A common occurrence, on social media forums in particular, unfolds when a mother posts that she is stuck. She writes that she and her baby are having breastfeeding difficulties. She pours her heart out in every line. The thread quickly lengthens with lots of posters wanting to help. Many offer great information. Some will provide links to supports that the mother can access and others will empathise and offer their own story; how they managed to get over a similar situation. Admins will do their best to quickly jump to correct any misinformation that hasn’t already been queried. This is social media support at its best. When it works, it works really well.
This level of support and sharing does not happen on all online breastfeeding support forums, however. Depending on the particular concern and the social media forum involved, sometimes a mother may only receive a few responses to her query. Maybe just one or two; sometimes just a ‘sad’ face emoticon follows. It’s then that the one-liner platitude responses, that appear frequently in all support forums, take on a whole different meaning to a mother who is in distress.
Platitudes such as...
~ Keep Strong
~ Hugs x
~ It’s totally normal
~ At least you did your best
When offered in isolation, these overused sayings do very little to validate a mother who is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Remember, sometimes these platitudes will be the only responses that a mother reads. Though offered with genuine sympathy, what we say and what we mean may not be what the mother ends up hearing. This is especially true when we're using a method of communication that makes it almost impossible to gauge tone.
Imagine yourself as a new mother. Everything is new. Your body looks (and acts) new. Your baby is new. Your feelings are new. Your partner is also trying to get to grips with his or her new role.
The way a mother internalises sayings such as "it's totally normal" may result in her doubting her own self-efficacy and desire to keep going. These phrases are not empowering phrases. They don’t add to her confidence. They often take away from it.
What a mother may sometimes end up hearing is ...
~ I haven’t a clue how to help you
~ You’re on your own
~ Nobody likes a whinger
~ For goodness sake, get over it – I did!
~ If this is normal breastfeeding behaviour, I don’t want any part of it
Of course it can be helpful for parents to know that what they’re experiencing right now, and the behaviours that their baby is displaying, are ‘normal’. However, just because we say something is normal or natural does not automatically normalise the experience for THIS parent.
Before we can even begin to offer support, it’s helpful to remember that when a parent reaches out to us - in pain, with worry or in grief – the first thing we need to do is to really hear them. They have just told us that this is NOT a normal experience for them. Not normal for this mother. For this father. For this baby.
When we feel heard and understood, we find it easier to accept help and are more open to receiving information. When we say:
~ I believe you
~ I'm here
~ I’m so glad you’ve told me
~ Would you like to tell me more?
~ I really understand
we open the doors of communication. We can truly empathise and be in the moment with that parent. Only then will the recipient (the mother, father, partner) be accepting of further information and explanation. This kind of dialogue can help to NORMALISE the experiences that a parent is struggling with e.g. taking the time to explain common newborn behaviour or common parent emotions and validating those emotions.
Listen, hear and then respond.