.
If you find yourself in the position where you are the confidant to a woman struggling with PPD, then you should read on. After experiencing PPD not once, but twice, I have a list of what to say to a friend with postpartum depression.
DON’T SAY: Maybe you should just exercise.
Maybe you should just shut up. Seriously, shouldn’t we all JUST exercise? The trouble is, for a woman suffering from PPD this could feel like an enormous undertaking. I am a long-time fitness freak and I just haven’t been able to do it yet even though I know it will help me. Also, implying that it’s just that simple to fix a complicated problem is insensitive and ignorant.
INSTEAD SAY: Do you want to go for a walk? I could really use the fresh air and would love to catch up with you.
You’re more likely to get a yes if you request something doable rather than dictate something seemingly impossible. If she declines, ask her again and again and again, but expect her to say no. If you keep asking, there will come a day when she says yes.
DON’T SAY: You need to go back to work. It’ll be the best thing for you.
How do you know the best thing for her? Maybe right now, eating chips in bed is the best thing for her. While some women find going back to work satisfying, others find it daunting. What if work is an insurmountable burden right now? What if she’d rather be home to heal instead of in the public eye putting on airs pretending to be a high functioning adult? There isn’t a one-stop fix all for everyone with PPD.
INSTEAD SAY: How are you feeling about going back to work?
This leaves the subject open for discussion. Instead of trying to give her answers, just listen. And if you truly listen, you’ll hear how she really feels about the issue. You don’t have to give unsolicited advice or blanket prescriptions. It’s impulsive and often not helpful.
DON’T SAY: Get over yourself.
Are you for real? Your friend just told you some highly sensitive information about herself. Comments like this are entirely inconsiderate and expose your complete lack of understanding about mental health. You need to go read some relevant resources on the subject of PPD so you can better support her.
INSTEAD SAY: I love you. I miss you. I’m here for you. You can talk to me. I want to hang out with you. I need you. I love talking to you. I appreciate you. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me you’re struggling.
Say something that reminds your friend she’s valued. Tell her she’s a good person who is needed and loved. Build her up rather than tear her down. It can be tiring being a friend to a mentally ill person, but your job is not to fix her. You just need to be there for her.
DON’T SAY: You have a brand new, healthy baby. You should be happy.
This is profoundly heartless. You don’t have to understand how she feels, or why she feels the way she does, but you do have to be thoughtful with your words. I love my kids. I gush over them. They make me smile and laugh every day. But having kids has been a metamorphosis that has exposed my underlying mental health issues. PPD is very complicated and I still don’t understand it. It’s bewildering. It’s hormonal, chemical, emotional and is often shrouded with guilt.
INSTEAD SAY: You are a wonderful mother. You are the perfect mother for him/her.
Chances are your friend feels pretty shitty already for having PPD in the first place. Don’t be the asshole who adds to her guilt.
DON’T SAY: We just need to go out and get drunk.
If your friend is diagnosed with PPD she is likely on some serious medication. These meds are probably not compatible with large quantities of alcohol. Plus, getting drunk at some cougar bar while some washed up douchebag grinds on her leg is not likely to make her feel better. And not only will she feel like shit from the hangover (and the leg grinding), but alcohol is a depressant. She’s depressed. You do the math.
INSTEAD SAY: Do you want to go for coffee?
This implies you want to see her which will automatically make her feel good. If she declines, ask her again in a couple weeks, or offer to bring her coffee. Don’t give up on her.
DON’T SAY: I feel so bad for you.
Any woman with a hint of pride doesn’t want to hear that. She is not looking for a pity party.
INSTEAD SAY: There is nothing you can say to me that will push me away.
This makes her feel safe to share her very complex and often scary thoughts. She’ll feel like you want to understand her rather than pity her. Mind you, if she expresses thoughts of self-harm or harming others, you are obligated to break her trust.
DON’T SAY: You don’t LOOK depressed.
Looks can be deceiving and we humans are masters of disguising our true emotions. As someone who smiles a lot and doesn’t suffer from bitchy resting face, I don’t often look like much is bothering me. Some of us are happy to joke, chit chat and talk about lots of things other than our current mental health issues. Don’t assume just because your friend looks okay, she feels okay.
INSTEAD SAY: How are you feeling these days?
Be prepared for her to lie, make jokes, cry or ramble. If she lies or jokes, you can feel free to call her on her bluff. If she cries or rambles, just listen.
DON’T SAY: You need to calm down or your baby is going to feel your stress.
You know what? You are adding to her stress exponentially by saying that. Just don’t say that. Chances are she thinks that every minute of every day and hates herself for it.
INSTEAD SAY: What can I do? I’m here to help.
Make food, clean bathrooms, fold socks, rock babies, tell jokes, run errands or scrub floors. Doing some of these practical tasks won’t solve her mental health issues, but she’ll definitely appreciate it. It is not time wasted. And when she thinks back, she’ll know you were there for her. You are her true friend. And that will help.
The common thread among all my advice is to be gentle, steadfast and kind to your friend. She’s hurting and probably feels like a shitty person and a shitty mother. Instead of offering offhand advice, just listen. Be there for her. She will be so grateful you didn’t give up on her. Do whatever it takes to lovingly support her through something that has blindsided her and left her unable to make sense of her new life. When you became friends, you probably never imagined carrying her, but here you are. She needs you now more than ever.