BEMIDJI — Myths surrounding new motherhood abound.
New parents are immediately filled with joy and love; bonding with the baby is simple and easy; it’s simply magical.
Of course, these things may happen to some extent, but they certainly aren’t the only things that a new parent might experience.
Contrary to these happy expectations, mothers and fathers are often exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed.
“There’s a lot of myths of motherhood that it’s supposed to be this joyous experience, everything is supposed to be wonderful,” said Cailee Furer, director of the Bemidji Early Childhood Collaborative, “and the truth is it’s not always like that.”
Around 80% of mothers experience “baby blues,” a period of time following birth characterized by low moods and energy. For some, this can lead to postpartum depression or anxiety, which can persist for months and might not show up at all until weeks later.
Despite how common these experiences are, new and expecting parents are often unprepared for these emotions and are unsure of where and how to seek help.
Even an Obstetrics and Gynecology Specialist such as Dr. Johnna Nynas at Sanford Health in Bemidji, who has worked with new and soon-to-be mothers for years, found her personal experience with postpartum depression challenging.
“It was a really difficult thing to experience firsthand,” said Nynas, “and that really changed how I practice medicine and how I approach these patients.”
All of this inspired the BECC to put together an awareness campaign and begin providing different types of support for parents experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety.
Postpartum depression is incredibly common, with one in seven women experiencing it. Around 25% of fathers also show symptoms of postpartum depression.
Feeling sad, irritable, fearful or emotionally disconnected can all be a sign of postpartum depression. Many report difficulties with sleep, obsessing over safety, or a feeling of guilt or shame.
There can also be “red flag” symptoms, which include thoughts of harming yourself or the baby, seeing or hearing things that aren’t there, or being unable to think or communicate properly. If someone is experiencing any of these, it is important to seek immediate medical attention.
“It’s the most common complication of pregnancy and postpartum,” said Malissa Kerr, a childbirth educator and doula who specializes in perinatal mental health. “And, it’s not the mother’s fault.”
These feelings can last for months or even a year after giving birth and can be overwhelming and isolating. In many cases, new mothers are hesitant to speak about it, for fear of judgment.
“They’re afraid to tell people ‘this is how I’m feeling,'” Kerr explained. “They’re afraid they’ll be looked at like a bad mother who’s not doing a good enough job.”
Another reason new parents might not seek help is that they might not recognize what they are going through as postpartum depression or anxiety. This can be from a lack of awareness and information about these conditions, or from carefully masking their stress as productivity and good parenting.
“They can seem really put together and that’s how it looks on the outside,” Nynas said. “But on the inside that constant motion, that constant having to make sure everything is perfect, is actually a manifestation of uncontrolled anxiety.”
Like many other parts of mental health, postpartum depression and anxiety have had large amounts of stigma attached to them for decades. Discussing them was and still can be considered taboo, despite how common they are.
“I think mental health, in general, has historically had a lot of stigma behind it,” said Nynas. “The stigma is getting better, but there’s still a stigma.”
She explained that a primary way to combat this is to talk honestly about experiences with birth and with postpartum depression and anxiety. This can be with both other parents or health professionals.
New parents already experience high expectations around what they should be doing, and a considerable amount of judgment can follow if they don’t meet those expectations. This can further complicate discussions around postpartum mental health and make them more difficult.
“I think there’s a lot of genuine fear, particularly in women,” Nynas said, “that if we admit that things aren’t OK, or things aren’t what we expected, that it’s somehow admitting failure, which is absolutely not true.”
Even though there can be hesitancy surrounding sharing challenges with mental health, it still remains a crucial part of seeking help and reducing the stigmatization.
“Just having a safe space to talk about it and acknowledge it,” added Furer. “To know that you’re not alone is really powerful.”
In an effort to raise more awareness, Kerr, Furer and Nynas and a handful of others around the community, came together to form the Postpartum Mental Health Awareness Campaign Planning Committee. Currently, the committee is made up of nearly a dozen members from various organizations and businesses in the area that support family wellness and perinatal emotional health.
The committee has gathered a variety of local and virtual resources which can be found on the BECC website .
These services, both local and online, offer information and support to expecting and new parents, resources for early childhood and ways to connect with people going through similar experiences.
“We just really want to make sure that people know where to access help,” Furer said. “The more we talk about it the more help we can get out there.”
Starting later this month, support groups will be available for parents struggling with infertility and miscarriage, and for those impacted by stillbirth and infant loss, which will be held at Sanford in Bemidji. They also hope to offer groups for those experiencing postpartum depression in the near future.
“It’s important to make our communities, our families aware of what the signs, symptoms and risk factors are,” Kerr said.
These resources are particularly important for those parents who might have no or a limited support system. Kerr connected this to how society often separates new parents from their extended families, a sentiment echoed by Furer.
“One of my favorite quotes is ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” said Furer, “and we’ve lost our village.”
Without a support system, new parents often take on all the stress and responsibilities of raising a child, something that can overwhelm and isolate them. It can also aggravate the challenges of postpartum depression and anxiety.
All of this — the stigma, the isolation, the lack of awareness — highlights the importance of the support and information that the BECC is providing.
“The three main things we talk about are understanding the triggers, knowing that it’s treatable and asking for help,” Kerr said.
Postpartum depression is not unusual, it can affect both mothers and fathers, it can be overwhelming and intimidating, but it can also be treated.
Parents who think they might be experiencing symptoms should know that they are not alone, and that they can reach out to their health care providers and begin seeking help.
“It’s a very brave thing to reach out for help,” said Nynas, “and sometimes that’s the hardest part of the whole process.”