Maternal mental health is like the black sheep of the family. People want nothing to do with it because they don’t fully understand it and the answers for how to treat it are less clear cut. Until mental health is viewed the same way as physical health, the stigma will still exist. Society still promotes the belief that becoming a mom is a natural and effortless transition for all women and a role that should be the most fulfilling of their lifetime. Images of aspirational motherhood and the “super mom” lead women to place impossible, unattainable expectations upon themselves that set them up to feel like failures immediately, leading to tremendous guilt that they aren’t “mom enough” for their children. Telling women there is one right way for anything that has to do with the care of her baby has created a culture of mom-shaming and self-doubt. Why would any new mom want to admit her scary, messy feelings and ask for help? She’s terrified of being judged or even having her baby taken away. Most likely, she has no idea that what she is experiencing is common and temporary with treatment. When it comes to maternal mental health, the statistics are outrageous, and yet we still don’t prepare and educate women and the major parenting brands still don’t incorporate this side of motherhood into their ad campaigns.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jen Schwartz. Jen is the medicated mommy who picked up the debris left by postpartum depression and anxiety and created MOTHERHOOD-UNDERSTOOD, a platform for the 1 in 7 moms affected by maternal mental health issues and the community she couldn’t find while struggling in a dark closet all by herself after the birth of her son. Jen gives permission slips to women who aren’t exactly enamored with their new role as mommy, so they can allow themselves to be the most real and honest versions of themselves. She helps them empathize, share, and connect with others who speak their language — moms who understand that new mommy life isn’t always the way it looks on Instagram. Jen is a writer, speaker, and influencer whose work and commentary has been featured all over the mommy blogosphere and on popular websites like Forbes, Bustle, The Mighty, Healthline, The Bump, Pop Sugar Moms, Scary Mommy, CafeMom and more. Recently, 2020 Mom named Jen their 2019 Blue Dot Project’s National Spokeswoman and Inspire partnered with her to create and run their first maternal mental health online community forum. For more, connect with her on Instagram and join the M-U Mom Crew here.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Icreated MOTHERHOOD-UNDERSTOOD because I didn’t want any new mom to suffer in silence, ashamed, as I did six years ago when my son was born. 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.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Maternal mental health is like the black sheep of the family. People want nothing to do with it because they don’t fully understand it and the answers for how to treat it are less clear cut. Until mental health is viewed the same way as physical health, the stigma will still exist. Society still promotes the belief that becoming a mom is a natural and effortless transition for all women and a role that should be the most fulfilling of their lifetime. Images of aspirational motherhood and the “super mom” lead women to place impossible, unattainable expectations upon themselves that set them up to feel like failures immediately, leading to tremendous guilt that they aren’t “mom enough” for their children. Telling women there is one right way for anything that has to do with the care of her baby has created a culture of mom-shaming and self-doubt. Why would any new mom want to admit her scary, messy feelings and ask for help? She’s terrified of being judged or even having her baby taken away. Most likely, she has no idea that what she is experiencing is common and temporary with treatment. When it comes to maternal mental health, the statistics are outrageous, and yet we still don’t prepare and educate women and the major parenting brands still don’t incorporate this side of motherhood into their ad campaigns. Just to share a few polarizing statistics:
1) The American Academy of Pediatrics has noted that Maternal Depression is the most underdiagnosed obstetric complication in America.
2) There are more new cases of mothers suffering from maternal depression each year than women diagnosed with breast cancer.
3) Only 15% of moms with maternal mental health disorders are diagnosed and receive proper treatment.
4) Suicide accounts for 20% of postpartum deaths and is the second most common cause of mortality in postpartum women.
5) Untreated anxiety and depression postpartum can lead to emotional and social problems and developmental delays in children.
