This Sunday, January 25, will see the launch of “No Flaws, Only Human”, Portage Babywearing’s new social media campaign to raise awareness about postpartum mental illness in the babywearing community. The project, which derives its name from the common babywearing By/Sell/Trade phrase “no flaws that I can see, but I’m only human”, aims to draw our attention towards those issues that so many of us experience beneath the surface, hidden to the outside world, to our friends, our families, and perhaps even to ourselves.
I may be helpful at this point to review some terms. Postpartum Mental Illness, or PPMI, is an umbrella term used to describe the category of disorders that are often experienced leading up to and immediately following the birth of a child. Postpartum depression, or PPD, is one of the more commonly known disorders. Others that are grouped in this category are Postpartum Anxiety Disorder, Postpartum Panic Disorder, Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Postpartum Bipolar Disorder, Postpartum Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Postpartum Psychosis. I share this information as it is important to realize that so many of our experiences do not neatly (not that there’s anything neat about them) fit the classical description of depression. A woman struggling with PPMI may be sad, but she also may be angry, or fearful, or distracted, or manic. Some women report seeing vivid images of something terrible happening to their babies. Some have nightmares reliving their birth trauma. Some forget seemingly unforgettable things. Some develop irrational thoughts and as a result hurt themselves or their children.
As a result of this lack of understanding, postpartum mental illness is often tragically overlooked. The CDC estimates that PPMI occurs in 11-20% of women who give birth, but only 15% of women with symptoms ever receive treatment. Lest my italics not come through, let me repeat that. 15%. That means that in your La Leche League gathering, your BWI Chapter meeting, your Mommy and Me Yoga class of 20 women, one or two of them will be struggling with their mental health following the birth of their child. In your giant International Babywearing Week celebration of 100 women, between 10 and 20 of them will be suffering. And only one may be getting help.
A large and growing body of research exists about postpartum mental disorders, but very little has focused on the impact of the specific practice of babywearing on recovery rates for mothers. We do know, empirically, that physical touch, for infants of depressed mothers, can serve to help infants compensate for the “negative effects often resulting from [depressed mothers] typical lack of affectivity (flat facial and vocal expressions) during interactions.” (Pelaez-Nogueras, et al). We also know that skin to skin contact during the postpartum period can reduce depressive symptoms and physiological stress in depressed mothers. (Bigelow, et al), and that Kangaroo Care in preterm infants can help mothers feel more competent and cope more effectively with stressful situations. (Tessier). We know that the practice of babywearing, in low income mothers, can increase mother’s responsiveness to their infant’s cues and can significantly strengthen maternal-infant attachment (Anisfeld). And, very importantly, we know that babywearing can significantly reduce fussing and crying in infants (Hunziker).
In addition to the empirical data, many of us carry around some nuggets of anecdotal data. I’d like, now, to share mine.
My first child was born in September 2010, at the beginning of my husband’s second year of seminary. Since he was a full-time student, I was a full-time working parent. When Jack was six weeks old, I went back to work. I hated being away from him, hated pumping my breastmilk, hated falling asleep at my desk in the middle of the day because the little guy had figured out reverse cycling and kept me up nursing most of the night (though I secretly cherished those bleary eyed snuggles, knowing he wanted me enough to throw schedules out the window just to be with me). I believe I survived those days because of the fantastic village of the seminary where we lived, and also because of babywearing. Before I returned to work, the act of figuring out the Moby wrap and being able to take a walk down our New York City block for coffee reminded me that I was a whole person, and a competent mother, and that I could develop a new life with this precious little new life now outside of my body. After I returned to work, wearing Jack helped us to reconnect at the end of the day. It helped me to soothe him without the use of my terribly tender breasts, and it helped to boost my milk production when pumping had become such a challenge. It also helped my husband, the primary caregiver, bring our son to class with him and strengthen their bond on a daily basis.
