The perinatal journey looks different and feels different for everyone. When Postpartum Depression and Anxiety enters the equation, the impact can be debilitating for the whole family. Due to the ongoing stigma that surrounds maternal mental illness, many women don’t realize that the right support and treatment can make a world of difference.
We were so inspired when TMC client, parenthood blogger, and early childhood educator Ashley Abeles recently shared her experience with postpartum depression and anxiety. Through her journey she learned how to relate to herself, her partner, and her new son. In an effort to provide honesty, hope and permission to other struggling new and expecting mothers, she began a blog, Muffin Man’s Mama. Her blog went viral almost over night receiving nothing less than praise and appreciation, and endless “me too” comments. Due to her strong voice and bravery, Good Morning America shared her story with the world.
We sat down with Ashley to get her take on how The Motherhood Center’s New and Expecting Moms PMAD Support Group — led by Program Director Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW — helped her from her darkest hours of self-judgement and doubt to a take on new motherhood that made room for self-compassion and imperfection, too.
What “moment” or occurrence ultimately convinced you to sign up for time with The Motherhood Center?
I had been struggling on and off for many months [following the birth of my son] and was unsure of where to turn. A friend happened to send me information on The Motherhood Center because she was interested in an upcoming class. When I visited the website, I realized that the center specializes in treating perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. There was an upcoming support group and I registered to attend.
At the time, I was unsure if this group would be the right fit for me – I still did not know with certainty that I was experiencing postpartum anxiety and depression. I just knew that I needed to do something and this seemed like a step forward.
That first group was difficult for me and I spent much of it crying, but I also felt an immense sense of relief. I had found my people – and they were kind, courageous, intelligent, successful women from all different backgrounds. This was clear evidence for me that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders do not discriminate and are not a reflection of a woman’s strength or character. I needed to learn this in order to have compassion for myself.
Those weekly groups became a key part of my recovery. They helped to pull me out of isolation and normalize what I was going through. Because of [TMC Program Director] Paige and the other mothers in the group, I felt like I had a safety net. That support held me up and gave me strength.
I religiously attended the weekly support groups because every ounce of my being knew that The Motherhood Center was where I needed to be – even on the days that were hard. I still doubted my ability to get better but I knew that if anyone could help me get there, it was the team at TMC. I had previously told my husband that I wanted to get well but was lost – that I needed someone to take my hand and show me the way out. When Paige offered me additional services at the center, she extended me the helping hand I so desperately needed.
When did things start to shift in a positive direction for you?
I think if I had to choose a moment that changed things for me, it would be the first time I met Paige, which was during my second support group meeting. She had a way of making me feel understood and cared for, which is what ultimately kept me returning to TMC.
What was it like to talk to your partner about your PPD?
I am married to a wonderfully caring and supportive man, so talking to him about my struggles felt natural. We have always kept open lines of communication and we maintained that during my struggle with postpartum anxiety and depression. In fact, I think our communication improved during that time. We both recognized that I needed his support and that this was a time when we needed to come together, rather than pull away. Although this was the most challenging experience we have had together, it brought us closer than ever.
One of the most helpful things my husband did was to be a non-judgmental ear when I needed to talk through my feelings. There is a saying that you are only as sick as your darkest secrets. He made it safe for me to not keep secrets. This was so important in my journey to wellness.
What tools did you find most useful for helping yourself while also keeping your partner in the loop (or not)?
The Motherhood Center has provided me with a variety of tools and I have found it helpful to discuss those with my husband. This allowed him to effectively support me when I had a hard time utilizing those tools on my own. It has also been helpful for me to become more informed about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. For a long time, my experience felt very confusing to me. Gaining more information gave me a better understanding of what was happening with me and why. That understanding was immensely comforting and allowed me to reclaim more control of my life. Sharing this information with my husband made it easier for him to process my experience and to support me through it.
On your blog, you described not identifying with PPD because of the misleading belief that one has to have violent thoughts to truly have it. When did you realize and accept that you were also suffering?
I always knew that I was suffering, but I did not initially recognize that suffering as postpartum depression and anxiety. I initially attributed my struggles to having a flawed character. I blamed myself for my experience and thought there was something inherently wrong with me. I finally realized that I was suffering from postpartum anxiety and depression when I saw the commonalities between my experience and the experiences of the other mothers in the support group.
Paige also provided me with accurate information on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and helped to dispel many common myths. Once I was properly educated, it became easier to recognize and accept what was happening. Putting a name to my experience was a relief.
“You are not prioritizing yourself above your child. You are prioritizing yourself for your child.”
What would you tell a new mom who says “I don’t deserve to prioritize myself at this moment — especially above my kid?”
While I understand how difficult it can feel, caring for yourself is crucial in being able to care for your child. You are not prioritizing yourself above your child. You are prioritizing yourself for your child. This journey has taught me that one of the best things I can do for my son is to take care of myself. I am able to be a better mother and to better meet his needs when my needs are met as well. As women and mothers, we often feel guilty for taking care of ourselves. We may feel that prioritizing ourselves takes something away from our families. In reality, it is just the opposite. Caring for ourselves allows us to care for others. The voices telling you that you are undeserving are just the voices of anxiety and depression – they will tell you lies that feel like truths. Don’t listen. You deserve to be happy and well. Your child deserves a mother who is happy and well. With appropriate treatment, you can get there – I promise – and the first step is making yourself a priority.
What other tools has TMC brought into your daily routine / thought practices?
One of the most important things I have learned from TMC is that I am not alone. As a new mother at home with a baby, it is easy to feel isolated. That feeling of loneliness can be magnified by postpartum anxiety and depression. I compared myself to other parents on social media and felt like I was the only one struggling. That feeling – and the shame that accompanied it — led me to isolate myself more and more. I eventually felt paralyzed. I was depressed, in part, because I felt isolated but my anxiety prevented me from taking steps to change that. Joining the PMAD support group was a life-changing decision. Meeting Paige and the other moms in the group helped to normalize my experience. I realized that I was not alone in my feelings and was finally in an environment where it felt safe to be honest. Those groups provided me with the connection I so desperately needed and helped to build my confidence.
TMC has also reminded me of the concept of the “good enough mother”. I remember learning about this theory in my psychology and child development courses, but had failed to apply it to myself. Discussing this concept helped me see that the pressure I placed on myself to be a perfect mother was not only unhealthy for me, but also for my son. Now, when I feel that mom-guilt sneaking up on me, I remind myself that imperfection is actually ideal. My perfectionism was undoubtedly a major contributor to my postpartum anxiety and depression; TMC has helped me to release some of the pressure I place on myself. I now have more realistic expectations.
Self-care has always been a bit of a struggle for me. I have historically had difficulty making time for myself. TMC has helped me to recognize the importance of prioritizing my well-being. I have begun to focus more on healthy eating, exercise, rest, and meditation. I previously felt guilty focusing on self-care. Now I realize that I am a better wife and mother when I care for myself as well. This has also expanded into feeling more confident expressing my needs and setting boundaries as necessary.
Meanwhile, her husband Brian Abeles joined Paige and TMC clinical psychologist Dr. Chuck Schaefer on The Positive Mind podcast to share a partner’s take on dealing with Postpartum Depression and Anxiety.