A MISSION DRIVEN BY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Trigger warning: the story below contains details of my mental and physical health struggles during pregnancy and postpartum. This may be distressing to those who are experiencing or have experienced maternal health problems.
Approximately 1.3 million mothers will suffer from perinatal mental health complications per year. 1 in 5 women will be diagnosed with a perinatal mental health disorder. But when I became pregnant, I had no idea that perinatal mental health disorders might impact me.
I am sharing this story to raise awareness, normalize, and reduce stigma around perinatal mental health issues. And also, to show you how I used my strength in recovery to help other moms like me.
MY POSTPARTUM JOURNEY
Everything started back in 2017.
We were a happy family of 3: my loving husband, my sweet, smart, and curious two-year-old daughter, and myself. I can still feel the excitement when we announced to our friends that I was pregnant again at our godson’s birthday party. The next day, I happened to have a routine ultrasound appointment scheduled. After the scan, my doctor told me that the fetus was not developing. At first, I struggled to believe this news, then the devastation set in. My doctor instructed me to return in two weeks to see if there was any progress.
Those two weeks felt like two years. My husband tried to prepare me for what might happen next, but I wouldn’t even let him utter the word “miscarriage.” I held out hope that there was some mistake and that my baby would be okay. When my husband and I went back to the clinic for the follow-up ultrasound, I was scared to even look at the monitor. To our great disappointment, there was still no evidence of fetal development. I begged the doctor to keep looking and to continue measuring the fetus, but the doctor told us that a miscarriage was inevitable.
Next, we were presented with two dreadful options: end the pregnancy that day, or wait indefinitely for my body to miscarry the fetus naturally. I was torn, but opted for a medical miscarriage. This process took over three weeks and was rife with complications.
On top of my physical ailments, my mental health began to deteriorate. I started to feel guilty, thinking “what if the fetus would have survived and grown over time” or “what if I waited this out instead of ending my pregnancy medically.” What’s more, I began to feel increasingly isolated. I didn’t know how to explain my miscarriage to my daughter, my family, or my friends.
A few months later, I became pregnant again. Although I felt happy about it, these feelings were tarnished with constant worries about another miscarriage. From there, my mental health progressively declined. I first experienced what I now know was a panic attack in my third trimester of pregnancy. With every panic attack, I was convinced that I was going to die.
Fast forward to the drive to the hospital to welcome our second daughter. I made it to full term! I could finally breathe again. This being my second delivery, I assumed things would go smoothly. But I was wrong—labor was long and painful. At one point, my baby’s heart rate started decelerating as she was stuck for hours with her arm in front of her head. I laid there numb, closed my eyes, and said a prayer. Finally, my doctor managed to manually move the baby's arm and labor progressed quickly. Only minutes later, I felt like a human again, holding a precious, healthy baby in my arms. We called our rainbow baby Emma.
My postpartum journey was a challenge. Juggling a colicky newborn and an energetic 3-year-old on virtually no sleep was wearing me down. It was the greatest exhaustion I ever experienced. On top of that, I was responsible for caring for the girls during the day, alone. I began to lose patience and I developed a temper, which only amplified my feelings of guilt and shame, emptiness, and hopelessness. Despite all this, I hid my inner turmoil. I was too ashamed to tell anyone about my thoughts and feelings.
Two months after giving birth, I knew that I couldn’t live on like this, but I also didn’t know how to fix it. I couldn’t identify what was wrong. I was terrified that I would never get better. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to function normally or go back to work. Then one evening, I opened up to my mother-in-law. She listened to me, and she heard me. She suggested that I talk to my doctor about postpartum depression, so I called right away. When I was told that the next available intake appointment wouldn’t be for another five weeks, hopelessness set in once again. Five weeks sounded like an eternity. Moreover, the cost of out-of-network therapy was prohibitive. I was devastated. I felt stuck.
Desperate for help, I started reading anything I could about postpartum depression. I couldn't believe that, for parents with limited to average means, there was no access to affordable help or support in my community.
With no viable options in Marin, I joined a support group for new moms in a nearby county. Unfortunately, my anxiety precluded me from attending regularly. I did not trust anyone to watch my baby, and I was scared to drive for hours on the freeway with her. That said, even that one meeting I attended was beneficial. I realized for the first time that I was not alone, that there was hope for recovery.
Little by little, I started to open up to my fellow moms. I was shocked to find out that most of them had experienced many of the same struggles that I had but were too afraid to share. One friend of mine had constant fears that an intruder would steal her baby. Other friends kept a constant vigil over their newborns, checking their breathing and responses, afraid that the babies would die in their sleep. Another friend was not able to form a bond with her baby and felt ashamed.
Conversations with and support from these moms (and many others) were ultimately what helped to lift my postpartum depression. With a newfound zest for life, I channeled my energy into a seed of an idea I had about how I might help others. I simply could not rest knowing the injustice that pregnant and new mothers continued to face in accessing quality maternal mental health care. My idea was to provide free and accessible peer support to moms in my community. Bringing this idea to life gave me a newfound purpose and helped sustain my own recovery.
If you, too, are struggling, please know that you are not alone. Keep fighting, the light is there, and know that I am here for you to support you on your journey every step of the way.
THE BIRTH OF THE POSTPARTUM SUPPORT CENTER
My struggles with postpartum depression inspired me to leverage my experience as a source of hope for other moms. I wanted to create a safe, non-judgmental, supportive space for mothers like me in our community. So I attended webinars and trainings about maternal mental health, peer support, and perinatal social support network development. I became the first Postpartum Support International Coordinator in Marin County. Soon I will be a National Certified Peer Specialist.
Part of the way through my journey, I shared some of my struggles with a psychiatrist, Dr. Adam Nelson. I mentioned to him the idea of starting an organization to support pregnant and new mothers and asked him if he would join me. He immediately accepted. I then reached out to other esteemed professionals. Andrea Yannone, Dr. Irina deFischer, and Roxanne Albin joined our cause and became founding members of our Board of Directors. We officially incorporated the Postpartum Support Center on May 6th, 2019.
Our purpose is to prevent postpartum depression whenever possible and/or to lessen the effects of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders by providing evidence-based programs, psychoeducation, raising awareness, reducing stigma, providing direct peer support and counseling, social support, practical help, perinatal classes, advocating for better quality, affordable and timely perinatal mental health care and much more.
I am confident that together we will affect positive change so that no parent will continue to suffer alone.
Ivana Jagodic Meholick
Founder and Executive Director