I. Am. Angry. The goings on in the world (both in the big, wide world and in my own small life) have got me seriously fuming. I’m feeling emotionally drained and just about ready to give up on humanity. But, on the other hand, I refuse to let this anger eat up any more of my precious time and energy. There are too many good things in my life that deserve my attention. So instead, let me process some of this anger and see if I can come to any productive conclusions. Here goes.
Let’s start with my own little corner of the world and set aside the more far-reaching anger for a moment. Let’s talk about June 16th. June 16th is a tough day for me. It’s the anniversary of the day I experienced a traumatic post-childbirth complication that could have taken my life (see Let’s Begin at the Beginning for more on that story). I can’t help but experience some serious feels when I look back at memories of this date. I feel lucky to be alive and healthy, but I feel conflicted about how little we openly discuss traumatic birth experiences. On one hand, I understand the impulse not to scare expectant parents, but on the other it seems unfair that we go into childbirth with so little understanding of what’s “normal” and what’s not. That’s when the rage comes in. Because what is the deal with the standard of care for postpartum women in this country? Why is it that we take our babies to the pediatrician the day after getting out of the hospital, then the next week, and so on, but it is standard for a mother who just gave birth to go 6 weeks without any medical care? Not even a phone call to check in. God forbid we get on the bandwagon with countries that actually send visiting nurses out to check on new mamas. I didn’t know enough about what a body was supposed to do after childbirth to be able to know that something wasn’t right with mine. But a medical professional would have known. And if I had had more thorough care, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened to me. And that makes me mad.
This year on June 16th, I spent the day in the emergency room with my 2-year-old. Don’t worry, he’s fine. He slipped and hit his head on the corner of a bed frame, resulting in a tiny gash above his eyebrow. A little glue (thankfully no sutures) and an orange popsicle, and my boy was right as rain. I realize I sound calm, but believe me when I heard the sickening crack of his skull, I was not so calm. I heard his screams. I saw blood running down his face. And I am not even exaggerating, the first lucid thought in my mind other than “We need to go to the ER” was “It’s fucking June 16th.” Then we were off to the hospital, and there I was going down the same corridors where I was wheeled to emergency surgery exactly two years before. My son was a brave and cooperative little patient. We got through it. But we shouldn’t have had to. You know those days when everything just feels like TOO much? Well, June 16th tends to be one of them for my family. I seriously might sage my house next year on that date. I think we might need it.
June 16th brings up a lot of thoughts and feelings related to my difficult postpartum experiences. So let’s take a moment to talk about the way we treat (or rather don’t treat) postpartum mental health in this country. Did you know that emotional complications are the number one complication of pregnancy for both pregnant women AND their partners? Did you know that rates of postpartum mental health issues run pretty standard at about 20% across the board, while rates of SIDS are currently at about .0003%? For those of you that have had children, which one of these do you feel like you got more education about from medical professionals? I’m guessing you heard “Back to sleep!” “No crib bumpers, loose blankets, or stuffed animals!” These recommendations are shoved down the throats of new parents (and rightly they should be to try to minimize SIDS). But where are the standard recommendations to help the 20% of new mothers who are struggling each and every day?
In my experience, the help was not easy to find. At my 6 week postpartum OBGYN visit, I cried. What I mean when I say that I cried, is that I literally sobbed through the entire appointment. The nurse asked me how I had been doing, I got out something along the lines of “I’m so anxious” and I burst into tears. The waterworks pretty much did not stop from there. How did this not raise any red flags?!?! As a therapist myself, I am incredibly embarrassed that I didn’t recognize what was going on with me (therapist, heal thyself!) But my instinct was to chalk it up to sleep deprivation (which is so, so real), and my doctor was more than happy to go along with that explanation. I was told to let my husband take the baby for a night so that I could get a full night’s sleep, as well as encouraged to attend the support group at my local hospital. The support group that was called a BREASTFEEDING group (Did I mention that breastfeeding was a major root and cause of my anxiety?) So no, I wasn’t going to rush right over to that group. Instead, I basically spent the next year putting band-aids haphazardly over bullet holes, until I finally felt strong enough to limp my way to a therapist and get some real help. If I wasn’t a therapist myself, I don’t know if I ever would have had the wherewithal to get myself to treatment. And that is just unacceptable. We can do better! We have to.
