I Will No Longer Force A Smile Just To Make Others More Comfortable


Spoilers: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist season two

“I smile and try to mean it.”

These lyrics from one of my favorite Mika songs keep replaying in my head. How often do we force a smile so the world isn’t made uncomfortable by our unhappiness? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.

I was two weeks postpartum when I decided to watch a recent episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and sat in awe at how beautifully the show dealt with the weighty issue of postpartum depression. I say “beautifully” because, much like most of the show, it neither glossed over the issue nor overdramatized it. Instead, the main character Zoey doesn’t even know much about postpartum depression, which rings true in the real world, as it is still a topic we struggle to topic and understand. Moreover, her sister-in-law Emily is the perfect example of a new mom who is trying to combat her depression with forced perfection.

In previous episodes, Emily seems completely fine to the audience, is living her life normally, and is even very happily having a lot of sex with her husband, but then we suddenly see her in this episode very much broken and needing help. I give great kudos to the writers, because that wasn’t just a disconnect from one episode to the next. That was a real example of the complexities of human emotions. The show is brilliant in the way that it tells us with every episode that people can have a range of emotions and experiences all at the same time.

I went from pregnant to my daughter’s first year of life being during a pandemic to then pregnant again. During all of that, I’ve wrestled with situational depression, pregnancy and postpartum hormones, stress from dealing with quarantining, and also sheer joy over my beautiful family. The last couple of years brought some really wonderful changes to my life and also absolute despair over the state of our country. There were many days when I was smiling but singing a very sad song in my head.

After my daughter was born, I did smile and try to mean it, but my husband was working 12-hour days, I’d never been a mom before, and our family and friends were at least four hours away. We struggled with our daughter not gaining weight, the strain of me taking on a lot of the workload at home while also working part-time, and my husband being so exhausted he didn’t even feel like a real person. When I was alone, I cried a lot. Although I tend to be a reserved person, I was so grateful when strangers, seeing that I had a newborn, asked me how I was doing. That’s a big deal for me because I really hate talking to strangers. I would reach out to friends and family, but often I hid what I feared were uncomfortable emotions, and I made myself be fine when I talked to them.

If you ask my husband, he will tell you looking back that my sobbing on his days off because I didn’t want them to end was some form of depression, but all I know is that the weight of trying to make my apartment always perfect, being a good mom, and struggling with not producing enough milk for breastfeeding was too much for me most of the time. I will forever be grateful that he made the decision for us to buy a house and move closer to our family. I will forever be grateful that a mommy friend in my building convinced me that not breastfeeding after three months of that and supplementing with formula was okay.

What I learned from all of this is that the world often needs us to smile, but what Mika and Zoey are telling us is that it’s not about what everyone else needs. Something more is always going on beneath your surface, and what you need is also important.

I had a substantially harder pregnancy and labor with my second child. I felt no contractions with my first, had an epidural that numbed me straight through to her popping out, and I healed up well before I hit six weeks. With my son, I felt everything, but my recovery, although longer, has been much more relaxed.

Now my husband is home by 5 p.m., and in some ways the harder pregnancy (and the resemblance to a murder scene from part of the placenta getting stuck) has helped him to be more aware of my recovery. With my daughter, I tried to hide not being okay, and because the pregnancy and labor were easier, it was also easier for the world to want me to be okay. I refuse that narrative this time around. Partially because I am stronger having done it once, partially because I don’t want to do that to myself again. Also, I have more of a support system helping me and supporting me in the decisions I make. This support made me decide not to breastfeed, since I struggled so much with my daughter not gaining weight and guilt around that. Ironically enough, my milk came in right away this time.

Every day we have different songs inside of us. Even this more relaxed me has days where I want to scream at someone who tells me I look great. “Thanks,” I want to say, “but I’m trying to wean off of pumping and my breasts are killing me and my toddler has an ear infection and my newborn doesn’t sleep. Can’t you see that in my eyes?”

Maybe they could see it if we tried harder to not smile when we are hurting because the world is okay with us not being okay. Zoey has a gift that lets her see people’s pain through Broadway-worthy songs and dances. The show is fun, funny, and really touching. But that episode on Emily’s postpartum struggles touched on one more important thing: a quirky psychic helped Zoey see that she shouldn’t need a song in dance to know people need her. Neither should we. Ask your friends, partners, siblings, or even a stranger how they are doing and make sure you’re getting the real answer.

One last bit of advice: Smile when you mean it. Cry when you need to.