The postpartum journey
Next week, I'll share my own postpartum experience, but this week I wanted to bring in a guest to share. My friend Ashley Ritter has a lot of experience and a lot to say regarding postpartum mental health, and I cannot wait for you to hear from her! This is one of the longer posts I've had, but I think it's also one of the most eye-opening and important stories I've had the honor of sharing here.
So who is Ashley?
Ashley is a career and life coach, organizational leadership consultant, as well as a mom, spouse and passionate postpartum mental health advocate. Through her personal interview below, she shares how the topic of postpartum mental health became important in her life and advice she has for new mothers.
** Content warning - mental health, suicidality **
Tell me about your kids. How old are they? What was the pregnancy and birth experience like for each of them? How were they similar and different?
My kids are just plain great. This sounds ultra cheesy, but I think of them like the moon and the stars - they both create a response of awe and beauty but for different reasons. M is 8 years old and E is 4 years old. M is an artist, is sensitive, and sees beauty in things. E is kind-hearted, tenacious and eager to jump in and figure things out.
My pregnancy and birth experiences between the two of them were entirely different from one another. Before M, I had a miscarriage, so the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy were fraught with a lot of facing old wounds and learning to hope amidst no guarantee. I would later find that this is probably the first (and perhaps continuous) lesson of parenthood - you love and give, but it is all with an open hand. I had significant back and hip pain with M and was very overdue.
M-’s birth was 26 hours, 16 without interventions and 10 with. As I was giving birth, my epidural no longer worked, but at the time I didn’t really understand the difference.l since I had never had a baby before. There were some beautiful moments during the birth like calling an old college room mate and friend on the phone for over an hour to breathe and pray. There was the support of my spouse who was an unbelievable partner. We ended up needing extra support, and so we called a neighbor in for the final 4 hours before the epidural and she was an incredible team mate and friend. And there were the hero nurses I encountered who were all amazing.
To make a long story short, the birth ended in a pretty challenging way with me experiencing a uterine hemorrhage and the baby being pretty blue. Everyone survived but it definitely was an experience with trauma that we were unprepared for. It wasn’t until later that we understood more how to unpack that experience. So often people just say, “Mom and baby are healthy!” and “just be happy with a healthy baby!” or “You forget the pain of labor once the baby arrives.” But none of that really was true for me.
The next 6 months after baby was born were pretty tough, and I began to experience what I later learned were symptoms of postpartum PTSD. Postpartum ptsd is a bit different than postpartum depression and has a set of symptoms you can read more about here. The fog lifted about 18 months after I gave birth. I thought I was fine, and just sort of moved on. When E was 3 years old, I had a friend, Tes (name changed for privacy) who was also pregnant. Tes was having a lot of mental health problems triggered by the pregnancy but felt so ashamed of it. I kept encouraging her, reminded her that so much of what she was experiencing sounded similar to me. I tried to encourage her to get help, but again, she felt so much shame for not instantly bonding with her baby. What I didn’t realize is that Tes was experiencing a more extreme form of a postpartum mental health challenge. Sadly, Tes ended her life when her daughter was just about 4.5 months old. I was devastated. And of course tried to see if there was more I could have done. I sought the help of a therapist because the grief was thick.
It was in the context of working with a therapist that I learned that 1-7 women experience some form of postpartum mental health challenge (there are many different kinds), and that often the stigma is still so strong, people don’t know how to get help. I also unpacked more of my own story and came to understand my own unique symptoms.
I also want to pause my story here for a moment and acknowledge how much of a role access, equity, economic and/or cultural background play when accessing postpartum mental health. I couldn’t begin to explain all of these nuances in full here, but if you would like to read more about this, you can access some of the articles below. The reality is, some communities have greater stigma and greater obstacles to obtaining postpartum health resources. It’s important that this topic not become defined only by white, middle-class women. As a white woman with Latina heritage from rural Indiana, I embody a mix of these stories.
To continue with my story: As I said goodbye to Tes, I paid honor to her memory and to my own struggle by advocating in a new way for postpartum mental health. I helped arrange a “Climb out of the Darkness” Mental health walk in my community, and was touched that dear friends joined me in caring for this cause. You can see this picture here of the bitter but very sweet day that we had the walk.
In the process of going through that healing experience, we were able to conceive again and have E.
E-s pregnancy and birth were very different. The whole experience was one of facing fears and believing in our family power to do hard things. I was seeing a therapist regularly at that point to provide support and felt that I had the tools and resources I needed to be able to face this challenge head on. Beautiful moments included all of my sister -in-laws coming from out of town just to come to a baby shower, as well as several close friends that lived both far and near showing up simply to show their presence, love and support. I had a kick-ass boss and coworkers who were 110% on board with supporting me. Those were the beautiful things! Of course, it wasn’t always easy. I had gestational diabetes the second time, so there were lots of needles and lots of figuring out how to eat in a way that would keep us all the safest. I definitely had to get in touch with my deeper feminine power to say no to cake while pregnant.
Eventually I was induced early we had a very smooth induction, and entirely different labor. It was smooth and the pain was manageable. I had an epidural toward the end and a great moment once she was born. I still hemorrhaged, but the doctors were prepared for it, so I and the baby were not in danger.
Postpartum with E was different because I had learned to be patient with myself as a mom and I had a community of people to support the time. I understood in general how sleep worked, and my expectations were just different. She also was a different kid! And so their various personalities came out in different ways. I cherish both of my children, and have a deep amount of gratitude for how each pregnancy and postpartum shaped who I am today.
What was the most surprising thing about becoming a mom? What was hardest? What was best?