6) African American Women suffer at rates 35% higher than the general population.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
If I could take every mom who is suffering, bring them home with me and take their pain away, I would. I’m a mom on a mission committed to shining the light on the darkest of places, where mommy mental health taboos have been hiding out, doing an awesome job of convincing moms that they are not enough and all alone, which is NOT true. I’m an open book when it comes to my story, how I survived, the medications I take, how I take care of myself without guilt and I answer every mom who emails and DM’s me with questions. Our goal is to educate, connect and prepare women for the emotional complications that sometimes accompany childbirth in the weeks, months, and even years that follow. We help women with maternal mental health disorders empathize, share, and connect with others who understand them. Through community, story-sharing, and Instagram memes that go way deeper than the typical aspirational or humor-driven ones, we are normalizing this less popular side of motherhood, empowering moms to ask for and accept help, and teaching them that taking care of themselves is not a luxury or selfish, but is necessary and part of taking care of their kids. Recently, 2020 Mom named me their 2019 Blue Dot Project’s National Spokeswoman and Inspire asked me to create and launch their very first maternal mental health online community forum. Through 2020 Mom, I will be completing their joint mental health certificate training with Postpartum Support International and with Inspire, there will finally be a central online space for moms to connect (anonymously if preferred), feel less alone, and get advice from women who have walked in their shoes as well as experts in the field of maternal mental health.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
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.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
This is such a layered problem and there is not enough space here for the solutions. Generally speaking, there is still very little awareness, low screening rates, and a shortage of treatment programs for maternal mental health disorders. In the U.K., there are 21 mother-baby psychiatric units where a mom can get help and be with her baby overnight. In the United States, there are zero. The closest place that exists here is the perinatal psychiatric unit at UNC Chapel Hill and we need more of them. Women also need more support, maternal mental health education and counseling in pregnancy. As a whole, we need to normalize these illnesses, so women stop remaining silent because they feel shame and stigma, don’t want to appear weak or ungrateful and fear that their baby will be taken away. One of the biggest problems when it comes to supporting women with maternal mental health disorders is that medical professionals don’t have the proper training and resources to be able to screen for and provide treatment or refer to another clinician who can. There needs to be a standard for screening, referral pathways, and ongoing support. A mom’s mood in the hospital is not an accurate assessment or predictor of what it could be after a few months postpartum when mental health issues tend to present themselves. Screenings should be ongoing at various times in the first year postpartum. OB’s and pediatricians who see moms the most postpartum especially need to be qualified to screen and know where to refer these moms for help. Pediatricians should consider moms their patients too because a mom’s mental health will ultimately affect her child’s mental health. Additionally, hospitals should train clinicians and be well-versed in how to educate women and what local treatment options are available. Most importantly, we need to break down the barriers many women face when it comes to receiving effective treatment such as socioeconomic status, and health insurance coverage. All women should have access to affordable healthcare and treatment programs that cover screenings at no cost to the patient and are accessible no matter their geographic location.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1. I believe taking care of myself is part of taking care of my family: I learned very early on that taking care of myself is not selfish. I had to take care of myself first, so I could get healthy and be able to take care of my son. That meant allowing others to care for him while I started medication, went to therapy and other doctor appointments, stayed in bed, and fought to get better from the depression and anxiety. Six years later, I still take care of my health and happiness which allows me to be the best mom for my son.
2. I ask for help. Motherhood is not meant to be done in isolation. I rely on a village to help me and I ask for help when I need it, which includes but is not limited to childcare, laundry, cleaning, and parenting advice. I think of motherhood as a team sport.
3. I say yes when help is offered. When a family member asks for my son to a sleepover, I say yes. When I’m sick and a friend asks to drop off soup and medicine, I say yes. When my husband offers to take our son on a 24-hour “boys adventure,” I say yes. When my mother-in-law offers to cook dinner and empty the dishwasher, I say yes. When my mom offers to watch my son so I can go lie down, I say yes.
4. I tell my partner what I need: My husband isn’t a mind reader. I let him know what I need when I’m struggling. Maybe it’s for him to handle bedtime (we usually switch off). Maybe it’s a date night because we need to reconnect a bit. Maybe it’s a girls’ night out, or just a nap on a Sunday afternoon.
5. I schedule plenty of me-time, especially involving girlfriends. Women need breaks. Women need sisterhood. We need girl time. We need connection, with ourselves, and each other. Once a year, I go away with my best friends from college. I speak to long-distance friends almost every day via text, email or Facetime. At home, I go out with my girlfriends whether it’s coffee, lunch, or a night out, at least once every two weeks. I make sure to spend time as just Jen, not Jen the mom. When I travel for work, I soak up every minute I get alone in a hotel room to just be.
6. I go to an adult sleepaway camp for women at least once a year. Every year, I go to Campowerment, a weekend sleepaway camp retreat for women. I spend 72 hours in a bunk with 10 other women who have become some of my closest friends, I attend workshops led by amazing experts, I dress up in silly costumes for a very competitive karaoke competition, and recharge in the company of women who are 100% for each other. It’s life-changing.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
· Everything written and spoken by Brené Brown about connection, vulnerability, belonging, and empathy
· The Campowerment Community which has changed my life and shown me the power of sisterhood, connection, and aligning with my purpose
· On Instagram: @notsafeformomgroup, @hellomytribe, @rebeccafoxstarr, @mentalmoms, @theperfectmom, @positivelypresent, @helenetheillustrator
· Real Moms Have Scary Thoughts by Karen Kleiman, which comes out March 1, and is the most relevant, relatable book I have read about motherhood
· Bonkers by Olivia Siegl
· When the Bough Breaks Documentary
· For awareness and clinical resources, where to find professionals in your area, and how to talk to these professionals: Postpartum Support International, Postpartum Stress Center, 2020 Mom and The Blue Dot Project