Fast forward two years (and they did feel as if they were on fast forward) to the birth of my daughter. Natalie came into the world five weeks after my husband’s graduation, four weeks after his ordination, and three weeks after we moved away from our seminary village in the city to a suburb in Westchester county. Life was a whirlwind already, and then I had a baby and a toddler. With me. All day, every day. My identity as competent working mother had gone out the window, replaced with this exhausted, overwhelmed, angry woman who constantly smelled like sweat and spit up. I would sit at the breakfast table and stare at my cup of coffee until it was cold, then rouse myself only to make more. I survived on Luna bars and the scraps left behind from Jack’s meals. A good day meant going to Target without yelling at anyone. And then, every couple of weeks, I would feel good for a few days. Like, really good. So good that I would rearrange the furniture, or decide to potty train Jack, or take up running when neither my body or Natalie’s was ready for it. The only way we all survived those rollercoaster days was with the help of babywearing. With Natalie strapped to my chest, I could not ignore her needs. I could nurse her without even having to hold her (and on those worst days, I probably couldn’t have held her). I could follow my manic impulses without missing her very polite little cues. And when I was completely touched out from caring for two grabby little people under the age of two, I could put her up on my back, high enough to see her in the mirror and feel her breath on my neck, but not have to actually feel her skin on mine or gaze into her painfully beautiful brown eyes. And she would still be soothed, and her brain would still be nurtured by the motion of my body.
On my bad days, I thought there must be something wrong with me, but then I would start to feel better and decide I was fine. Until I felt worse again. It took my sister, who was coming to understand her own postpartum anxiety disorder, to convince me to seek help. I found a therapist, who diagnosed me with Postpartum Bipolar Disorder. She helped me understand a lot about how my thoughts, feelings, and behavior worked together and helped me develop the tools I needed to cope with my down days. Then after about a year of therapy and lots of skirting around the obvious reality of my mood swings, I decided that I deserved to really feel better, and I saw a psychiatrist. She prescribed an anticonvulsant medication that is also used to manage Bipolar Disorder, and lo and behold, I actually felt better. And I’ve stayed feeling better.
As I work with more and more women, I’m getting better at catching little glimpses of their pain slipping through the surface. Perhaps you’ve noticed this as well, in other or in yourself. If so, you should know that there is help. The organizations listed below are rich resources for peer support and information. Please poke around these websites. See if anything reaches you.
Postpartum Progress (link to http://www.postpartumprogress.com/)
Postpartum Support International (http://postpartum.net)
Partum, Me (http://www.partum.me)
Scary Mommy (http://www.scarymommy.com/)
Birth Trauma Association (http://www.birthtraumaassociation.org.uk)
Solace for Mothers (http://www.solaceformothers.org)
National Postpartum Depression Hotline
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Finally, if some of what I’m describing sounds like your experience, please find yourself a therapist (http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_search.php). You deserve it, and so does your baby.
One of the most powerful ways a suffering mother can experience a fragment of relief is to know that she is not alone. There is not a single woman I’ve spoken with about her experience who wasn’t moved when she realized that someone else in her life had felt the same. This “me too!” effect is why I believe the No Flaws, Only Human project will be so successful. As we see the Internet light up with #noflawsonlyhuman and the simple silouhette profile picture, I expect that we will all feel a little more supported, a little more open, and a little more safe.
Christie J. E. Chapman is a Volunteer Babywearing Educator, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and mother to two adorable worn hellions. Her social work practice focuses on supporting mothers and families through the birthing year and beyond. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the web at http://www.chapmanlcsw.com.
Anisfeld E, Casper V, Nozyce M, Cunningham N. (1990) Does infant carrying promote attachment? An experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development of attachment. Child Development 61:1617-1627.
Bigelow, A., Power, M., MacLellan-Peters, J., Alex, M. and McDonald, C. (2012). Effect of mother/infant skin-to-skin contact on postpartum depressive symptoms and maternal physiological stress. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, 41: 369–382.
Hunziker UA, Garr RG. (1986) Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics 77:641-648.
Pelaez-Nogueras M, Field TM, Hossain Z, Pickens J. (1996). Depressed mothers’ touching increases infants’ positive affect and attention in still-face interactions. Child Development, 67, 1780-92.
Tessier R, M Cristo, S Velez, M Giron, JG Ruiz-Palaez, Y Charpak and N Charpak. (1998) Kangaroo mother care and the bonding hypothesis. Pediatrics 102:e17.