Two years ago, I curled up on my living room sofa and prayed for my life to be different. “You are not broken,” I repeated over and over to myself, my hands clasped around my stomach. “You are healing.” But it didn’t feel like I would ever be whole again. My birth plan had been obliterated by a grueling 36-hour labor and emergency C-section, followed by a barrage of health disasters that erupted into my life—blood loss, preeclampsia, low milk supply, thrush, extreme weight loss, and the worst of them all: a large blood clot in my uterus that my worried doctors couldn’t explain.
Those experiences took a toll on more than just my physical health. More often than not, I felt numb and angry and somehow guilty for what had happened to me. And I grieved—for the beautiful birthing experience I had hoped to have, for the connection I had wanted to have with my baby that was clouded by my anxiety, and for the happy experiences of being a new mom that I felt had been taken from me.
On one particularly hard day when the world felt like more than I could handle, I stared into my baby’s midnight blue eyes and saw myself—exhausted, muted, incomprehensibly sad—reflected in them. So I researched “postpartum depression” through my tears and reached out to a coordinator with Postpartum Support International (PSI).
Maternal mental health disorders are common—and rising
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (known as PMADs) are the number one complication of childbirth and include anxiety, depression, OCD tendencies, PTSD and psychosis. They affect at least 14 percent of all women—an experience that ripples out into the family, as up to 50 percent of all partners exposed to maternal postpartum depression suffer from the disorder as well. And these statistics only speak to the women who have reached out, not the many others who are suffering in silence.
While these overwhelming feelings are already challenging in and of themselves, they havebeen exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced moms indoors and away from crucial support systems.
“All women in the reproductive years are being equally impacted, but in different ways,” says Meeka Centimano, LSCSW, clinical director of Centimano Counseling and founder of the Pregnancy and Postpartum Resource Center (PPRC) in Mission, Kansas. “One end of the continuum is infertility. It’s on pause. You’ve taken their level of grief and uncertainty on ‘Will this work?’ to ‘When will we even get to try?’”
For pregnant women, there are also a growing number of variables, Meeka says. “The landscape is ever-changing on what the rules will be when they enter the hospital. Will they be safe? Will their babies be safe? And then postpartum women are sad that no one can share the experience with them. They don’t have as much access if there are feeding issues for the baby or access to their postpartum care they may have planned on. I’m seeing a lot of tears and women in closets and cars doing therapy.”
Add to this the very real added stress of new responsibilities in an unprecedented time: disinfecting doorknobs and groceries, finding at-home activities and managing homeschool curriculum, constantly worrying if there is any possibility of exposure. There is so much hanging in the balance—and a wide range of responses to this evolving reality.
Addressing mental health concerns now and in the future
For some, the stay-at-home measures have come as a welcomed respite from new motherhood. “Some moms are doing better because the expectations and demands are lower,” says Jane McKinney, LSCSW, founder of A Balanced Life LLC and secretary of PPRC. Moms are finding peace, she explains, in staying safe and well, sheltered from the ongoing global crisis. But now, as restrictions begin to lift across Kansas and Missouri, there is an uncertainty that looms about what the future will look like.
What is certain is that moms, who are doing so much for their families, should also be taken care of. Perinatal mental health is not something that is often discussed even among close friends, but it should be—especially in May, which includes World Maternal Mental Health Day on May 6 and Mother’s Day on May 10.
After I reached out to PSI, I was connected with a local therapist who was able to help me understand and process my feelings. I finally had an outlet to share some of my most vulnerable thoughts in a non-judgmental, comforting space, and I acquired the tools that eventually helped me manage my anxiety and depression.
What can moms do to feel better?
For women who are feeling isolated, Courtney Williams, postpartum doula and the PSI coordinator for Jackson and Cass counties, suggests reaching out—even in small ways. “There are ways to stay connected. Start by calling a friend or family member for regular coffee chats or just to share a moment in silence together. There are various supports within the birthing community offering online supports and/or trainings for concerns such as lactation, sleep issues, pelvic floor exercises, and more.”
But if your feelings seem overwhelming or you don’t feel like yourself, reach out to your doctor—or find one who can best support you. “I always ask women, ‘Have you talked to anybody about your concerns?’” Meeka explains. “We do want to make sure that there isn’t something more urgent going on that therapy may not be the first place they need to go.”
After speaking with your doctor, there are many ways to receive additional help:
- Call the PSI coordinator in your area who can identify local resources.
- Reach out to the free 24-hour PPRC warmline.
- Reconnect with a therapist who you have a relationship with or research therapists in your area who have experience with PMADs. They often offer flexible timing and virtual support—and can help lessen the impact this crisis can have on long-term mental health.
- Join a support group. There are lists of groups on the PSI and PPRC websites.
- Follow informed, thoughtful social media accounts, such as PSI (@postpartumsupportinterntational), any local therapists you trust, and The Motherhood Center of New York (@themotherhoodcenter).
- If you are experiencing an emergent mental health concern, such as thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, call 911.
Don’t underestimate the value of day-to-day self-care
Take good care of yourself as best you can, knowing that what is helpful to you might be different from what is helpful to others. Take breaks from online COVID research, do small things that bring you joy, maintain a schedule if possible, spend time with your partner, and allow yourself to fully feel the emotions you are feeling.
“I think moms need to label their emotion as grief and grieve,” Meeka says. “Go out in the backyard for 15 minutes while the kids are napping, and if you want to cry, cry. If you want to be mad, be mad. If you want to text a friend, text a friend. But just sit in the grief. It’s okay.”
If you can, take a more extended break for yourself every chance you get—time not spent catching up on laundry or work. “Another thing I recommend in this schedule is finding 30 minutes of unproductive, alone time,” Jane says. “This is shown to lower anxiety. Turn on music, move and play. It is okay to be bored; this leads to creativity.”
And find strength in the fact that we are all going through this together and there are people inside and outside of your circle who are available to help. “Remember you are not alone,” Courtney says. “There is still a world operating around you. Reach out for help if you need it.”
Kim Hawley is a writer, editor and founder of Strength Through Story, a free, weekly online support group for pregnant, postpartum, and adoptive moms that focuses on healing through storytelling and creative community. She spends any spare time she has chasing around her 2-year-old son, Owen, who pretty much runs the show.