“There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” – Leonard Cohen.
It’s Maternal Mental Health Week and I am struggling, not because I don’t know what to say, but because this is the core of my life’s work and pretty hard to “sum up” in bite size social media appropriate chunks. Maternal mental health is at the forefront of my own maternal mind every single day. It is the fuel for everything I do. And yet- I’m not at all interested in pathologizing maternal mental health. Supporting it? YES! Talking about it? 100%! But pathologizing it? No thanks. Pathology and shame are too inextricably linked. And shame keeps us frozen, or worse. Besides, labeling someone’s inability to perfectly tow an ambiguous internal line (in a world that is deeply overstimulating and completely undernourishing) is, to me, a profound level of gaslighting and little more evolved than claiming “hysteria”.
Let’s really think about what is happening within the inner landscape of a person on the threshold of birth. And once we are on the same page with the truth of the enormity and pure magic of birthing and raising babies, then we can talk about Maternal Mental Health in the way the public dialogue intends it. Here we go:
When you create a new person that has never existed before- that is pretty mind altering. When your body becomes unrecognizable to you, shapeshifting within and without- that is going to make you feel things. When you open yourself wide enough to bring forth life, either through major surgery or with the most tender and triggering part of your anatomy- that is an experience that is going to take some unpacking. When people flock to your fecundity, relish in the drama of your labor and then drop you like an empty plastic bag once you are no longer pregnant- you are going to viscerally absorb that. When you haven’t slept for many nights, maybe only in pieces and your life becomes a thousand blurred edges- that is going to take its toll psychologically.
Somehow we were all BORN and yet almost none of our societal structures, within western culture, are created with the birthing/maternal experience in mind. That concept, in and of itself, is enough to drive you “crazy”. Routine hospital practices regularly undermine the physiological needs of birthing people. Insurance companies deny claims for birthing choices that allow for true autonomy. Many people are cornered into traumatizing delivery scenarios, then handed a healthy baby (in the best cases) and told to just be grateful. In postpartum we are often alone from day one because the financial strain of life means our families can’t take off work or come to support us. We go back to work before we are ready, or not at all because childcare is more than our wage. Holistic therapies that get to root causes of dis-ease are not covered by medical plans and meanwhile everyone is wondering why we aren’t back in those jeans, or “to our old self”. There is no such thing as old self. There is only new self. This self. This trying, loving, exhausted, devoted self.
Dear Person in need of Maternal Mental Health Services,
I see you loving your baby. I see you struggling to feed yourself. I see you showing up for your life in the best way you can right now. I see you disappointed that more people didn’t show up for you. I see you putting on a brave face. I see you just trying to get dressed. I see you wondering why it’s not easier or doesn’t feel more like the movies. I see you pacing with a crying infant while on the phone to your insurance days after giving birth. I see you hating yourself for not being everything you promised you’d be when you were a well slept maiden with a belly button that pointed inward. I see you processing your birth experience. I see you working to rise in a system that is trying to keep you small, or not keep you at all.
You are not broken. You are illuminating to us, with your suffering, where we are failing you. Where our system needs to grow up and show up. Sure, are there chemical peaks and valleys in the shifting experience of pregnancy to postpartum hormones? Absolutely. But are we doing enough to a) contextualize the variations of “normal” while honoring the indisputable metamorphosis that is going on beyond birth? and b) adequately supporting new parents socially and systemically? Absolutely we are NOT.
You didn’t fail. You are not failing. We failed, as a society we are failing YOU. You are not crazy. This world is crazy. You need better, you need MORE- and that is a GOOD thing because the bar of support is laughably low. For every person brave enough to admit “I am struggling with my mental health”, there are hundreds more who just aren’t talking about it. We are living, breathing, cycling humans- crossing immense thresholds that are revealing and intensely vulnerable. We deserve to be held as we walk between veils, not gaslit and labeled as just another “emotional mess”. I see your struggle as a magnificent and vulnerable contribution to this cause- your value is not lost on me. If I could bring every single one of you broth, a food rub and a deep long hug I would.
I hope that you find the support you deserve and I hope that you heal in a way that is lasting and mines your experience for the wisdom within it. I hope that your story is one that acknowledges YOU as wounded healer, a wise person who saw beyond the veil and fought their way back into embodiment. Your experience is not just “a dark chapter”, it is the spiritual compost that enriches the soil that grows the food that nourishes the next generation of mothers. You deserve to receive the fullest expression of your healing, of your wholeness, of the courage and heart that you are. I hope you see what I see- a warrior in the fight towards the universal recognition and systemic support of the contribution of birthing people and parents.
Thank you for off gassing your experience- thank you for demanding more from this culture. Your struggle is seen- you are letting in the light. You too are part of this revolution.
I am glad that people are talking about Maternal Mental Health this week. There are a lot of practitioners and organizations who are providing excellent care and support in this arena. But we need to be doing more than “screening prenatally” or doing damage control after the fact. The entire structure of how we think about women’s bodies, birthing, parenting and mental health (nevermind the intersection of all these things) needs to be flipped on its head. And we need to keep talking and we need to keep marching forward in the postpartum revolution-
Resources for Maternal Mental Health Services:
If you feel your safety or the safety of your baby is at risk, call 911 or head to an emergency room. Most people will find their need is less immediate and severe but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother seeking it out. There are many resources on this website.
We strongly recommend you speak with your doctor or midwife and get referrals for qualifies therapists, healing treatment options and local support groups. While emotional shifts and big feelings are all in the range of normal- you don’t need to suffer alone “riding it out”. You may be prescribed medication and that may or may not help you temporarily get a foothold or find that internal balance you are seeking. Try to have no judgements about these things, seeing them all as tools and options with YOU (rather than judgement or fear of judgement) at the center of the choice making. While we have no judgements about people needing or wanting pharmaceutical support we also know that people need complimentary holistic services and support (as well as or in lieu of pharmaceutical or herbal medications) such as: nutrition, time in nature, community, physical based therapy practices, talk therapy, birth processing, physical comforting touch such as massage, more equitable division of the mental and emotional load in their partnership, practical support around the house, time to sleep, a routine that feels like a tether, familiar comforting scents/foods/art/landscape/people, journaling etc for long term, lasting, sustainable healing. There is no one size fits all- clinical therapy might work for you. Meds might work for you. All of it is an option. But like birth, we need to align with providers that will support our choices and look at the whole picture. Demand more from yours or find another one, and get creative in your community if you are not feeling supported. Your need is a gift to all of us.
- In an earlier draft I misquoted- “Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light” is actually attributed to Groucho Marx! I was thinking of the updated Leonard Cohen quote when I mis-wrote.