Human beings may not run in packs like wolves, but like the wilder cousin of (wo)man’s best friend, we’re social animals, and that’s never more true than when we’re having a hard time.
Social support is an important component of strong mental health, and having a strong support system in place can be a great way to make sure you’re ready for the inevitable ups and downs of parenting.
There are a lot of expectations surrounding who makes up your support system, both specifically when it comes to mental health, and more generally in life. For new parents in particular, there are a lot of expectations about how family and friends should be involved.
A lot of the time, these expectations – that grandparents will be a big part of their young grandchildren's early lives and can help out in an emergency, that new parents should immediately grow to be close friends with the parents of their young children’s peers - are great, and they can be an important part of a family’s support system. But just because these expectations are out there, that doesn’t always mean they’re the right support structure for your family every time.
If it’s your BFF who doesn’t have kids, rather than your sister who has a child around Baby’s age, who you feel most comfortable opening up to about new parenting challenges, that’s okay, and it doesn’t mean your sis isn’t important to you - or that you won’t find yourself turning to her for something else later. Life is full of unique situations, and you’re just working out the right solution for you when it comes to each one in particular.
Asking for help is hard, and getting specific about what kind of help you need can feel even harder, but even the people in your life who know you best can’t read your mind. If you’re having a hard time and thinking you’ll feel better by reaching out and asking for help, sitting down and making a short list of exactly what might help you out - anything from a more general “please don’t ask me about this because I’ll tell you when I’m ready,” to the more specific “I need to take a break from cooking at night until things quiet down at work” - can help whoever it is you’re asking for help figure out the best way to support you. If you don’t know what you need, even saying that and acknowledging that you are struggling can open lines of communication and support.
The strongest support system is one that’s mutually supportive. This can be tricky in moments when you’re the person who needs help, but it’s important to remember that by sharing vulnerability, you are offering friends, family, and others the chance to feel more open to sharing their own vulnerabilities or insecurities. Maybe you have that one friend who acts like a superhero and always seems to be completely on top of things, even when their life is full of challenges and changes. It can be hard to feel comfortable sharing when you’re having trouble with a friend like that - but if you hide it every time you’re having trouble, they may feel the same way about you.
Asking for help can feel selfish, but everyone needs help at some point. If you make a point of reminding the people in your life that you’re committed to being there for them in the best way you can when it’s their turn, you’re offering the chance to deepen your relationships. Actively listening to what’s going on in the lives of the people in your support network, and doing your best to offer the kind of support they need isn’t just offering that chance, it’s taking an active part in maintaining and developing those relationships.
Your support system doesn’t have to just consist of people you already know. For one thing, depending on why or how you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, talking to a therapist or a support group can be a great and therapeutic place to get started. Therapists that do talk therapy one-on-one or as part of a group are not only great listeners, but they can help you develop skills to cope with stress and the various struggles with which you are dealing. Talking to someone like a therapist can be especially helpful if you’re not sure how to bring the subject up with the people in your life already. Taking a step like this can make whatever you’re coping with feel more real, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need - a reminder that your feelings are valid.
Additionally, having a young child opens you up to a wide world of new acquaintances and - eventually - friends, and you never know who’s going to end up being important to you. This is a great time to take a chance on a new friend, carpool buddy, or playdate-mate.
You also don’t need to talk to everyone in your life about everything that’s going on in your life. Maybe it’s a casual friend that can help you the most right now. You can try to turn that casual friendship into a more serious one by opening up, and sometimes this is a great opportunity. But on the other hand, you can also be a little more cautious, and, say, ask a casual friend if they’re up for carpooling to get your toddler to dance class, or ask your sister if she wouldn’t mind taking the reins on planning the next family event. You don’t need to explain everything that’s going on with you. Instead, you can just try asking, and see what happens.