Jen Schwartz on Managing Postpartum Mental Health
Tell us about your journey to motherhood.
My husband and I decided to start trying when we felt like we were as ready as we would ever be. I was 30, and we were pregnant within four months. I had a very easy, routine pregnancy—some nausea in the first trimester, but that was it. I was beyond excited to become a mother. I felt like it was going to be the job I was made for. I call it my Cinderella moment where I was going to transform into this perfect (well, what I thought was perfect at the time) mother who was a domestic goddess, champion breastfeeder, Pinterest queen, maker of all my own baby food, and the woman who carted her baby everywhere while smiling and telling others how motherhood was the best thing that ever happened to me. I made sure I had all the “right” gear. My parents gifted me the Bugaboo stroller I had to have. I polled friends for the diapers, wipes, onesies, bottles, and clothing brands they liked best. I didn’t really have a birth plan except I knew I was getting the epidural, and I just assumed I would go into labor, have the baby, and live happily ever after. A friend asked me at eight months if I was “worried about any postpartum depression stuff.” I laughed at her and told her that would never happen to me. I became a mother to a healthy baby boy after laboring for 24 hours, pushing for two, and then having a C-section.
When your son was born, you didn’t get out of bed for almost six months. What happened and how did you finally get diagnosed with postpartum depression?
When I brought my son home, there was no Cinderella at the ball. The day after I got home from the hospital, I started having thoughts about wanting to get hurt so I could go back to the hospital and never have to take care of a baby. That was a huge red flag for me and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t loving motherhood the way I thought I would and also when I really believed that every other woman on the planet loved it and was also really good at it.
That was a huge red flag for me and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t loving motherhood the way I thought I would.
The scary thoughts were accompanied by lots of tears, paralyzing anxiety, and major guilt for how I was feeling. I never wanted to get out of bed, and I didn’t want to be a mom. I always say I was lucky because my mom (a therapist) was staying with me at the time, and as I was about to say something to her, she cornered me and said, “Jennifer, what’s wrong?” That gave me the safe opening I needed to confess how I was feeling and admit that something was very wrong. She will tell you she knew something was wrong because she physically witnessed the light go out behind my eyes. Together, the two of us went on what I call a scavenger hunt to find the right medical professional who could tell me what was wrong and help me. After several weeks and several tries, I finally found a therapist who specialized in pregnancy and postpartum mental health. She diagnosed me. And she educated me about how common my feelings were and how she had treated thousands of women like me who all went on to get better. I spent the next six months from there sobbing on the red sofa in her office twice a week, going on antidepressants for the first time ever, and barely leaving the house (the anxiety was too much) while my husband, my mom, my mother in law, my sister, and others helped care for my son so I could care for myself.
What is Motherhood Understood, and why did you start this platform?
Motherhood Understood is a platform, community, and story-sharing hub for women affected by pregnancy and postpartum mental health illnesses. At MU, we provide connection, support, resources, and education to mothers (and their partners) so that no woman has to experience a mental health illness in isolation and all women get the help they need to feel well and thrive in motherhood. I founded Motherhood Understood after realizing just how many mothers suffer in silence, alone, and ashamed, like I did after the birth of my son. I wanted there to be a place to go where you could feel prepared and supported in motherhood in case of a mental health illness (which affects one in five of us)—because I wasn’t, and I suffered longer than I had to because of it. I also suffered alone because I didn’t know there were thousands of other women who felt like I did. I wanted to make it better for the moms that came after me, and I wanted to give these moms a space to feel seen, heard, and understood and a place to share their stories because that’s how we destroy the stigma and shame that still surrounds maternal mental health.
What symptoms should mothers look out for during and after pregnancy?
