Suffering in Silence
I feel really motivated and excited to help other women have a better experience...
I’m Jess. I'm a mother of two wonderful young kids. My son was born at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and I'm also a practicing physician and maternal newborn health advocate.
Before I had my kids, I imagined new motherhood as this wonderful life changing positive experience. Of course, I knew it was going to be a struggle. But I didn't realize how hard it would actually be.
After I had my first child Addy, she was two months old when I started my neonatology training at Penn, and I think the first warning sign that I had that I was having anxiety began just a couple of days after I gave birth to her. I started having these intense nightmares that I can still remember pretty vividly.
In one of them, I was holding Addie in my arms and walking down my stairs and accidentally let go of her. She tumbled down the stairs and hit her head on the hardwood floor. In another dream, I was going to the grocery store with her, and I left her in the grocery store, and I didn't realize that I had left her until I got home and I realized she was lost forever. I remember waking up in a sweat, in a panic, after having these dreams and feeling like the walls were collapsing into me. And I think, looking back, I was having panic attacks, and this was an early warning sign that later down the line I would ultimately develop postpartum depression and anxiety.
70 to 100% of new moms, studies show, have intensive intense dreams like this, intrusive thoughts, scary thoughts that just sort of come and go. Sometimes it leads to a postpartum mood disorder, and sometimes it doesn't. I think other factors that contributed to my struggles personally was that, I was just starting a new job, I moved to a new house, I didn't know anybody in the city, I didn't have any close friends. Moving to a new place really contributed to that feeling of isolation, and this might be how some moms are feeling now, especially with COVID. The intense isolation, not knowing where to turn, not feeling comfortable turning to anybody...
When I first started my neonatology fellowship, I had all these colleagues that I looked up to, and I felt like if I opened up to them about my struggles that they would see me as weak or incapable of doing my job. And so I just kept everything in for way too long. Some of the other factors that I think contributed to the stress was that I had a lot of trouble breastfeeding both of my babies. I was so stubborn, and being a pediatrician neonatologist taking care of babies and moms for a living, I was like, "I’m giving her breast milk. I’m not giving her any formula.” And so I let her scream in hunger for about a week, and finally my lactation specialist showed up on my doorstep.
I remember her vividly. She was this old woman holding this huge black bag with her heavy scale in it. And I don't know how she carried that thing around. I opened the door and I just started bawling. In relief, really, because I was like I need help and I don't know where to turn. And I was so relieved to have help.
With my second child, I was in the middle of my fellowship and I got to this breaking point. I was just so miserable. I did finally turn to an older female physician who had mentored a lot of younger female doctors and she said to me, “It is okay if you stopped pumping. It is okay if you take a break from work for a little bit. It is okay.” And she just relieved that guilt and that pressure off of my shoulders and I finally sought help for the depression and anxiety. I got connected with a therapist. I finally got out of this really dark period in my life.
I realized later on when I started becoming more open about my story, that people really close to me were struggling with the same thing at the same time, but none of us were talking to each other about it. And I think that there's so much stigma around this topic, especially in professionals. In the media, you see stories about a postpartum woman who drowns her kids in the bathtub. But we don't hear about those women who are suffering in silence, the women who have mild to moderate symptoms sort of like me. Underneath what's posted on social media, women are struggling. It’s okay to be a mess. It's okay to share.
I'll just share a short story about how I cried over spilled milk. I was pumping one night when I was on call. My pager went off with an emergency. I pull off the pump equipment, take care of the patient, and run back to find a puddle of spilled milk on my desk. And I cried so hard. I just remember that experience and feeling like, there's gotta be a better way to support moms. Now that I'm more open and I talk to my patients about my own experience, they are just so much more open and honest with me. When I'm vulnerable, they’re vulnerable.
Ultimately, if there was a perfect program out there, I would have liked somebody within the medical system to reach out to me, be proactive, and check in on my emotional health.
The way I began to heal was recognizing that it was an issue. Talking to a therapist for me personally was really, really beneficial. I'm feeling great now, and I feel really motivated and excited and inspired to help other women have a better experience. Now !’m pouring my energy from those experiences I had, into helping other women.
The Penn Medicine Listening Lab is a storytelling initiative that embraces the power of listening as a form of care. While the stories featured here aspire to uplift and empower, they may also describe experiences of trauma and suffering. We recognize that listening can be a vulnerable experience and offer resources at Penn Medicine and beyond through our website for those in need of support.
Tags: Empowering Communities