Even though folks tell you it’s 24/7 gig, you can’t feel that in your bones until it happens. It’s like a piece of you exists outside of yourself, and at the same time, you have to learn to quell that feeling because, at the end of the day, they are still their own individual, autonomous beings! Perhaps this one thing is both the best and hardest. It is great to watch them grow and master things you’ve taught them. And it is also great to watch them grow and be good at things you never would have considered teaching them! They really do have their own unique personalities and stories unfolding.
On a practical note: I had a friend say to me, “It gets better.” This was great advice and true for me during the first year with baby. Though every baby is different (and some babies sleep can actually get tougher!) in general, the further away from the initial birth, the more you adapt and the better it gets. So hang in there. The first 12 weeks can be pretty challenging, but it won’t always feel hard.
What do you wish someone had told you during your first pregnancy? What would you have done differently with that knowledge?
It’s hard to take in advice when so much of your energy goes to just BEING when you’re pregnant. Moving across a room can be challenging, let alone implementing someone’s advice! And ironically, the advice I would give to myself is to not worry too much about other people’s advice. The key to this whole journey is trusting where you are in the process. Not trying to speed up your learning or slow it down. You can’t become the perfect mom or person for the sake of your kids overnight.Trust yourself more than you ever have.
(And real talk advice, a lot of people don’t talk or know how to ask about post-baby needs if they had a vagina birth. Be sure to get laxatives from the hospital for your first Bowel movement and talk to your physician if you’re concerned with how things are healing. There are actual physical therapists who specialize in vaginal needs, and many moms have told me they wish others would have spoken openly about this to them).
What are some self-care practices that you’ve found to be helpful for mental health during both pregnancy and postpartum?
Get a therapist, man! Ha, but seriously, - everyone needs something different. Here’s what I did:
As you can see from the story above, I gave myself permission to be a lot more intentional about self-care the second time AND I knew more of what I needed. The challenge with “self” care is that it implies that it’s up to you to provide it for yourself. When in actuality, what many people need postpartum are people around to decide things for you because your cognitive abilities can be so dulled from lack of sleep or just basic recovery.
So: practical tips that worked for me:
No crazy diets first 12 weeks at the very least. Accept where you are.
Go out on the same night once a week, every week to the same place. Takes the guessing out of the process, allows the staff to get to know you and help (I.e bring food more quickly) - it also gave our older daughter (she was 4.5) some regular family time to depend on as her world was changing too.
I’m an extrovert. And love people. I know this is part of what I found SO hard the first time we had a baby, in that, my focus had to become so much about baby that I felt very isolated with little ability to be spontaneous. So let your friends know you need them. I had a “team” of 5 friends that were my mental health team going into my second time having a baby. So they knew the first 12 weeks I may need more texts, times and calls than usual. I had a regular night each week that I went out for 2-3 hours with a friend, left a bottle of either pumped or formula, and prioritized time out by myself or with a friend.
Stop worrying about breastmilk/formula. Everyone does it differently. Do what you think is best and then let it go. Recognize your limits. It’s really fine. Many people find breastfeeding much, much harder than they planned. Every body is different and it’s not a litmus test of commitment to your baby.
All this stuff about sleeping when the baby sleeps is actually really tough to do. (It was for me at least). I think what people are actually trying to say is that you don’t have to use every second to “get something done.” And the challenge is that you want to… because it makes you feel “human” and “normal.” So find a balance that works for you and take the pressure off. If you know it will make you feel good to use the two hrs the baby is sleeping to journal, then do it. But don’t beat yourself up if that just sounds too hard to do. Babies teach us to sit still. Which is wildly hard for many of us to do.
What advice do you have for me or new moms in general? Any advice specifically for second-time moms?
Some of the above still applies. As for second time moms:
Again, release the pressure. You’re not going to be everyone’s hero.
Examine your own story, you may have some “sibling” stuff going into this journey from your own family unit. Notice it, and recognize that your family will have a different sibling story.
Get a bucket from the dollar store and fill it with dollar store cheapo toys. Like 30 bucks or more worth. That way, for the first month, you can use this in a variety of ways with the older kid. “Now that you’re a big sister, for the first month, every day in the afternoon you get to pull something f from the toy chest, but only if you play with it quietly for 20 minutes and let mama rest quietly.” Or use it when the baby is nursing and you need space. If you’re not usually someone who buys junk -- give in. You can throw it away (eek - environment, I know). Sometimes you have to make concessions to get through that first month. It’s okay.
Now that your kids are a little older, what are your favorite practices for integrating self care and mental health into motherhood?
The overall advice here relates to seasons. Seasons pass. So, some of what you discover that works for you may work during one season but not another, so feel free to try out new ways of self-care. You change too, so what you need from season to season flexes.
For us, our younger child has a tough time with bed time, so over the last year (she was 3), I would leave two nights a week to let my husband do bed, and I would go grocery shopping. Many people hate grocery shopping...but I love it! I love the quiet aisles, abundance of colors and, ahem, my grocery store serves wine that you can have while you shop. I used this time every week to listen to podcasts, or sometimes would hit the gym before going to get a little more endorphin rush going.
Also, both my spouse and I work full-time. So we focus on quality time when we aren’t able to provide “quantity.”. Each year we each take a week off work to run “mama camp” and “dad camp” to make great memories with our kids.
I hope the above is helpful for you! Enjoy crafting your own path and story, and find people to do the journey with as oppose to isolation. None of us are perfect, and we all are just trying to figure it out!
If you are in need of resources in this topic, please find more information here: