Along with motherhood comes a wide array of feelings competing for real estate in our minds. Love and joy are crammed in right next to frustration and despair. We feel competent and confident one minute, only to be overwhelmed by insecurity the next, wondering if we’ll ever feel like we know what we’re doing.
Amid this complex mix of emotions, mothers are peppered by well-meaning comments about how “blessed” we are and that we should “enjoy every minute” of our children. And yes, we are fortunate and we do enjoy our kids. But at the same time, we may also be exhausted or sad. That’s motherhood: both, and.
Often, though, we’re discouraged from speaking candidly about the hard parts of motherhood.
But dismissing our negative feelings in favor of a “good vibes only” approach fosters an atmosphere of toxic positivity that can be extremely damaging.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is the pressure to pursue happiness at all costs, even if it means suppressing or overlooking our authentic feelings and lived experiences. It’s an outlook that champions the “silver lining” amidst difficulties, sometimes going to the extremes of dismissing the full emotional weight of a situation.
Especially for new moms, the air is thick with uplifting words and encouraging phrases. “You’re a superhero!” and “You’ve got this!” echo ceaselessly. While well-intentioned, this constant praise can often backfire, leaving moms feeling pressured to do more and feel happy even when they’re struggling.
I remember returning to work after my second child. It was the middle of the pandemic, my company was in the middle of a chaotic merger, and my beloved grandmother had just died. In short, difficult emotions (and hormones) were plentiful. The advice I received on how to deal with them ranged from, “Get a pedicure! You’ll feel better”, to “You have an adorable, healthy baby, that should make everything better!”
What I needed to hear, though, was, “That sounds really hard. I’m sorry you’re going through it.” I needed people to acknowledge my emotions and hold space for me to feel them, not sweep them under the rug with unhelpful platitudes.
It’s important to note that not all positivity is bad. Feeling hopeful about a situation can work to your advantage, provided that hope is accompanied by a sense of reality and an acknowledgment of the difficulty someone might be facing.
How Toxic Positivity Affects Us
Insisting someone should feel upbeat and grateful when they’re struggling is akin to telling them they don’t have the right to their feelings. And this disregard for authentic emotions comes with harmful mental and physical impacts.
In the short term, suppressing our emotions can cause feelings of alienation and disconnection, exacerbating struggles moms already face. Longer-term it may even put people at higher risk of early death or death from cancer.
How It Impacts Our Relationships
Toxic positivity also impacts our relationships. While it can be hard to talk about uncomfortable topics, avoiding or glossing over them can cause the other person to shut down and turn inward. If this becomes a pattern, over time the relationship becomes less authentic. True emotional intimacy thrives on shared vulnerability, not an unwavering facade of positivity.
A while back I had a new mom friend, someone who was kind, funny, and smart. I looked forward to getting to know her better and began to open up to her about the complicated emotions I felt at finding one of my children more difficult to parent than the other. It was my way of extending an invitation for her to also be vulnerable.
Try as she might though, she couldn’t do it. Any hint of adversity she voiced was promptly followed by phrases like “But that’s a first-world issue,” or “On the bright side…” She used toxic positivity on herself! Needless to say, I never got to know her any better and our friendship fizzled.
Alternatives to Toxic Positivity
Granted, tackling tough topics and emotions isn’t everyone’s forte. However, the more we engage with them, the more adept we become at navigating these complex conversations. Here are some alternatives to toxic positivity:
Be open and realistic about what you’re feeling
Acknowledging when you’re having a hard time and practicing self-care are great first steps. This also signals to others that you want to embrace—rather than avoid—the discomfort that negative emotions can cause. And, it invites people to have an authentic conversation with you.
Listen to others and show support
This can go a long way toward validating someone’s feelings. While it may be tempting to offer quick reassurances, focusing on the experience someone is sharing with you and letting them know you’re there to listen helps normalize the spectrum of emotions we all have. In my experience, the most powerful and comforting conversations I’ve had with other moms have been when we’ve opened up about our fears or failures.
Pinpoint your triggers
Maybe there’s a specific person who always shuts you down when you bring up a problem. Or a social media account that triggers shame or guilt when you can’t embrace its positive message. Filtering these people and online presences out of your life can help make room for people and platforms where you can find support and build authentic relationships.
Speak up when needed
Much of toxic positivity stems from discomfort with awkward conversations. When met with advice to “focus on the positive” or “find the silver lining,” it’s acceptable to assert, “Actually, that’s challenging for me right now. What I truly need is an honest conversation.”
Motherhood is hard enough. We can make it easier for ourselves and for each other by acknowledging and navigating the challenges together, and by choosing authenticity over toxic positivity.