Information for family members and close friends

Approaching and offering help and support to someone, particularly if they seem to be struggling, can be a highly positive experience, but also in some instances may be a delicate situation for family and friends.

Understanding the context

Many parents have high expectations of what becoming a parent is hoped and expected to be like, and when these are not met, it may lead them to experience intense feelings of disappointment and grief as they come to terms with what the reality of parenting is like for them.

These feelings of disappointment and even failure can be magnified, when other parents around them seem to have a much easier ride. For example, their pregnancies may have been smoother and easier and/or their babies may be more settled, and seem to feed and sleep well. It is natural that these mothers may also be a little envious of others, so try to understand things from their standpoint in your general conversations and discussions. For example, talking about how well you managed your baby may lead them to feel isolated and alienated, so be sensitive to their possible feelings and reactions.

Mother’s groups just made things worse for me. Everyone would be saying my baby’s sleeping through, sitting up or whatever… it just made me feel like I wasn’t keeping up. I just came home feeling worse about myself, so I stopped going.

As a result of all this, often parents may not speak up and talk about difficult times. Many women particularly fear that they may be viewed as ‘not coping’ or judged by others as not being ‘good mothers’. Hence it is not uncommon for new parents, particularly mothers, to deny to themselves if things are rough, not disclose how they are feeling to others. Rather they may put on a brave face and even deny the need or offers of help until things reach a crisis point.

I tried to get through it – it was a lunch arranged with my friends by my husband… but when I got home I just fell apart. It was all make believe.

In response to this, there are several things that you can do as a family member, friend, colleague or member of a mother’s group to minimise the impact of this stigma, and encourage open conversation and acceptance of support.

How to support new parents

Providing practical support

Taking to appointments

Offer to help make appointments or transport parents to medical appointments or support groups. Sometimes simply removing this as a barrier for seeking help can make a world of difference. 

Offer to prepare meals

Prepare meals for the freezer or offer to do the grocery shopping. 

Offer to care for other children

Help with caring for older siblings — whether it’s helping with the school run, or taking them to the park in the afternoon after school. 

Offering emotional support

Be aware and openly discuss that parenting can have highs and lows for everyone

Acknowledge how hard parenting can be and that it is a case of leaning along the way as there is no instruction booklet.

Acknowledge that babies are different

Some babies are just more demanding than others. Babies all have their own personalities and many may have health conditions (such as colic, reflux, allergies) that can make them more unsettled. It is no reflection on the mother, or how ‘good’ she is. These mothers need additional empathy and support so do what you can to be able to provide this by letting them know that it is no reflection on them, to some degree it is the ‘luck of the draw’.

Talk openly about depression, anxiety and mental health problems 

By talking openly and and acknowledging the fact that these conditions are common in pregnancy and the first year with a new baby due to all the adjustments that it entails.

Consider making a ‘pact’

Consider a pact with your friend or your mother’s group that you will talk openly and honestly, on good days and bad and let each other know that you can call on each other if they need practical help, a listening ear or support.

Be open and empathetic 

Although you may not truly understand what your family member or friend is going through, try not to judge or make flippant comments like ‘you should be happy’ or ‘things were harder for me when having children’. These comments or remarks will only lead your family member to feel more isolated and make it harder for them to reach out to you for support. Similarly it is important not to pass judgement about treatments such as ‘you don’t need medication’ – this is up to the health professional to decide along with the mother and her partner.

Give praise and support

If someone is struggling they may find it hard to see the positive side of things or acknowledge their progress.

Let the person know that you are there for them – no matter how long it takes.

This means acknowledging and accepting that there is often no quick fix, and unlike antibiotics or even exercise regimes, recovery from mental illness can take time and everyone needs to be patient and give time and ongoing support.