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Compassionate Statements Do Not Begin With 'But'...

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…or “at least.”

You may have had something horrible happen and someone will tell you something along the lines of, “But at least it wasn’t worse.”

Part of my role as a postnatal doula is to debrief with mothers and fathers about their pregnancy, birth and immediate postpartum experiences. Many women feel they should be grateful for at least some part of their experience, even if she is traumatized or suffering from a postpartum mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression.

It comes up again and again. A woman who had her dream birth but found it hard to transition to motherhood or breastfeeding is told, “Well at least you had a lovely birth.”

This doesn’t minimize her pain. It only enhances it. It tells her that her worries aren’t that bad because she could have had something worse happen. A mother who had a caesarean is regularly told things like:

“But you got a healthy baby.”

“At least you didn’t get a vaginal tear.”

You know, because major abdominal surgery is so easy.

Of course having a healthy baby is important. It is one of the most important aspects of the entire process. But what is a healthy baby with an unhealthy mother? With a traumatized mother. A mother who cries at every feed because it hurts or she doubts herself. A mother who is told that this could be worse.

“At least you can breastfeed/have enough milk…”

This isn’t exclusive to birthing experiences. When it comes to negative experiences or grief, our society feels the need to quantify. If someone has cancer there is nearly always someone who will find a way to quantify it, “At least it isn’t brain cancer.”

“At least you got to have a baby before having to have your breasts removed due to breast cancer.’”

At least, at least, at least.

But, but, but.

For some reason we can’t just accept someone’s negative experience. We are not equipped to say to them, “Wow, that sounds really hard. How can I help?”

Sometimes someone else’s trauma triggers something inside us. A woman who struggled to breastfeed and found every feed to be impossibly hard but didn’t supplement, may see a woman who has had a relatively easy transition to breastfeeding who decides to stop for whatever reason. This may be triggering to the woman who struggled. She may feel like it’s unfair. She may think, “Well, at least I kept trying. At least you got your baby latched on easily.”

She may not be able to accept and respect that for the other woman, it was her time to stop. She’d had enough. She was tired. She was sore. She wanted to stop. The woman stopping breastfeeding will nearly always feel like she needs to quantify her choice as well.

“At least I tried. At least I got until six months.”

She feels like she needs to explain herself.

Parents who have experienced the most painful thing a parent ever could — losing a child — are often told, “At least you can try again.”

“At least you know you can get pregnant.”

How can we possibly process our experiences if we are always quantifying each other’s feelings and comparing them to something worse? Why does there have to be a “worse option” here? Why can’t we just say, “I loved my birth but my postpartum time sucked, I struggled my ass off.”

The two scenarios are actually separate from each other. You can have an amazing birth and have a horrible postpartum time. You can have a traumatic birth and find the transition to motherhood smooth and breezy. You can hate both. Or you can love both. That’s OK too. And it doesn’t make you a bad mum or a bad person. It makes you a human being who needs support and love regardless of your experiences and how others feel they relate to their own life experiences.

Humans are storytellers. We are designed to talk to each other. To express ourselves. As new mothers we are often bursting to tell our stories. We are vulnerable and soft and need to be held and nurtured — not have our feelings and experiences undermined because no one knows what to say.

Instead of using a “but” or an “at least” statement when speaking to someone who has had a traumatic time or is telling you about a negative experience, take a breath and think first. Instead, say something like, “Can I help?”

Drop them an unannounced meal (don’t just drop in of course, but don’t ask them if they want a meal — they will say no. You know that as well as I do. Just say “I’m dropping you something,” drop the meal, then head off. Everyone wants a meal!).

Or say nothing at all. Just listen. If you can’t think of a truly compassionate statement, offer to make a cup of tea and give your loved one a hug. You can literally say, “I don’t know what to say.”

That’s OK too. You can always ask them what they need, rather than assuming they want you to make them feel better by comparing their experience to something that feels worse in your mind. How we relate to our experiences is purely based on what we ourselves have experienced, so someone else’s worst possible scenario may not be yours, but that doesn’t mean you get to undermine them or make yourself feel better by finding a way to quantify it.

It’s OK to feel uncomfortable. It’s OK to not know what to say. You’re a human too! Just remember — compassionate statements don’t begin with “but” or “at least.”

Follow this journey on Mother Nature Doula.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: What’s one secret about you or your loved one’s disability and/or disease that no one talks about? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 18, 2016
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