For almost 30 years, I have been witnessing the personal shame and social stigma that has silenced postpartum women. Held hostage by their own terrifying thoughts and emotions, some women have feared they were going mad. Some feared judgment and worried that their babies would be taken away. Others mistakenly presumed this is just what being a mother feels like sometimes. Still others who did find the courage to disclose the extent to which they were suffering, were left feeling dismissed or unheard. Consequently, postpartum women stopped telling others about their private anguish, their excruciating guilt, and their wish to disappear forever.
Fast forward to today. In many ways, so much has changed. There is an impressive momentum toward greater public awareness, increased advocacy, new legislation and research, a new push to advance healthcare trainings and education, and a movement toward better understanding of maternal mental health issues. Countless women are speaking out on their own behalf with collective outcries through social media.
That’s the good news.
The not so good news is that in many fundamental ways, things have not changed.
Women are still not telling us how bad they feel.
Healthcare providers are still not asking the right questions.
Mothers and babies are still dying.
Scores of pregnant and postpartum women continue to suffer in silence and wonder if letting someone know will make things better or worse.
They have reason to wonder about this.
Regardless of our best efforts to enlighten the world at large, we all agree that new mothers are subject to judgement, criticism, and shaming. There is still widespread misunderstanding and a surprisingly high number of professionals who remain misinformed without the benefit of specialized training. Pregnant and postpartum women (perinatal) who are worried about the way they are feeling who may indeed feel, or be, dismissed by the medical community or even by misguided loved ones, must pay close attention to their body, their emotions and their intuition.
To all healthcare providers who are in a frontline position to treat perinatal women:
I urge you to take the extra steps and make sure you inform your clinical practice with state-of-the-art interventions and up-to-date referral networks. There are now books, trainings by experts in the field, and tons of online professional resources. Do not underestimate how much is at stake here.
And to all new mothers who do not like the way they are feeling:
Trust your instincts. If you think something isn't right, let someone know. If you do not get the response that feels supportive and productive, find someone else you trust and talk to them. Do not stop until you find the support you believe you need. Emotional changes during the perinatal period can be intense and scary, or they can be subtle and nuanced. Some may scream out for attention. Others may simmer under the surface. No one knows how you should be feeling better than you do. There are professionals who are specially trained for this who tuned into symptoms of perinatal distress.
YOU are your own best advocate. YOU need to believe that you are worthy, that how you are feeling matters, and that you can feel like yourself again.
Let someone know. Be informed. Be your own best advocate.
Karen Kleiman, MSW • The Postpartum Stress Center • Postpartumstress.com