While we’re talking about mental health, let’s talk about the intrusive thoughts I’ve been struggling with recently. This terrifying world that we inhabit has been more than ready to supply material for me to fight off with my hard-won therapy skills. I’m afraid to let my child go anywhere, as I wonder where and when the next mass shooting will occur. A grocery store? An ice cream parlor? His daycare? When he’s not with me, I find myself constantly wondering “Is he is okay?” When he is with me, I worry “Can I keep him safe?” After all, children are attacked by wild animals, and instead of compassion the grieving parents are met with slander on social media. I can’t imagine ever feeling that it is my place to make judgments about these incidents. I know from experience (see above regarding a bed frame and an ER trip) that things can happen so quickly. Even when you’re paying attention. Even when you love your child. Or maybe even when you make a terrible mistake (or even a series of terrible mistakes) but still don’t deserve the condemnation heaped upon an already horrific situation.
What are we thinking when we take to our computers and smart phones and make sweeping proclamations meant to harm someone? When we blindly take stabs at those “bad” parents, at that religion, at that sexual orientation, at THOSE people, what are we saying about ourselves? The connecting thread here is a LOSS of connection. A loss of empathy. The same lack of empathy that I experienced when medical professionals turned a blind eye on a struggling, sick young mother rather than taking the time to truly SEE me and offer me the help I needed. Why? So they could get on to the next patient of the day, the next lunch break, the next email. Don’t get me wrong, I am positive they meant well. They heard my polite excuses, and it gave them permission to dismiss me and move on. Because our instinct is to avoid connection at all costs. In an awkward moment, we whip out a cell phone as a welcome distraction. We “multitask.” We stretch ourselves as thin as possible, never asking for help because that would be considered a failure. This is why I was able to look that doctor in the eye, through my tears, and say “I’m really okay.” And this is why he chose to believe me.
This lack of connection, this emotional isolation, is a key component of many of the problems in our society. It is as connected to postpartum depression as it is to the violence tearing apart our nation, seemingly more often and with more victims all the time. Because when people feel alone and isolated, whether in the distracted and busy blur of life, or in their misery, or in their hatred, other people become less human to them. And when others become less human, it becomes easier to justify taking their lives. So when we look to religion, or nationality, or sexual orientation, or mental illness to explain a lone wolf’s actions, perhaps we need to look inward at the rest of the pack, and say “What is wrong with us?” And the idea of fixing what is wrong with us seems insurmountable. And that gets me very, very mad. Because I have a child that has to grow up in this world. And things need to be better. They just have to be.
So what will I do with this anger? What can I do to make some small difference, to start to heal this broken world? I recently attended a high school graduation ceremony, and I found my eyes tearing up as I looked out at the young female graduates, hoping that by the time they have babies (which I realize for some of them might be very soon or already underway) that we have created a better system to support them. I hope they are not expected to go back to work 2 or 4 or 6 or even 12 weeks after giving birth. I hope they get proper medical and emotional care. That when a doctor is weighing baby and making sure he is thriving, that doctor also takes a second glance at mom and ask “How are you doing?” and really listens to the answer. I believe these changes can occur, and I believe I can be a part of them. As a therapist, I am taking steps to gain the training and experience needed to treat women and families with perinatal mental health complications. As an activitist, I plan to get involved in organizations that will push for reforms in the system. These are small steps, but this is something I can do to reach out and re-establish that lost human connection. Small steps toward building the empathy, kindness, and love that can overpower fear, hatred, and even anger.
I love you all.