Maternal Mental Health after the Loss of a Child

Today’s guest blog by Stacey Porter, founder of the Tangerine Owl Project, discusses maternal mental health after the loss of a child.

I have found these last three years to be particularly trying in terms of rebalancing my life.  Three yearsmaternal mental health ago I lost an infant daughter who was born at 25 weeks gestation due to preeclampsia. That was a profoundly impactful life altering experience, and it’s made me a different person. I learned to cope, gave myself permission to grieve, and began to shape that experience into a way that I can help others in my community who are suffering through the trauma of the NICU and/or child loss.  Since then, I have started to become very in tune with the amount of pain, devastation, confliction, perseverance and hope out there for these parents. I have witnessed and talked through the anxiety and depression that looms over these mothers like dark ash and exhaust from a fire that doesn’t allow one to take a breath.  I have seen how these losses can both defeat them and strengthen them all at the same time.  I can’t explain how that’s possible, but it happens. The thing is anxiety and depression aren’t just happening for those mothers who have experienced a trauma or loss, or even post-partum depression. Maternal mental health issues effect 1 in 8 mothers out there. That is a shockingly high number, yet these issues seem to fly under the radar so well. How is that possible? I can count right now, out of the number of women I know simply through my social network and family which would mean that at least a handful of them may be experiencing this (or have at some point) that I was/am completely unaware of.  How are we supposed to support the mothers who are struggling if we don’t even know they are struggling?

I have dealt with acute depression just out of college with all the transitions happening in my life, it was too much, too fast, and I was struggling to adapt to them all. This was situational for me and I was able to find my way out of if with the help of counseling and some short term meds, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering if It’ll come back again later. In fact, I’m actually pretty surprised that the loss of my daughter didn’t throw me into a well of despair. Don’t get me wrong, I grieved….hard….. but there is a difference between grief and depression.  I have long advocated for mothers to share their stories and their grief when they suffer loss, because knowing they aren’t alone in their feelings and that how they feel is absolutely OK, no matter what those feelings are. They are theirs and they are justified. It’s not surprising that this simple act works wonders in their processing of their emotions and figuring out how to work through them in rebuilding their lives. That holds true for mothers as well.  Much like trauma and loss, anxiety, depression and other disorders that effect mental health are not picky on whose life they descend and wreak havoc.

So why the stigma?  When can someone share that they are struggling more than normal and not get chastised or written off for it? Why is it not ok for a mother who seemingly has everything to struggle with getting out of bed in the morning?  Why does it take an extreme of a mother on the news who drowned her children to call attention to mental health?

Mothers struggle with these disorders. Every. Single. Day. So, why can she not open up to her friend and say, you know, this is a really terrible day and I am not quite sure if/how I will make it through..Maybe she can, and maybe she did. But are we listening?

Parenthood is hard. Motherhood is hard. It’s not because she doesn’t want to open up, but because she is afraid. She’s afraid of what other people will think, she’s afraid at how others will react, she’s afraid of who she is being compared to, she’s afraid that if she admits it then it will be real, and maybe she’s terrified that no one will be able to help her. It takes a lot of someone to admit they are dealing with these mental health issues, and there are too many things that play into the reasons behind these disorders, (social-emotional hard wiring, upbringing, life situation, etc.) but one thing seems clear:

When they exist, perhaps the most harmful thing for them is when their feelings aren’t acknowledged (by others or by their own logic). They may already be fighting with themselves thinking:

  • “I’m just overreacting or being dramatic”
  • “Others are much worse off than me, what do I have to be depressed/anxious/upset about?”
  • “Everything’s fine, I’ll be over in a day or two”, or “I just had a hard week”
  • “I’m just tired”
  • “I’m just feeling sorry for myself”

When others say these types things to them, it further invalidates their feelings so they are less likely to either realize that there truly is a problem or feel like their feelings are not appropriate. There is a fine line in determining what is actually going on in someone’s head and how to respond to any of these statements, that’s what the professionals are trained in and there for.  What WE can do, is be a human being.

In general, it seems that people have such low tolerance and patience they don’t see all the work that is needed to combat these feelings and move through life. Some do a very good job of hiding it and the smile masks all the chaos going on in their minds. For many it is a daily battle, and we need to be wiser, we need to be more patient, and we need to be open.  Many of us are not in the business to offer professional mental health counseling to the women in our lives that struggle, but all of us are certainly able to have a conversation with our friend, our sister, our co-worker, the mom to one of our kid’s friends, etc. Much like helping a bereaved parent, you don’t have to understand what they’re going through to be able to help them.

You don’t have to fix someone’s problem for them, you just have to be there to listen should she decide today is the day she opens up to someone the real answer to that question “how are you doing?”.  Sit with her on the floor as she cries. Let her talk about her fears, celebrate the small winnings of the day if you recognize it took a tremendous amount of effort to accomplish for her.  It may take more than a friend to help her through, but being there to listen will certainly go a long way.

For far too long, there has been an undeserved stigma associated with mental health, so if you are dealing with it please don’t keep it to yourself. 1 in 8 there is likely someone right alongside of you that is sharing a similar struggle. For those of us who are lucky enough not to be struggling with this, don’t halt the conversation if it starts, and pay a little extra attention.  Depression and anxiety are called “invisible” illnesses.  Are they invisible because they are hidden so well or are they invisible because we refuse to see them?

NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!