The power of peer support in postpartum recovery
Reprinted from the Recovery: Living Your Bestish Life issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (4), pp. 18-19
My whole world shattered when my son was born. Holding him in my arms for the first time I knew I would make any sacrifice to keep him safe. Over those first weeks and months I set aside all thoughts of my own well-being and dedicated myself to giving him every ounce of my energy.
As sleep deprivation took hold, as I wore myself to exhaustion battling my body's refusal to produce enough milk and as distressing, intrusive thoughts made any deviation from my carefully organized days increasingly stressful, I slowly slipped into depression.
Despite having a history of anxiety and depression I didn't recognize my mental health decline for what it was. Rather than seeking support for postpartum depression and anxiety, I cultivated the belief that I was a bad mother, unsuited to the job of parenting. I was plagued by guilt, anxiety and persistent thoughts that I was failing my baby in a million ways. I no longer knew who I was.
There was no joy in my life, just endless worry about how to be a better mother and exhaustion so deep that I felt physically ill. I was often startled by the power of my own rage. I was an introspective and empathetic person who rarely yelled, but in those first two years postpartum I would be overcome with rage that stemmed from my own self-neglect and unmet needs. My family bore the undeserved brunt of my anger.
I distinctly remember a night when my son had already woken up for the second time. I couldn't imagine having to get out of bed yet again to coax him back to sleep. By that point I hadn't slept more than two to three hours in a row for over a year. I lay in bed sobbing and wishing that I would die. I wanted lightning to strike me—anything that would free me from my sleep deprivation and grief. In that moment it finally became clear that I needed help.
After that night of begging the empty darkness to let me die, I began actively searching for healing and started the challenging process of making myself a priority in my own life. I joined a mindfulness-based stress reduction course and sobbed during a loving-kindness meditation when I realized how little love and compassion I had offered myself since giving birth. I sought private counselling and tried cognitive-behavioural therapy, where I came face to face with the cruelty of my own inner monologue. I signed up for a parenting course, took my husband to couples counselling, joined a gym and went on a retreat. And while all of these things played a part in my recovery, the thing that turned my whole life around was peer support.
Shortly after my son turned one and I admitted that I was suffering from postpartum depression, I called the support line at Pacific Post Partum Support Society in Vancouver. My memory of the call is hazy, but I recall that I felt heard for the first time as I spilled out my postpartum story. I was able to join a peer support group soon afterwards and that circle of women saved me. The group facilitator and the other mothers in the room created a safe space for me to come back to myself.
The shape of that room and the presence of the other people in it now form one of my core memories. I can see the couches, feel the warmth of a mug of tea in my hands and remember exactly what it was like to work through the painful pieces of my parenting journey without judgment. I cried and raged and made room for my grief.
Slowly, I learned just how radical the act of self-care is for parents who are taught to embrace selflessness and sacrifice. Self-care is not frivolous or selfish. It is an essential practice that involves actively constructing a foundation of support. At the Post Partum Society we talk about this foundation having three pillars: caring for yourself, receiving help from your community, family and friends, and accessing structural care from organizations, institutions and clinical care providers. What self-care looks like will be different for everyone, and the greatest work I did postpartum was discovering a system of self-care that provided me with the most solid foundation possible.
Over the months I spent in peer support I rewrote the story of who I was as a mother. I rejected the narrative of the perfect mother that I had been forcing on myself and discovered who I might be as a “good enough” mother—one who gave as much space to meeting her own needs as she gave to her children. Being able to tell my story and then revise it again and again gave me the strength to claw my way back to the surface of my life. Eventually I began to experience moments of joy in my role as a new parent.
As I was preparing to wrap up my time in peer support I started to think that maybe one day I would be well enough to support others going through challenging postpartum adjustments. It was a goal I held on to during the years when I was at home with young children. When my second child was three I joined the staff at Pacific Post Partum Support Society, where I am now a telephone support worker and group facilitator. The beauty of coming full circle is not lost on me. Enduring those dark days postpartum was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but the struggle resulted in gifts as well. My experience can be of value to others, and I feel more confident in my ability to weather difficult times.
I continue to tell my story and to talk openly about postpartum depression and anxiety because I know that silence serves no one. Hearing a story that echoes your own is fundamental to healing and knowing that you are not alone. I was upheld by the stories of other mothers, and I pass my own story on whenever I can, gifting it to the parents who will come after me. And my days are so much brighter than I ever could have imagined.
About the author
Andrea is mom to a 10-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. She suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of her first child and now works for the Pacific Post Partum Support Society. She holds a master’s in literature from UBC and lives on the Fraser River