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Struggle is an inherent part of becoming a parent. Suffering doesn't have to be
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Chelsea Conaboy begins her essay about postpartum mood and anxiety disorders with a haunting story from one Concord mother: Ashley Healy. She experienced deep sadness and loneliness after her first child, but no one told Healy she’d been diagnosed with postpartum depression, or referred her for treatment or therapy. Nobody explained that she was at risk for developing it again after another pregnancy — which she did, about five weeks after her third child was born.
There are so many disturbing facts in Chelsea’s piece. One is the prevalence of postpartum disorders: the data suggest it affects between 1 in 5 or 7 birthing parents. Another is that mental health conditions are among the most common underlying causes of U.S. maternal deaths (which are climbing, according to the National Center for Health Statistics).
In 2019, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force formally recommended that doctors screen pregnant people for these disorders and offer treatment — covered by insurance companies. It was an important step, cheered by patient advocates and health care providers.
You’d think between the massive number of people affected — and the potentially dire consequences of a failure to treat — every OB-GYN and insurer in America would be clamoring to help before people are in crisis. But, you’d be wrong.
“In the United States, it’s almost as if we accept postpartum depression as an inevitable outcome,” Chelsea writes. “We drop new parents in the stream, with a promise to catch them — if we can.”
Chelsea is a health and science journalist, and she spent three years studying the science of the parental brain. Her book, “Motherbrain,” examines the “profound neurobiological upheaval that occurs during pregnancy and in the immediate weeks and months after birth” and how these changes help us adapt to new parenthood and also make us vulnerable to mental illness.
She does a fantastic job helping readers understand the data, interrogating the “whys” of how our health care system has failed over and over again, and offering suggestions on the way forward.
The essay made me think back on my own postpartum experience, and wonder about my friends. One reader pointed out that it can be hard for us to identify the line between suffering and struggling — especially when the message to new parents seems to be: Yep, having a newborn is hard. Deal with it.
But as Chelsea writes: "[S]truggle is an inherent part of the process of becoming a parent. But suffering in that struggle shouldn’t be.”
I’m hoping this essay makes people feel less alone, and offers some hope. If you or someone you know has experienced postpartum depression or any postpartum mood or anxiety disorder, we’d love to hear from you.