Coping During Postpartum with No Family Support: When Reality Clashes with Expectations - Happy as a Mother

Coping During Postpartum with No Family Support: When Reality Clashes with Expectations


with Emmalee Bierly and Jennifer Chaiken, Founders of ShrinkChicks



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • Why We Feel Let Down When We Have No Family Support
  • Why Awareness About Expectations Matters
  • How Our System of No Support for Moms Sets Us Up for Struggle
  • Why It’s Sometimes Hard to Accept Family Support Even When We Have It
  • How to Ask for Help When You Feel You Have No Family Support
  • How to Talk to Your Partner About Support
  • Postpartum Depression and Support

Did you think you’d have a village to help with the baby only to discover you have no family support? The postpartum period is hard for everyone, but when our expectations of how friends and family might help don’t match the reality, it can be even harder. 

Today, I’m joined by marriage and family therapists Emmalee Bierly and Jennifer Chaiken, founders of ShrinkChicks, to discuss how communication can help when you feel you have no family support.

Accepting Postpartum Support

I will always be so grateful for the support my mother-in-law offered during the postpartum period. Coming from Benin, West Africa, she had a specific idea of what her role and family support should look after a baby is born. 

So after each of our sons was born, she came to stay with us for three months. It wasn’t always easy for me to release control and accept the support. I’d been socialized to believe that I should be able to do it all as a mom. 

But in reality, I don’t know how I could have gotten through those times without her. We weren’t made to navigate motherhood alone—we were always supposed to raise children in community. However, in an individualistic society, we often don’t have family support. 

Many of my clients express disappointment in their family’s lack of support during the postpartum time. They thought that they would have help, but that help never came, leaving them feeling lonely and isolated.  

I was excited to chat with Emmalee and Jennifer about how our expectations set us up for disappointment when we have no family support, and how communication can help. 

Why We Feel Let Down When We Have No Family Support

Many moms assume before a baby comes that their family will rally around them and offer support. They have an idealized expectation of their village or community. But we don’t always communicate those expectations upfront. 

When a baby comes and the reality looks different than we imagined, we can feel let down and disappointed in our family and friends. Often, we don’t even realize we have these expectations until we’re in the postpartum period. Then when we’re living it, we wonder why our friends or family offer no support. 

Many of us struggle during the postpartum period—with changes in identity, the adjustment to motherhood, and shifts in relationship dynamics. We might assume that our family will want to offer support, only to discover that our family members might have completely different viewpoints on how to offer support. 

But if we never laid out those expectations with open and honest communication, it isn’t always realistic to expect our loved ones to know our needs and fulfill them. 

Why Awareness About Expectations Matters

If we want to reconcile our expectations with our reality, the first place to begin is to think about why we have those expectations in the first place. 

Emmalee and Jennifer recommend preemptively asking yourself what expectations you have of your support system, of your relationships, and of motherhood in general. Think about where those expectations came from. Did gender norms or family patterns shape them? 

It’s important to bring our expectations forward and analyze them so we can understand them. Then, we are able to communicate better with friends and family.

Sometimes, we form expectations based on casual talk during pregnancy. For example, if our girlfriends say, “Oh we can’t wait to come over and help with the baby,” we might think that means they will become a part of our support system. In reality, they might just be casually chatting about the exciting parts of the baby, without planning to offer support in the way we think. 

This is why awareness and communication matter. When we don’t pick apart our expectations, we might feel betrayed—but the problem might be as simple as a misfire in communication. Open, honest, and clear communication can help. 

“I can’t wait for you to meet the baby” is different from “Can you babysit every third Friday of the month so we can have a date night?” 

Clarity is important, both when asking for support or when setting boundaries when support does come. These conversations can feel difficult, but it’s important to make sure everybody is aligned and on the same page. 

How Our System of No Support for Moms Sets Us Up for Struggle

Often, when we feel like we are receiving no support from friends or family, the problem can be traced back to society. The feeling of being letdown can be a by-product of a system that is not focused on moms. Once a baby is born, everything becomes centered on the baby, and mom’s needs fall through the cracks. 

For example, we focus on baby’s sleep needs and often leave moms to be the primary or sole nighttime caregivers, without giving any thought to protecting maternal sleep

Even when support does show up, it’s often focused on the baby. Moms might feel as if they have to host or as if their parenting is being judged. 

When moms struggle through the postpartum period, they often feel like failures. But if a system is in place and it isn’t working, the system is broken—not the individuals navigating it. 

As a society, we should be working toward better support for moms—maternity leave, time to heal, accessible maternal mental health care and postpartum doulas. 

