This article is authored by Erin Bunch and is originally published by Well and Good.
New Jersey-based magazine editor Jenny Jones (at her request, we’re using a pseudonym) had the perfect pregnancy. “I was super healthy, I worked out four to five times a week, I felt great,” she tells me. The 32-year-old, established in her career and marriage, felt ready to welcome her new baby girl into her life. “Everything was falling into place,” she says.
Then, she gave birth, and everything fell out of place. Nothing went according to her expectations, beginning with the actual delivery and how exhausted (to put it mildly) she found herself in its aftermath. “I emerged from the hospital feeling like I had been in an underground bunker for a year fighting a war,” she says. Things didn’t get easier from there. Jones struggled with a continued sleep deficit, a constant feeling of overwhelm, and physical pain. Really struggled. “I woke up on day four and was like, ‘The way I’m feeling isn’t normal.’ So, I dragged my husband to my OB and just cried. I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I just want to run away. This is not my life.’”
Jones’ obstetrician assured her that her feelings were normal—and to some extent, they were. “Eighty percent of all women have baby blues, which is a period of tremendous emotional instability that goes on for two to three weeks [after giving birth],” says Ann Smith, president of Postpartum Support International(PSI). “But it gradually gets better and it eventually resolves itself.”
“How am I really going to say, ‘I want to run away from my baby, I want to run away from this house’? I’m not going to put that in the caption because people are going to call the police on me.”
In Jones’ case, however, things didn’t get better. That’s because she was suffering from postpartum depression (PPD), a mental illness that affects at least 1 in 9 new mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smith puts the number even higher—at 1 in 7—and says the actual percentage could be higher still, at around 20 percent. Meanwhile, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that depression in young expectant mothers is 51 percent more common today than it was 25 years ago.
If you’re surprised by these numbers, it may be because struggling mothers are difficult to spot among the perfectly curated images proliferating in Instagram’s digital neighborhood. Like many other imperfect narratives, they’ve been filtered out in favor of flawless mommy-and-me portraits wherein everyone is smiling and there’s no spit-up in sight. “Everything that’s portrayed on Instagram, even my own Instagram, is a lie,” says Jones of the phenomenon. “How am I really going to say, ‘I want to run away from my baby, I want to run away from this house’? I’m not going to put that in the caption because people are going to call the police on me.”
Jones calls model and host Chrissy Teigen’s essay on PPD for Glamoura life raft of sorts floating atop the shiny facade of motherhood in which she was drowning, proof positive more conversation is neededaround this topic. And it’s not just those struggling with PPD who could benefit from more realism—it’s every mother.
Welcome to matrescence
One of the things Jones tells me she realized through the process of seeking treatment for PPD is that she’s never really done well with change—and becoming a mother is one of, if not the, biggest changes to occur over the course of a woman’s life. The transition is so consequential, in fact, that an anthropologist named Dana Raphael (the same woman who coined the term “doula,” by the way) created a word to describe it: matrescence.
“Matrescence is not a condition—it’s a word to describe the period of time where a woman has a baby,” says reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, MD. If adolescence is a girl’s journey to womanhood, matrescence is a woman’s journey to motherhood.
Dr. Sacks explains that matrescence is different from pregnancy, which is described as the physical experience of growing a baby; it’s different from labor and delivery, which is described as the physical experience of giving birth to a baby; and it’s different from the postpartum period, which means many things, a lot of which are physical. “Matrescence includes a discussion about culture, a discussion about psychology, a discussion about relationships, money, sex,” she says. “There’s such a richness to this time in a woman’s life that I think it’s helpful to have a frame around the conversation that will inspire more support.”
Dr. Sacks also hopes that spreading awareness of matrescence may help to lower rates of postpartum depression. To explain why, she again draws a parallel to adolescence, explaining that when you enter into that phase of your life, you’re prepared for the changes that are about to occur. (As are the people comprising your support network: your parents, friends, and teachers.) The difficulties of transitioning into motherhood, by contrast, often catch women by surprise simply because there’s little discussion of them prior to giving birth.