The most important symptoms to know about are the irritability, anxiety, and rage that pregnancy and postpartum mental health illnesses often manifest as. We overuse the term postpartum depression, and it can be confusing because it doesn’t always look like a woman being curled up crying in the fetal position. Lots of mothers’ experiences don’t fit with that broad of a diagnosis so it can be confusing. If an expecting or postpartum mom is feeling irritable and angry a lot and/or anxious, that’s something to speak up about. Intrusive thoughts, which are scary images and thoughts about something happening to your baby and/or yourself, is another symptom to look out for and is also extremely common. The question I get the most is how can you tell between “normal new mom feelings” like the baby blues and something more serious. I always tell women to notice how intense their feelings and symptoms are. Are they impacting their daily functioning and ability to take care of themselves and their baby? And can they find joy in anything, or is it a real struggle to find any good moments or moments of joy?
We overuse the term postpartum depression, and it can be confusing because it doesn’t always look like a woman being curled up crying in the fetal position.
What is postpartum planning, and why is it important?
I like to say it’s the “new birth plan.” We spend so much time thinking about the birth and the baby and all the stuff we need, but what we forget to include in our planning is the education and support system the mother needs after having the baby because her health and wellness matter just as much as her family’s. We recently launched an amazing new resource to help women and their families with this. Our Motherhood Understood Postpartum Planning Guide helps you set up your entire village ahead of time and provides all the maternal mental health education you need, giving you the information and support necessary to make your needs, health, and wellness a priority when the baby arrives. Had I known to do this when I had my son, I would have gotten the right help faster, gotten better quicker, and missed less milestones in my son’s first year. I would have also known that I wasn’t alone in my struggles and that I didn’t have to face them alone.
Exclusively for the Natalist community, get 10% off the Postpartum Planning Guide with discount code NATALISTMAMA.
What ways can someone support a friend facing a pregnancy or postpartum mental health illness?
The first way to support a friend is to educate yourself a bit about what she is going through. Read up on pregnancy and postpartum mental health illnesses, especially if it’s something you have never experienced. Then, let your friend know that you are there for her however she needs you to be. Be understanding if she isn’t very social or responsive. These illnesses are exhausting, and it can be hard to keep up with relationships while experiencing them. Don’t take it personally, and keep calling and texting without expecting anything in return. She will know you’re there cheering for her and thinking about her. Some tangible things you can do are to offer to set up a meal train, watch the baby so she can rest, or just sit with her so she’s not alone. And you can also watch our Friends and Family video at our new educational video hub, Maternal Mental Health In Minutes for more tips and also the list of what you should NEVER say.
Is there a larger vision or North Star that keeps you going, even when your motivation is down?
I always think about what it took to fight the postpartum depression and anxiety and where I am now. If I could do that, I can do anything. I also want my son to think of his mommy as someone who keeps going, even if she has to take a day off and spend it lying in bed (which still happens by the way). When people ask him what I do for a living, he says, “she helps the mommies.” And all the mamas—I want every mama to always feel prepared and supported in motherhood, especially in case of a mental health illness. Working to make that kind of support and preparation the standard of care keeps me going. And what really keeps me going the most? The personal messages I get from women who tell me that it was Motherhood Understood that gave them the courage to tell their partner they were struggling and needed help, or to pick up the phone and make that first therapy appointment, or finally start the medication that has now made them feel more like themselves again. Those messages are everything. And I answer all my DMs on Instagram, so if you have a question or need help or aren’t sure if something is wrong, please always reach out!
Last question: what advice do you have for other aspiring mamas?
Find your people. You don’t need many of them, but motherhood was not meant to be done in isolation. Find one or two other women you can be yourself with, that you can share how you really feel with. That will make all the difference. Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel crappy or compare your experience to others, and follow the ones that make you feel understood and less alone. And finally, spend time planning for postpartum. No matter what journey you take to motherhood, being a mom is hard, and pregnancy and postpartum mental health illnesses don’t discriminate.
Set up your support system ahead of time and be informed about pregnancy and postpartum mental health illnesses (symptoms to look out for, the types of professionals who can help and where they are in your city, and accurate information about medication). None of this means you will experience postpartum depression or anxiety or another mental health issue, but why not be prepared for the unknown and just in case? This way you can get the help you need to feel well and thrive in motherhood right away and not have to sit in your suffering, wondering what is happening. And again, for any aspiring mamas who want to access our Postpartum Planning Guide, we are offering 10% off for the Natalist community with discount Code NATALISTMAMA.