Toxic positivity is a fairly new concept. To a mother who feels overwhelmed with life, positive comments, praise and advice about looking after herself can put more pressure on her to do more and leave her feeling as though she is failing.

So what is toxic positivity?

The description in this article from Psychology Today sums it up nicely: “The phrase “toxic positivity” refers to the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions. “

The understated value of listening

In the last decade I have listened to and supported thousands of mothers (and fathers/families, but as women tend to take on the majority of the caring responsibilities in the UK this article mainly focuses on their experience) from late pregnancy until their child is around 2-3 years old. What I have learned in this time is that listening, is often the most valued skill I am able to offer to a mother who is feeling overwhelmed.

Mothers will often spend time explaining their situation and then after 10 minutes or so, apologize for talking too much, as if being heard is a luxury. This does not mean we cannot be positive with new mothers. Toxic positivity is when mothers feel invalidated by praise and not feeling heard.

The pressure of becoming a mother

New mothers are bombarded with pressure before they have even given birth. Magazines tell her how to look after her body and prevent stretch marks, articles tell her how best to have sex before and after birth (often focusing on male pleasure), how to have the best birth, how best to feed her baby, how to give their babies the best start, best experiences and basically get mothers focusing on ideals. Is it any wonder mothers are buckling under the pressure of all this? Throw in a difficult birth, a lack of breastfeeding support and postnatal depression and mothers use those idealistic benchmarks as a stick to beat themselves with. However, its all her fault for not keeping positive, practicing self care and not massaging her (often unreachable) perineum. (Please note: that last sentence was pure sarcasm).

Examples of toxic positivity

Here are some popular phrases which mothers can often find unhelpful and actually leave her feeling as if she is failing.

“Keep positive!”

Everyone can find it really hard to keep a positive mindset when they don’t feel it. Mothers often explain they had been talking about how hard they are finding things only to be met with ‘keep positive!’. Whilst those saying this probably have the best intentions, the mother can find the comment upsetting. I often hear how they were left feeling worse, as if it was their own fault for feeling rubbish as they were too negative.

“You’re coping really well!”

This is often said to mothers when they confide in someone they trust that they are struggling with their load. If a mother, new or otherwise tells you she is struggling, telling her that she is coping may not be helpful. On the surface she may appear to be coping. However, if she is struggling, she is asking for support, not praise.

“The latch looks fine”

If a mother asks for support with breastfeeding, this phrase can be really damaging. Does it feel fine to the mum? Finding her skilled support as soon as possible can help her to save her breastfeeding journey. In North Devon or Torridge, a mum can contact me via Early Nourishment (either on the facebook page, or the contact details on this website). The NCT also runs a free feeding line, open 8am-midnight every day of the year. We also have skilled infant feeding teams in midwifery and health visiting which I can refer into.

“At least you have a healthy baby”

Lots of new mothers feel upset about their birth experiences. If she confides in you about her birth & didn’t feel great about it, this phrase can really hurt. If I had a £1 for every time I have listened to a new mothers painful experience of giving birth where she finishes with ‘but I shouldn’t complain as we are both still alive” or “I feel selfish for even feeling upset about my birth when [baby] is healthy” I would be rich. There is more to life than purely existing. Birth trauma affects mental health. If she is struggling with how she is feeling about her birth experience, she may need some support with that. Telling her ‘at least you are both here’ or similar can leave her feeling as though her trauma is unjustified.

“You need to make time for you” or “you need to practice selfcare”

It’s commonplace now to tell mothers who are struggling to meet their needs that they should make themselves a priority. Unless you are offering to take some of the mental load off her and free up time for her by taking care of chores, childcare & maybe even finances on a regular basis then selfcare can feel like a pipe dream. Mothers often explain that they feel like they have let themselves go, or that they are their own worst enemy by not looking after themselves.

So what can I say to a mother who is having a difficult time?

Mostly, you don’t need to say much, if anything at all. When things are not feeling as good as normal, sometimes we all just need to vent. Allowing her to talk freely – without judgement – is one of the most wonderful gifts you can give to a new parent. Allowing a mother to spend time unpicking these feelings can be therapeutic. If this doesn’t come easily to you some phrases which may be helpful:

  • Would you like to talk more about that?
  • I’m listening
  • What would help right now?
  • How are you feeling about the birth (or other experience) now?
  • What is going well at the moment?
  • It all sounds overwhelming at the moment

It can be helpful to allow her to speak without interruptions and accepting what she says. This is her experience, allowing her the chance to embrace this can allow her a platform to move forward from. Otherwise, she may be left feeling inadequate.

“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.”

Roy T. Bennett

If a parent you know is struggling, check out our ‘Looking after yourself‘ resources page for further support.

    1 Response to "Toxic positivity & motherhood"

    • Clare Cameron

      Thank you for this post. I was thinking about toxic positivity recently (and worrying whether I’m guilty of it through my role as co-facilitator of the East Devon Positive Birth Stories group) and found your blog. It explains my thoughts perfectly, and was really useful to demonstrate to my husband that Toxic Positivity isn’t an oxymoron… I also felt reassured that our group is reassuring, pragmatic and empowering, not toxic – phew!

      Warm wishes,

      Clare (ClarityDoula) she/her

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