Plus, cultural acceptance of the concept of adolescence helps those experiencing its ups and downs be able to discuss it free of stigma, and she hopes education around matrescence will do the same. “I really want to encourage women to use the word as much as possible,” Dr. Sacks says. “In creating a term to talk about the transition of motherhood, we’re remembering to talk about the mother’s experience, which is so often put in the background and made invisible.”
Read the full story here.
The alarming statistic no one’s talking about
Here’s the good news about PMADs: They’re treatable. “Basically, 100 percent of women can get well,” says Smith. Here’s the bad news: The majority of people don’t get treated. “I will give you a shocking statistic,” Smith says. “Only 30 percent of women who should be treated are, and only 10 percent are treated to remission.” She tells me that this is due in large part to flaws in the mental healthcare system, from a lack of trained physicians who can diagnose and treat PMADs to a lack of mental health providers, period, who take insurance.
PSI is endeavoring to remedy this from multiple fronts. They offer a PMAD training program for mental health professionals, which has educated around 9,000 people over 20 years. Since this is only a “drop in the bucket,” as Smith puts it, however, they’re also rolling out Frontline Provider Trainings, which will work to train OB/GYNs, family practitioners, nurse practitioners, and the like. “If those people know how to screen, diagnose, and begin treatment, you can get a lot of people helped,” she says. Finally, PSI plans to offer a consultation line for untrained doctors to call when they’re unsure of which steps to take with a patient who exhibits signs of a PMAD.
“There’s a stigma about getting help, there’s a stigma about psychiatrists, there’s stigma about therapists, and there is tremendous misunderstanding about what medications are and what they do.” —Ann Smith, president of Postpartum Support International
All of the above will be a great help for patients who seek and follow through with treatment, but unfortunately, stigma may still prevent a number from doing so, says Smith. “There’s a lot of stigma about the illness—about any mental illness. There’s a stigma about getting help, there’s a stigma about psychiatrists, there’s stigma about therapists, and there is tremendous misunderstanding about what medications are and what they do,” she says.
Jones is a perfect example of this. She mentions several times that because the women close to her were “perfect mothers,” she felt there was something wrong with her for not embracing the role as easily. And when she finally did speak up, her mother told her what she was experiencing was normal and that it would pass. This dismissal—well-meaning as it was—delayed treatment for Jones. And once she did get help, she had to hide the medications she was prescribed from her mother, who did not approve. It’s a good thing she took them in secret, however: They helped.
When to reach out
Dr. Sacks tells me that people often ask her how to know if they’re suffering from a PMAD or are just going through a rocky patch. Her response? It doesn’t really matter. “Any woman who has any concerns about her psychological health should just tell any doctor,” she says. “You can even tell your pediatrician.”
As with “regular” depression, Dr. Sacks explains, it can be difficult to navigate resources and advocate for yourself—especially when you add in the enormous burden of care for the baby—so it’s important to enlist the advice, guidance, and expertise of professionals. Plus, she points out, there’s little to lose. “Worst case scenario is that you’ll feel reassured and best case scenario is you’ll get treatment for postpartum depression [or another disorder],” she says. Besides, she adds, you don’t have to have a PMAD to seek out psychological support. “Plenty of women benefit from being able to talk about their transition even if they’re not experiencing an illness,” says Dr. Sacks.
It’s clear that, for Jones, our conversation is helping serve this purpose; it’s a stand-in therapy for what she’s experienced and is still experiencing. “I think society has a lot of expectations that make being a new mother really hard, and people need to work on being more accepting and more forgiving,” she says. “Now, [my daughter] is 10 months old and she’s great, so there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But in the moment, you really feel like it’s never going to get better.”
Career Money Life has a wide range of providers that can help working mums who are struggling with feelings of anxiety, depression, overwhelm, or other mental-health symptoms while pregnant or after giving birth to a new baby. Book a demo now or contact us to learn more about our Parental Leave programs.