It takes strength to ask for help, it is not a sign of weakness.
Women tend to take better care of everyone else than themselves. Most women readily confess that self-care is on the bottom of their “to-do” lists. Mothers, in particular, are inclined to sacrifice their own needs while maintaining intense focus on the needs of their children. Often, mothers are motivated by the belief that complete and singular attention to ones’ child is the very hallmark of a devoted, loving mother. Compromise in this area does not feel like an option to many women.This prevailing notion that motherhood is synonymous with sacrifice, if not complete abandonment of ones’ own needs, can quickly translate into a loss of self. Somewhere along the way, mothers have incorporated the misperception that taking care of themselves is selfish and incompatible with the fierce demands of motherhood.
It’s hard to ask for help. Asking for help is often perceived as a character weakness, If I were only strong enough, I could do this by myself or worse, a mothering flaw, If I were a good mother, I wouldn’t need help. Giving help is simply easier than asking for it, and accepting it is even harder altogether! However, it is important to recognize that these perceptions are just that-perceptions, rather than facts. In early chapters, we learned that mothers with scary thoughts are understandably reluctant to let others know how they are feeling and what they are thinking. Even though one might understand that it is in her best interest to talk about it, it makes sense that she might hesitate to do so. Nevertheless, asking for help around the house, or help with the kids, or companionship to ease the strain is essential to a woman’s well being and should surpass the reflex not to ask for it.
One of the most powerful contributing factors to a woman’s reluctance to ask for help during the postpartum period is her need for control when everything around her is feeling so out of control. During this time when unpredictability triumphs over order, postpartum women are often forced to relinquish their desire for harmony and settle for the illusion of control. What does an illusion of control look like? It looks perfect. If a woman is inclined toward perfectionism, this tendency will promptly supersede the chaos. In this way, everything that feels out of place miraculously falls in line. At least that’s how it looks. One new mother described it this way:
I tried so hard to make sure everyone saw me as a mother who was totally in control; after all, I’ve done this before. No big deal. Women have been having babies for centuries. I knew what I needed to do to look good so no one would think anything was wrong. On the surface, it looked exactly the way I wanted it to. I was calm and perfectly in control. I made sure to put my make up on right before an appointment with my doctor or my kid’s doctor or my therapist. I even put on lipstick, which I never wear, so I would look fresh and ready for the world. But it was like my body was stuck in high idle with my engine revving but going nowhere. At any moment, I felt my insides would rupture. Still, I wouldn’t dare let anyone know I was feeling that way.
The energy it takes to maintain this illusion is enormous and, ironically, makes it harder to ask for help. The experience of feeling completely out of control, while simultaneously longing for it, is not unfamiliar to mothers. This is why it is so important for women to give themselves permission to ask for help. Remember, the objective is to reduce the external stress, thereby reduce the distress, and in so doing, reduce the frequency or intensity of feelings of distress.
Asking for help is not a luxury. It is essential.
Excerpted and adapted from “Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts” Kleiman & Wenzel (2010) Routledge
Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW
Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, is Founder and Executive Director of The Postpartum Stress Center, LLC. She is the author of several books on postpartum depression, and has been working with women and their families for over 25 years. A native of Saint Louis, MO., Karen has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1982 with her two children and her husband. After graduating in 1980 from the University of Illinois at Chicago with her Masters in Social Work, she began her practice as a psychotherapist, specializing in women’s issues. In 1988 she founded The Postpartum Stress Center, LLC where she provides treatment for prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety.
In addition to her clinical practice, Karen provides advanced training classes for clinicians from around the world to hope to specialize in the treatment of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. She and her staff also conduct inservices for healthcare professionals as well as consultation and supervision to therapists. She frequently lectures and continues to write on the topic of postpartum adjustment. Her work has been featured in local and national magazines, numerous radio shows, local and national television shows, “Inside Edition”, The Oprah Winfrey Show and NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.
Currently, Karen is affiliated with a number of on-line sites, where she writes articles, facilitates support chats and addresses concerns of postpartum and pregnant women. In addition to her work at The Postpartum Stress Center, Karen maintains a general private practice where she treats individuals, couples and families.