We also need to work on identifying our own needs. Women are often so socialized to think about others’ needs over their own that they aren’t able to advocate for themselves and express what they need. 

Think about what kind of support you actually need and want. Do you want someone to hold the baby or stay over at night so you can sleep? Or do you need someone to clean and cook so you can focus on the baby? Tap into what would help you and your family. You can’t articulate your needs if you aren’t aware of them. 

Why It’s Sometimes Hard to Accept Family Support Even When We Have It

Sometimes moms do receive family support but feel as if they can’t accept it. I remember a little voice inside my head wondering if my mother-in-law was offering to help because she thought I wasn’t doing a good job. 

We are pressured to do everything as moms and to carry the weight alone. It can feel like we’re admitting failure if we ask for help—as if vulnerability is a character flaw. 

These internal beliefs are difficult to overcome, but they often leave us carrying the mental load of motherhood alone and coping with smothering expectations of ourselves. 

The more that we normalize asking for help, the more pressure we can remove from our shoulders and the shoulders of moms everywhere. It’s okay to ask for help. We don’t have to do it alone. And struggling doesn’t mean that we are failing—it just means that we’re human, and that motherhood is hard. 

There is also an element of losing control that can feel threatening when we accept support. It brings different philosophies and styles into the mix, leaving us feeling uncertain. We often have to look within and see what we can let go of, and what we can control in a healthy way. 

During my postpartum period, my mother-in-law often cooked wonderful West African food for us. But one night, I cried in my room, explaining to my husband I just wanted a piece of pizza. It may sound silly, but it actually wasn’t about the food at all–I wanted some sense of comfort and control in a situation that felt so different and unfamiliar. 

We have to give ourselves grace as we adjust to motherhood. Sometimes that means calling in more hands. Sometimes it means letting go of control. And sometimes it means embracing comfort and familiarity. 

How to Ask for Help When You Feel You Have No Family Support

Once we are aware of our own needs, it becomes easier to ask for support. Maintaining an open dialogue with yourself and with the people in your life that you trust helps. 

You can also prepare a list of things that visitors can do to help and leave it posted on your refrigerator. 

It’s also important to build that sense of community and support with other moms. If you are visiting a new mom, ask them what they need and encourage them to be open and honest. Offer a variety of ways you can help, like washing dishes, taking the baby for a walk, or just chatting over a cup of coffee. 

We can also encourage moms to think about these things before a baby comes. When we’re pregnant, we often focus on Pinterest boards and cute nurseries. But we don’t think about our own needs. Our romanticized ideal of motherhood keeps us from realizing that we will need support. 

Emmalee pointed out that it’s important to have compassion for ourselves when we find ourselves struggling. We don’t know what we don’t know, and it isn’t our fault for not realizing how hard it would be. 

How to Talk to Your Partner About Support

When we feel as if our partner isn’t offering enough support, it’s easy to feel angry. But when we dig beneath that anger, we often find disappointment or grief. It’s important to look under the anger before we bring up these conversations.

Approach the topic with vulnerability rather than anger. Talk about where you’re struggling and why you need support. 

Often we bring up these conversations during arguments. But that is the last time we should be talking about what needs to change in our relationships. Try to approach these conversations at a neutral time with no distractions. 

Pay attention to your own emotional state as well. We often feel these emotions come up when we’re feeling dysregulated, but that might not be the right moment for these conversations. 

Remember that your partner isn’t a mind-reader. We have to express our needs if we want our partner to fulfill them. It could simply be a misfiring of communication. 

Postpartum Depression and Support

Motherhood can be a struggle for all of us, especially if we feel like we don’t have family support. However, when we are experiencing postpartum depression, we often struggle even more. 

If you are experiencing postpartum rage, and it feels uncharacteristic, it might be a red flag that there is more going on than adjustment to motherhood and sleep deprivation. 

Moms are often hesitant to seek help. They dismiss their symptoms or downplay them, feeling as if they are failing if they seek help. But it’s important to know our needs. When we understand what’s going on, we can better ask for and accept support. 

My rule of thumb is that if you are questioning if you need to seek support, you probably do. There’s no downside of reaching out to a therapist to talk! 

If you’re struggling in motherhood, our Wellness Center can help! Book a free 15 minute consult with a mom therapist today!

Emmalee Bierly & Jennifer Chaiken are both Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, co-owners of a private therapy practice called The Therapy Group, and co-hosts of the ShrinkChicks Podcast! They believe in being down to earth, authentic, and transparent, which they bring both into the room with their clients as well as to their podcast! Their mission is to make therapy more relatable and accessible, working to break down that clinical wall.


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