The day I heard about Emily Dyches’ tragic accident was the moment I felt a call to do something. As I sat sobbing on the edge of my bed, I felt a powerful force connecting my heart to Emily’s heart, as if I knew her well, like a cord drawing me to other women like her and like me. This was a clear cry from somewhere very real, a plea “to build villages,” to let moms and all women know that we are not alone, and there is hope.
Gratefully, we know that there are answers for those going through perinatal mood disorders like postpartum depression, perinatal anxiety, PTSD, and OCD. Truly, healing is just around the corner, especially when we find a way to unite our hearts with those who understand. The aching desire that began in my soul that day was that no mom, no woman, should feel alone. Of course, Emily wasn’t alone, but because her family senses that she would surely have benefitted from more awareness and better access to the most helpful resources, Emily has become a symbol of the need to build a village where women can invest together in healing.
A few years ago, Hannah* told me that she had finally reached out to someone who lived nearby telling them that she couldn’t get through the day alone with the excruciating thoughts that were racing through her mind as she sat trying to nurse a sick baby, with a demanding toddler screaming to be fed as well. Unfortunately, the answer on the other end of the line was, “Welcome to motherhood, honey!” Sadly, this answer lacked the understanding that, though feelings of desperation are common, they are not normal or healthy. Amazingly, Hannah took courage again, this time trying to explain to her doctor how the voices in her head nearly caused her to crash on the freeway. His response was, “Anyone with a smile like yours must be doing fine.” Tragically, this doctor’s response demonstrated the ignorance of knowing that it is often the mom who looks the most “put together” that we may most need to worry the most about. It is very possible that she is putting on the make-up, the heels, and the smile in an effort to keep from collapsing, striving to maintain the appearance of independence, while her core is drowning. Thanks to recent awareness efforts around perinatal mood disorders, Hanna would probably be taken more seriously if she were to reach out for help today, and hopefully, someone may have even have the preventative insight to ask how she was really doing, likely avoiding terrible suffering and even tragedy by surrounding her with love and practical support, (such as nutritious meals, visits, and breaks from her toddler and baby.)
Roberta* told me that she takes an antidepressant though her last trimester of pregnancy because of her former experience with depression in her last pregnancy. Her doctor had also openly explained that this put her at risk for postpartum depression. She felt empowered to deal with this, as it was being addressed early on, and she had spoken to me as her doula about wanting additional emotional support. Throughout her last trimester and into the postpartum weeks, we discussed articles and books on the topic together, and I regularly checked in to see how her “self-care” was coming along. Was she staying hydrated, supplementing with Omega 3s, going for walks, and getting enough sleep? And when was the last time she had been able to laugh? Deliberately, we discussed Roberta’s plan for who would be there to help following the birth and how she and her husband could have time alone together each week. A few weeks after her precious baby girl arrived, things were going quite well until the day Roberta received a devastating phone call about the tragic death of her sister. I enfolded her in my arms as she broke down and eventually went into a sort of shock or numbness that wouldn’t begin to wear off until days following the funeral. She spiraled downward into sadness and anger and found it difficult to connect with her baby and older child. Often, she felt anxious around people and frequently experienced panic attacks, especially in social situations. Roberta’s closest friends and neighbors were aware of her struggles and offered support by checking in, taking over a few household tasks, and bringing in occasional meals. On one of her darkest days, Roberta bravely picked up her phone and began dialing numbers of friends until one of us answered. I couldn’t understand what she was trying to say, but I could tell she was at a breaking point and maybe in some immediate trouble. Calmly, I told her it would be okay and that I would be right there. When I arrived, I found Roberta sitting in despairing darkness, on her lonely bed, with her quiet baby lying next to her. Between broken sobs, Roberta confided that she was fearful for her children and herself because of the thoughts that had been torturing her mind. I wrapped my arms around her again and assured her that these feelings were common with what she was going through and that it did not mean that she was a bad mom. It only meant she needed more help. When I walked outside of Roberta’s house, I saw her neighbor coming to meet me, and we called another friend to come and stay with Roberta until her husband came home. The three of us (part of Roberta’s “village”) planned who would check on her each day of the following weeks, and Roberta agreed to make appointments with her doctor and therapist to follow up on the best treatment. The days and months were long, but Roberta incrementally and steadily recovered, primarily because she knew she had a foundation of support that she could rely on. Joyfully, I look back on the day Roberta posted a video of herself making her darling baby girl laugh as one of my very happiest occasions since I became part of the “village building effort.”
Suddenly, Jacie* found herself far from home, living in the U.S., with a new tiny baby, married to an American whose culture, language, and home in a winter climate were completely unfamiliar to her. In South America, she had been surrounded by constant love and social interaction, but now she suffocated in an isolated apartment throughout the day, not knowing any of her neighbors. Several of my friends who were aware of her situation drove to check on her from time to time and offered to help with the baby. Gradually, they began to notice signs of depression and decided to ask if I could somehow help her. I was surprised that Jacie agreed to let me visit, as I was a stranger to her. I think she viewed me as a sort of counselor and a professional who could rescue her. I kindly explained that I was “just a postpartum doula” and that I could help her find resources and be there with her as she became well. As she shared experiences of pain and fear, her heart opened to someone for the first time, it became apparent that Jacie had been through several traumas since the birth of her baby. I pointed out to her that she had many of the symptoms for mood disorders listed on my papers from the Utah Maternal Mental Health Collaborative. I helped her locate a few therapists in the area that would accept her insurance. Fortunately, I was still with Hannah when her husband came home, and he was surprised that we were talking about such serious issues, as he had “no idea” that she had been struggling so severely. I gave the two of them an “assignment” to call their doctor and helped Jacie to make a list of people she could ask for specific help, and finally, I demonstrated ways to exercise with her baby boy inside, through the rest of the cold winter, explaining that this benefits moms by producing some of the “happy chemicals” that our brains need to be healthy. One week later, as Jacie and I walked to my car after attending her first support group, she turned to me with a fresh light in her eyes and exclaimed, “I loved that so much! Thank you for bringing me here. I didn’t know that other moms feel the way I do. It helps so much to hear their stories.” That was another incredible moment when I witnessed the magical progress a village can bring about.
After hearing about this “village world,” Kay*, my best friend from high school, asked, “Where was this when I needed it?” My heart broke for her because I realized that I had been in my own world of going at it alone with my own babies, and I wasn’t available to be there or even see her need. Kay’s mood disorder came from getting next-to-zero sleep for about six months, and being completely at a loss of what to do with a more-than-fussy baby who rarely calmed down long enough to sleep for more than an hour at a time. Kay describes how she was raised to be “fiercely independent,” and how that became a trap for her after becoming a mother. Now that Kay is healing from this experience, she talks about how she wishes that she had known that there was such a thing as “Rent-a-Grandma” or a postpartum doula, who could give relief to sleep deprived moms. When I ask for what advice she would give to moms who are suffering emotionally, she pleads, “Believe that there is someone who wants to help you, and let them help you.” With tears in her eyes, she honestly expresses, “I would drop anything on my schedule to hold a baby for four hours so any mom can get some sleep and reset her brain.”
Today we no longer have the natural village around us that nature intended us to have, but as women, sisters, and mothers, we are still villagers to the core. Therefore, building creative, consistent, and compassionate villages is our life and soul saving call. Emily Dyches and a multitude of women who relate to her story would agree: nothing could be more worthwhile!
*Names and circumstances have been changed to protect privacy.