Flashback to Summer 2020. You know THAT summer. There was no in-person camp. We were all working from home. My husband was using our kitchen island as an office desk for his sales job. My 4-year-old was bouncing off the walls of our city condo. Then there was me, six months pregnant and miserable. I was exhausted but forced myself to take daily nature walks with my son and engage him in non-stop play. One day a mom friend sent me a wellbeing text. When she asked how I was doing, instead of giving her my usual canned answer of “Oh we are all fine, just adjusting to this new normal!” I was honest. I vented and told her I was struggling balancing being pregnant, feeling isolated and exhausted from keeping up with an energetic preschooler. She responded: “Well, remember we only get 18 summers with our kids. We should cherish the time.”
Her attempt to make me look at the bright side of the situation made me feel guilty, shameful and honestly angry. That’s how toxic positivity works. Toxic positivity dismisses your “negative” emotions. It puts a positive spin on everything. It leaves no room for authentic real feelings.
My friend’s intentions were good, however they missed the mark. I immediately regretted being vulnerable.
These are some simple guides I have used to cut out toxic positivity and replace it with genuine accepting conversations:
Lead with empathy
We all have different paths on this journey of parenthood. Every family has their own unique needs and obstacles. I truly believe the commonality is that as parents we are all trying our best. With this in mind, my first response to a friend having a tough day/week/month is to validate their feelings. You can simply say, “That does sound tough, how can I support you?” I truly try to understand how my friend is feeling at that moment. I don’t tell them how they should feel. For me, empathy looks like support and they get to decide how they would like to be supported.
Resist cliche messages
Life is not an Instagram caption. Responding to your true friends with toxic positivity slogans like “Everything Happens for a Reason” can come across as dismissive and impersonal. Problems are not one size fits all and neither is compassion. This can shame a person for having negative emotions. I want to be a person my friends can be their true selves with, not only when they feel like sunshine. A great rule of thumb is, if you have seen the quote on a T-shirt, coffee mug and notebook, just stay away! Yes, that includes “Positive Vibes Only.”
Be a safe space
I used to think of a safe space as a physical space. Like, my parents’ house or my best friend’s couch, places I could shed off expectations and truly be me. Recently, I realized that people can serve as safe spaces. You can be a safe space for your friends. Offering a nonjudgmental ear provides comfort. I thank friends for feeling comfortable enough to let me be me.
Community has always been an important part of my parenting journey. I lean on fellow parents for advice, resources and yes, comfort. Toxic positivity avoids the vast range of human emotions. Only focusing only on happiness and positivity is just not realistic. I challenge myself to think about how we can show up for each other in a way that allows parents to truly be transparent about the highs AND lows of parenthood. I hope you can find the space to do the same.
Jenny LeFlore is a community builder, advocate, influencer and mama to 5-year-old ObieQ and 1-year-old Jameson. She has created a community with her brand, Mama Fresh, where the diversity in motherhood is celebrated. Mama Fresh is all about taking a Fresh Approach to Motherhood. Her mission is to be that mom friend you didn’t know you needed. Follower her on Instagram @mamafreshchi.
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