01/30/2014 12:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Empathy Helps Where Sympathy and Tough Love Fall Short

By Kelly Coffey

It was difficult for me to focus on much of anything in the midst of postpartum depression, but when my 6-week-old started having trouble breathing, I snapped to attention. I hurried her to the ER. It was an infection. "Serious," they said. We were brought by ambulance to a larger hospital. She was put on oxygen and I was told to wait. My husband stayed home with our 1-year-old. For three days, I held my baby, rocked her gently and struggled with her up to the top -- and back down to the bottom -- of every breath. Despite how painful it was for us both, I'll always be grateful for the chance I had to be so present with her.

Then they sent us home.

I was back in my kitchen, barely functional after a sleepless 72 hours. All the craziness I'd set aside came rushing back -- fear of my own incompetence, suffocating guilt, terrified disbelief -- thinking of the weeks, months and years of monotonous chaos I was in for. Meanwhile, I couldn't imagine getting through even one day. I picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.

"Mom, please come. I need help." My mother arrived the next morning.

Despite my mother's presence, or maybe because of it, I ascended to new heights of mania and sank to new depths of depression. I now recognize these high highs and low lows as hallmarks of postpartum depression. One moment, frantic; the next, a zombie.

I scoffed at my mother's well-meaning suggestions to take a shower, get out of the house or call a friend. I'm a personal trainer and I normally love a good workout, but the suggestion that I go lift weights made me want to put a brick through a window.

Clear that she was getting nowhere but resolved to help, my mother tried a different approach. She tried to put my pain in perspective: "When you were an infant, I was completely alone."


She tried to help me see the bright side: "Your babies are fundamentally healthy! You have a good home! A loving husband! A great life!"


Days later, when all her efforts to bring me back had failed, she pulled out the big guns: "Kelly," she said, all NYC-blue-collar-and-bootstraps, "You need to snap out of it. Now. These babies need you." She said it to be helpful, to deliver the magic bullet that would put me back on my feet. She was addressing her level-headed, rational, hard-working daughter, the one who had always responded well to tough love. But that person wasn't home. "Enough already," she said, "Quit the shit."


It's hard to watch people we love suffer, especially our children. Often, and understandably, our instinct is to try to do or say something to make the pain stop. Unfortunately, postpartum depression (and clinical depression, with which I also have direct experience) is an inside job, and no kind suggestion, magic bullet or scare tactic was (or is) likely to fix it.

Where sympathy and tough love fell short, I believe empathy would have helped: for my mother -- or anyone, for that matter -- to take the time to become conscious of what I was going through, and to be with me in that experience without trying to gloss over or fix or solve. For someone to say "I feel your pain," instead of "I'm sorry you're going through this. At least..." or "Why don't you...?"

Empathy is rare, maybe because it goes against so many of our habits; our tendency to judge ("What you're going through isn't that bad") and our desire to fix what's broken ("You'd feel better if you got some sleep") both have to be abandoned. Having empathy means lingering in feelings we'd just as soon forget.

Guidelines that encourage empathetic connection -- non-judgment, listening in respectful silence, withholding advice and reacting only when the speaker is voicing your own truth -- are read at the beginning of every MotherWoman postpartum support group meeting. These guidelines make the meetings a safe place for mothers to speak the truth of their experience, a place where their truth can be respectfully held by other women who can relate. Holding and honoring one another's pain helps us all to heal.

When I think back on my last postpartum period, it's without resentment. My mother was there when I needed her most. Motivated by love, she did what she thought was best. If I could go back in time, instead of dismissing her well-meaning suggestions, I would ask her to wrap me in her arms, to rock me gently, and to be with me in my pain. I imagine she would have been thrilled for the chance to bring me that level of comfort and to experience such a deep connection with her child. In her arms, I would have felt warm, safe, understood, and, most importantly, not alone. I would have heard her say, with a voice that sounds exactly like mine, "I'm here. I'm in this with you, my baby. Thank you for letting me hold you."

2013-12-19-Kelly_Coffey_Photo_12_2013_MotherWomansmall.jpgKelly Coffey is a formerly obese personal trainer and blogger living in Western Massachusetts. She writes about -- you guessed it -- exercise, general wellness, food addiction and nutrition. Coffey is also a trained MotherWoman facilitator, a coffee snob and an unapologetically opinionated smart ass. She was a steaming train wreck during both of her postpartum periods, despite having a loving, helpful husband and supportive friends. You can 'Like' her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or visit her at

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