Nov. 2, 2022

when postpartum is not good

Trigger warning: birth trauma, postpartum issues, miscarriage, infant loss.

Who else was completely blown away by Brittany's vulnerability this week (if you haven't listened yet, please do). I certainly was.

This was the first episode that covered a topic that I couldn't relate to personally, as I have yet to birth a child. And coming from the girl who fainted in child development class as a junior in high school thanks to a bullet point on a c-section slide, I honestly don't know if I ever will - for a multitude of reasons, one being just how traumatic (although worth it) many women say it is. 

Just talking to the incredible mothers in my life, this is a short list of experiences I've been humbled to hear retold:

"I tore so badly I needed 36 stitches."
"You know when you're trying to hold in diarrhea? It was that for 3 hours because I wasn't dilated enough."
"To this day my friend can't walk the same way because her pelvis broke giving birth."
"The doctors weren't listening to me. I could tell something was wrong."
"I miscarried. I sat on a comforter on the way to the hospital and it wasn't enough."
Or, the words of my own mother, who experienced giving birth to three premature babies, two of which she'd watch finish developing in incubators: "We lost one."

While it is the worst they will ever endure, it seems the physical is the least of pains experienced for a lot of new moms. Infant loss, miscarriage, and ectopic pregnancies come with mourning. Peripartum and postpartum depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, psychosis, insomnia, etc. is a months-, sometimes years-long battle. The emotional toll of losing sleep, constantly being needed, giving your body to another, seeing the extra skin when you look in the mirror - it doesn't go away overnight. 

What blows my mind is how often we don't talk about it. For every person who has ever walked the earth, there is a mother who gave birth to them. So why is it that we are just now scraping the surface of talking about the difficult parts rather than covering them up with quick, perfectly photogenic moments? Why did I not know about how involved postpartum care is until Dani Austin posted her products on her stories (you have to change your own diaper, too)? Why is absolutely none of this covered in health class, where we only learn how to not make a baby? We live in a culture that is setting up a lot of women to be surprised by motherhood.

Something that really stood out to me in Brittany's story was her reaction to hearing the world "congratulations" after giving birth to her son - the most traumatic experience she had ever endured, followed by a diagnosis of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. "I don't think that's the right word to say to people sometimes," she reflected.

I've sat with that for a while. "Congratulations" seems like the right word when I see a picture of someone's fresh-faced, bundled up, squishy new baby next to a wooden name token on Instagram. But when I read all of the above, thinking of what that mom could have gone through to get there, or considering what she (and her spouse) are still going through as they adjust to this new life? We need to be saying a lot more than "congratulations."

Congratulations - how are you doing?
Congratulations - what do you need?
Congratulations - let me know how we can help.
Congratulations - I'm here for you if you need to process.
Congratulations - are you okay?

Don't get it twisted, either - this is not just for women. 4% of men report postpartum mental health issues (and we know the number is higher than that based on how often men report the coinciding symptoms). This problem isn't a biological one, either. New research finds that adoptive parents experience post-adoption depression when they find themselves unable to truly connect with their new child as they hoped. Please consider this for any new parent in your life.

I really want to stress this: none of this is to overlook the gift that children are. I've never heard anyone regretting having children because of the physical, emotional, or mental toll it took on them. Parenthood is a beautiful thing, and I respect it immensely (even more so that I'm aware of all of the above). Without it, I wouldn't be here (thanks mom and dad). I also recognize that there are people who might be reading this, thinking "I would give absolutely anything to feel this pain if it meant I had children." I don't want to minimize that, either - and if that's you, please know there is space for you. I hope and pray that you'll someday hear the "congratulations" others grapple with. We all experience different types of pain - all are valid and worthy of empathy.

The next time you congratulate a new parent for the blessing of a new life, I ask that you also recognize the difficulties they may be facing in the transition, too. Leave a meal on their doorstep. Send them a gift card for food delivery or a care package. Ask them what they specifically need. Offer to come over and do their laundry, cook them dinner, clean, or babysit while they take a well-deserved nap. Understand when they don't respond to your texts or return your calls. Just be there - to talk, to listen, to process with. Don't guilt them for their struggle out of your own discomfort with vulnerability with phrases like "at least you can have a baby," or "thank God he/she is healthy." Every coin has two sides, and one doesn't make the other less real.

My biggest hope for any episode is that people will listen and feel less alone. If you are one of those people who tuned in and felt relief, empathy, and validation as Brittany told her story, don't let that big exhale end here. There are endless online support groups and resources for you. A quick Facebook search will result in endless virtual communities for traumatic birth stories and various postpartum mental health disorders. Postpartum Support International hosts online support groups, helps you get connected to resources in your area, and also has resources for loss and grief. Psychology Today can help you find a therapist that specializes in pregnancy, prenatal, and postpartum issues (just click the filter). Lastly, if your experience has led to thoughts of self-harm, please call the 24/7 Suicide & Crisis Hotline at 988.

If you believe you might be struggling with a postpartum mental health disorder, start here and seek support as needed:
Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale
Postpartum Anxiety Quiz
Perinatal/Postpartum OCD Test

New moms (and dads) - I see you, and I think you're incredible. And you've got this.

- MJ