Chapter Ten: Interview with Jen Schwartz
If you haven't checked out the MOTHERHOOD-UNDERSTOOD community you should have a look. Founded by Jen Schwartz, it aims to normalise postpartum mental health, as well as bringing some humour and comfort around topics that are not readily discussed. It reminds women they are not alone in their mental health struggles and is a wonderful platform that is doing so much within the USA and beyond. Jen often uses the term "medicated mommy” to help normalise the fact that many mums need anti-depressants/medication as part of their recovery.
Jen and I have connected over our shared passion in this area. I have the privilege of sharing some of her story and why she does what she does. What an incredible woman she is. x
(It is important to remember that the symptoms and the treatment that each woman experiences can vary greatly and that if you are feeling unwell please see a medical professional)
Can you tell us about your journey into motherhood?
I chose to get pregnant. I was excited to be a mom. At the time, I was a middle school English teacher and the plan was for me to become a stay at home mom. I never thought about my mental health during pregnancy…ever. Why would I? Like I said, I chose it and I was so excited. At 8 months pregnant, a close friend asked me if I was worried about any postpartum depression stuff and I replied immediately, “Of course not. That would never happen to me.” I had a relatively easy pregnancy. No complications. But the birth was a bit of a different story. I went into labor during a Jewish Holiday at the dinner table in front of 30 of my closest family members. Off I went to the hospital with my husband where I labored for 24 hours, pushed for two, and then had a C-section.
Can you tell us about your postpartum journey?
I had an easy pregnancy and as I said I was so excited to be a mom. I felt happy in the hospital after I delivered. All that changed though when I brought my son home from the hospital and I started having scary thoughts about ways I could get hurt so I could go back to the hospital and not have to take care of the baby. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Why didn’t I want to be near my son? Why didn’t I want to get out of bed ever again? Where was the magic and bliss all new moms experience? Why did I only feel anxious and sad? How come every other woman on the planet loved being a mom except for me? Why was I failing at the one thing I believed came naturally to all woman?
The abridged version is that I was the 1 in 7 women affected by a maternal mental health illness. I battled severe postpartum depression and anxiety for almost a year. And in that time, I felt so alone. I didn’t know anyone else personally or through social media who had what I had or felt like I did. I became a mom and found myself going to weekly therapy appointments and taking antidepressants for the first time ever.
My saving grace was finding a therapist who specialized in postpartum depression and she explained what was happening to me. She told me I wasn’t alone. She told me she treated thousands of moms who felt like I did. She told me there were risk factors for PPD and I had a ton of them. She helped me find a psychiatrist and the right medication. And although I thought I would never get better and every week as I sat sobbing on the red couch on her office, I thought she was lying to me when she promised me I would, eventually I did.
At my son’s first birthday party, I remember looking around the room surrounded by family and friends and the people who stuck by me that first year of hell, and finally feeling love for my son and being his mommy and the confidence that “I got this”. And I vowed that someday, somehow, someway, I would share my story and figure out how to advocate for all the other 1 in 7 women because I never wanted another mom to feel the shame and loneliness I did and here we are…six years later.
Tell us about your recovery
My recovery consisted of seeing a therapist that specialized in perinatal mood disorders weekly, taking antidepressants under the care of a psychiatrist, and letting others take care of my son. My husband, my mom, my mother in law and other family members stepped in to help take care of my son and me. A close friend came over to sit with me almost every day and sometimes she took me for walks to calm the anxiety.
For the first several months, I thought I would never get better, but I stuck to my treatment plan and eventually I started having more good days then bad days until I didn’t even realize they were all mostly good days. It’s so hard to understand and listen to at the time, but this type of recovery is a marathon, not a sprint and you have to take it one day at a time. There will be setbacks. You might have a few good days and then a bad day, but that doesn’t mean you are relapsing. That’s just the nature of the illness.
Tell us about Motherhood Understood
Six years ago, when my son was born, I didn’t get out of bed for almost six months. My mom and my husband took over my mommy duties while I cried in bed. I hated breastfeeding and quit after five days. Formula became my second favorite F-word. I only left the house when forced to, like the one time my mom dragged me to mommy and me class, where all these perfectly manicured moms raved about how fabulous their new lives had become. I didn’t get it and I was miserable.
I did not enjoy being a mom and needed heavy meds just to cope with my scary thoughts. What would people think of me if they knew I was medicated and looking for a way out? I had never felt anxiety like that before. How was I the only mom I knew who felt so dark, even in the middle of the day? What was wrong with me that I had no interest in watching my kid play with his toes or taking him for a walk to the park?
I created MOTHERHOOD-UNDERSTOOD after realizing just how many women suffered in silence, ashamed, as I did. When I was sick, I desperately searched for a community of moms like me, but I couldn’t find one. So, when I got better, I created it so other women suffering didn’t have to feel alone, ashamed, and confused like I did, and they would have the knowledge and resources I didn’t, so they would know where to seek help and receive the treatment needed to get better right away.
Back then, I literally believed I was the only new mom on the planet suffering because I didn’t know anyone in real life or on social media who talked about anything other than joy when sharing about their experience of becoming a mom. No one talked about having dark, scary thoughts or having to find the right therapist and medication just to cope. I had sort of heard about postpartum depression when I was pregnant, but nothing about risk factors (which I had tons of), or where to get help if needed. I had no idea postpartum anxiety was a thing. And I was completely clueless about just how many women are affected by maternal mental health disorders during and after pregnancy.
I didn’t want that for the women who came after me. I wanted them to feel seen, heard, and understood. I wanted them to be educated and prepared for the emotional complications that can accompany pregnancy and childbirth. I wanted them to know they were not alone and connect them with other moms who were going through or had gone through the same thing. I promised myself that when I got better, I would use my traumatic experience for good. I would share my story so other women could find the courage to share theirs because story-sharing and empathy are the most effective cures for stigma and shame.
I ended up creating the community I wished I had when I was battling postpartum depression and anxiety and I became a mom on a mission to unmask and normalize this uglier, less talked about side of motherhood.
If you could tell new mums one thing what would it be?
That it’s okay to not be okay. You might not like motherhood right away. You might not bond with your baby right away. You might question your decision to become a mom. You might feel anxious and sad and grieve your old life. You might have no idea who you are. It’s all OKAY, you have NOTHING to be ashamed of, and you are not alone.
You can find this amazing platform at www.motherhood-understood.com. Jen has also started an online community maternalmentalhealth.inspire.com where women can join and share their post partum mental health journey and connect with others who are facing the same challenges. We need more people like Jen who are willing to share their story and help bring about change in the area of maternal mental health.