When my first daughter was 9 months old, I experienced crippling postpartum anxiety. It had been building for several months, and, like a giant snowball slamming down a mountainside, it finally flattened me.
I was so worried about my daughter’s health and safety that I could not sleep at night. I threw up before I had to leave her in the morning to go to work. I felt like a nervous shell of a person who was waiting for disaster to strike at any moment.
I didn’t know that postpartum anxiety was a thing.
But I realized I needed medical help to get better while on what should have been the vacation of a lifetime in Jamaica. My husband was writing a travel piece for The New York Times, and we were staying—on their dime—in the nicest resorts I will ever stay in. In fact, I was showering in one of those outdoor rock showers with plants all around me at the exact moment my daughter rolled off a very high king bed and whacked her little head onto the concrete floor of our oceanside cottage. She cried immediately (a good sign), and a few minutes of breastfeeding had her back to her smiley self. The resort doctor said she was fine.
I, on the other hand, was wrecked.
I couldn’t shake the fear that something was terribly wrong with her. I screamed at my husband that I needed OUT, not from my family or my life, but out of my mind. I was exhausted from living in fear for days, weeks and months on end. I could not take it anymore.
At home I saw a reproductive psychiatrist and was prescribed the antidepressant sertraline (which is also used to treat anxiety). Three weeks later I felt calm and in control of my mind again. I was able to see that by all accounts my daughter was healthy and safe, and I didn’t need to run through a thousand “what ifs” a day to keep her that way. I could sleep again. I couldn’t believe how quickly—and how completely—I felt better. Why had I waited so long?
The answer to that question is personally complicated, but politically and culturally simple. We do not prioritize the wellbeing of mothers in the way we view and treat them as a society and in how we care for them in our healthcare system.
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders affect as many as 20% of women during or after pregnancy. They are more than twice as common as gestational diabetes—for which women are routinely screened during pregnancy. And, yet, there is no uniform mandate for screening women for depression and anxiety—during or after pregnancy.
Culturally, we put mothers on a pedestal, telling them they have “the most important job in the world,” laying heaps of responsibility at their feet—for their children’s entire cognitive and emotional wellbeing—while offering them no concrete support, such as adequate paid parental leave or subsidized childcare, to make it possible for them to meet those needs. We expect mothers to do almost everything and then we give them close to nothing to accomplish it.
And then we send the message that becoming a mother is a blissful, happy event chock full of adorable baby socks and snuggles. Yes, there are snuggles (although baby socks are a JOKE), but why on earth do we think the “most important job in the world” would be easy?
Becoming a parent is one of the most profound experiences a person can have in their lifetime, and no experience worth it’s life-changing salt will be easy. Hormones and the sleep deprivation of pregnancy and early parenting just raise the level of difficulty.
To struggle in motherhood is to be expected, but it shouldn’t be a struggle just to get through every single day, and that isn’t a reality we have to accept. There are steps we can all take to make it better.
Here’s my action plan for pregnant women, mothers, and everyone else who shares this planet with them. When you support a mom, you support a child and a family, and, by extension, a community, your country and the world. Who doesn’t want in on that?
- Learn the symptoms of perinatal mood or anxiety disorders so you will know when you—or someone you love—might be experiencing one.
- If you are struggling in pregnancy or motherhood, speak up. Tell someone you trust, tell your healthcare provider, or reach out to Postpartum Support International. Don’t stop talking until someone listens and commits to helping you get better.
- If you are a healthcare provider who works with pregnant women or new mothers, talk with your employer about attending a training (or organizing one for your whole staff) to screen for PMADS. Some are free and online. Check out Postpartum Support International, the Seleni Institute, org, and The Bloom Foundation.
- If you are a mental health provider, consider attending a special training to support women and families through the emotional challenges of fertility, pregnancy and parenthood. Check out Postpartum Support International, the Seleni Institute, org, and The Bloom Foundation.
- If you are a person who just wants to help moms, children and families, find out what initiatives you can support in your state to:
- mandate screening for mental health disorders in pregnancy and the first year postpartum
- require paid parental leave
- offer subsidized daycare and preschool
- If you have a pregnant woman or new mom in your life, check in with them. Ask them how they are feeling, listen when they answer, and help them connect with knowledgeable help.
Let’s change the narrative of motherhood. Let’s acknowledge all of it—the good, the bad, and the really, really hard. Let’s share our struggles and our willingness to be witness to it. Let’s commit to putting in place concrete supports that help women, mothers, and families work through the challenges. Life is beautiful and hard and messy, and we all deserve to be supported through it.
Contributing Editor:Kate Rope
Kate Rope is an award-winning journalist and author of Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood.