New Moms Need Our Empathy, Not Our Advice

I was recently texting with a friend who lives across the country. She’s a new mom to a beautiful little girl. She’s also a pandemic mom whose family is mostly on the East Coast. A mom who celebrated her entry into motherhood virtually, like so many of us. I was texting to check in — a no-obligation text to make sure she knew I was thinking about her, because I remember just how hard and lonely the first months of infancy were, especially at 2 a.m. when you feel like you must be the only one who is wide awake trying to rock a screaming baby back to sleep.

“How are you?”

“It’s hard…”

Her sweet little girl has terrible colic and screams most of the day. They were on their second medication to help their little one (and themselves) get a bit of respite.

“Everyone tells me it’s just a phase, and we try to stay optimistic. But it is so hard.”

I, too, as a brand new mom, received this response more than once when I opened up about my struggles and worries: “It’s just a phase.” A phrase passed on from generations of mothers before us — shared with the intent to comfort.     
 
But here’s the thing: This short four-word sentence does not instill optimism and hope in an exhausted mom. Instead, it diminishes what we are feeling at that moment — despair and sadness. At the moment when we feel we are at the bottom of a well, “It’s just a phase” is like a ladder that only reaches halfway down.

More than ever, new moms need our empathy.

And there is no better group of women to empathize with than experienced, seasoned moms.

Acknowledge the bravery. In a world of social media, which is filled with mostly filtered “perfect” moments, it’s terrifying to admit when you are having a hard time. It can be lonely in the real world, too — playgroups and group texts — when you feel like your baby is the only one who cries endlessly. There is no braver mom than one who tells you she’s struggling.

“Thank you for sharing. It IS hard.”

Acknowledge her difficulties. Infancy is hard, and it’s OK to tell a mom she’s in the thick of it. When a mom tells you she’s struggling, it isn’t because she thinks you can magically make it better. She’s looking for her community — someone else who can tell her they’ve been there and she’s not alone.

“Yes, it is a phase, but that does not take away from how difficult this moment is right now, and I’m so sorry you are going through it.”

Ask if advice is what is sought. Advice from moms with experience is wonderful, but only if solicited. Unsolicited advice can feel both overwhelming and dismissive, especially to a mom inundated by an already advice-laden internet. A mom could want both a safe space to vent and some pointers — but it should be on her terms.

“Are you looking for an empathetic ear or advice?”

It was heartbreaking to hear my friend struggling 3,000 miles away. I would have given anything to offer a few hours of baby holding so mom and dad could sleep or take a walk outside and enjoy the quiet. I resisted the urge to offer my own advice and instead told her:

“I’m here for you.”

Sarah grew up in Connecticut, but Massachusetts has always felt like a second home with extended family in the state. Sarah moved to Boston after graduation from her master of public health program. As her career has evolved Sarah has found a passion in process improvement and making healthcare less complicated so patients and clinicians can focus on the care. Sarah met her husband covered in sweat and lifting weights at a local Crossfit gym (talk about first impressions!). They adopted a rescue pup from Mississippi and welcomed their daughter in 2021. After nearly a decade of city living, Sarah and her family are headed to the Metro West suburbs to start a new adventure. Sarah volunteers for Community Consulting Teams of Boston (CCT), offering pro bono management consulting to Boston-area nonprofits, and she recently completed a three-year term on the board. She is a member of the Kappa Delta sorority and has served as an advisor to the Northeastern chapter for the last six years.