A: One of the most important realizations over the past couple of years is how pervasive and real depression is, especially among prenatal and postnatal women. Because pregnancy is already a life- and body-altering experience, it was and is easy to dismiss women’s emotions as just “hormones” and “hysteria.” This dismissal can profoundly hurt women and still does. The more attention we give to depression, the better.
But I am not sure whether this note is about depression or your relationship (or lack thereof) with your sister-in-law. That you care is obvious, and it is important that we all keep our eyes open to others’ suffering rather than turn away and mind our own business. The problem isn’t whether you should support your sister-in-law in the early days of her pregnancy; the problem is that you don’t seem to have the relationship footing to offer that support.
I know many people who are suffering mightily. (We all do, and if you don’t, you aren’t paying attention.) My ability to support someone who is suffering relies on two things. The first of these, trust, comes from the strength of my connection with that person. Any deep or real connection hinges on vulnerability. Without vulnerability, we are all posturing for one another, putting our best soap-opera selves out there. And that’s okay — we are meant to wear a brave face for most of the world. But our vulnerability comes pouring out when we trust someone. So for me to really support someone, they need to trust me with their vulnerability, and I need to take good care of that openness.
The other characteristic needed to support someone is courage. I recently listened to a podcast, “On Being,” that featured writers discussing depression. One of the writers, Parker Palmer, describes how in the midst of a deep depression, many people would call and cheerlead him: “But you are such an important/good/wonderful person! It’s so nice out — come outside.” This made him feel worse. But one man, a Quaker elder, came over every afternoon to massage Palmer’s feet. The elder didn’t say much; he simply took care of his friend and acted as a witness to the depression.
When I heard this, I thought it took tremendous courage to be that elder. To go in and lovingly touch someone and not make it about himself. To not make it awkward or weird or full of pressure.
It requires courage to support someone in a way that doesn’t make it about you. It is much easier to say the so-called right thing, tell them that you’re thinking of them and offer a weak platitude of self-care. That’s an easy route, but it is not the route that supports the person suffering.
So you are worried that your sister-in-law is in a bad place, but because neither you nor your husband is close to her, you don’t have the traction to support her in a real way. You cannot expect her trust or your courage when you admit to not knowing her very well. Worrying is not supporting; it is hand-wringing without constructive action.
Your homework is not to analyze your sister-in-law’s ambivalence (which may or may not be real) or assume that she cannot cope with the pregnancy and postpartum life. Rather, it is to turn your worry into action and demonstrably care about her. Become a friend. Go get something to eat, go shopping (not for baby stuff) or go for a walk. If that feels like too much, begin to text her notes of support or curiosity about her life. Just start reaching out in a genuine and loving way.
Do not ask about her mental health. Do not question her about her depression or ambivalence. Frankly, it just isn’t your business, and if you are connecting with her to keep tabs on her, then stop it. Either connect with your sister-in-law because you genuinely care, or stop worrying and kindly leave her be. Humans are allergic to feeling like a project, and if your sister-in-law sniffs out that she is a charity case, your relationship will never take flight.
Even though the family is excited about the pregnancy (which is their prerogative), you can tamp down some of the excitement when the family is together by steering the conversation to other topics. It is a small kindness, but it can alleviate some of the “OH MY GOSH, IT’S A BABY!” craziness. And you can also try to shoulder some of the enthusiasm by asking your in-laws questions about their coming grandchild out of earshot of your sister-in-law. By listening to your in-laws, you can be a container for their joy while saving your sister-in-law from another story about babies.
The long and the short of it? Either turn your worry into something constructive or butt out. Don’t stay in a limbo of pity and assumptions. And my vote? Try to connect. I have found it is almost always worth it.
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