“Having a baby was the worst mistake I have ever made.”
This was among the distorted thoughts my dear friend Samantha Casper had following the traumatic birth experience of her daughter, Charley, in 2017. Sam had a history of anxiety and OCD during adolescence, but never expected to experience the severe feelings she had when she became a mother.
Mental health shifts during early motherhood are not rare, however. Studies show that up to one in five women experience a mood disorder during the perinatal period of pregnancy and the first year after a baby is born. In fact, per data released last year, there was a documented increase of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) and serious mental illness among delivering women in the United States between 2006 and 2015. Still, many symptoms remain misunderstood and stigmatized.
For the first three months following Charley’s birth, Sam knew she felt bad but was unable to get the right help despite having a loving partner and other family members. She felt she was on a wild goose chase looking for the right support and that no one understood how strongly she felt that she was living in an emergency. Samantha felt no joy about or connection to her baby. She had thoughts that she did not want to live because she was so disgusted with herself for feeling terrible when she had always wanted to be a mother.
After a few months and with the assistance of a cousin trained in mental health, Sam was able to advocate for herself to get the help she needed. She was ultimately diagnosed with severe postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – which is now known to affect more than 15% of women who are pregnant or have recently given birth – as well as postpartum depression (PPD) – which is characterized by feelings of sadness and despair at more intense levels than the expected hormonal changes presumed by the “baby blues.” To feel better, she underwent intensive treatment involving psychotropic medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Over time, she built confidence in herself to bond with and be responsible for her daughter. She learned to give herself grace for her flaws and fears and to celebrate her accomplishments as a mother, whether they were big or small.
Many mothers do not feel comfortable admitting to their feelings of sadness, fear, rage, or other emotions that can be signs they need help when it comes to their mental health. Yet having an outlet for these feelings is essential to improving them. Samantha is proud to share her story, to help ensure that others feel less isolated and that they can access support. She regularly shares her experiences as a PMAD survivor and maternal mental health advocate on Instagram and at events.
Sam’s journey to healthy motherhood was featured in Baby Ever After, a book about expanding one’s family after postpartum depression. She also recently launched a line of beautiful mommy & me necklaces with jewelry designer Joie DiGiovanni. The necklaces represent the hope, love, strength, and light after maternal mental health struggles; a portion of the proceeds from their sales are donated to a fundraiser by stand-up comedian and postpartum depression survivor Angelina Spicer to produce The Push for Permission, a documentary featuring other PPD survivor moms with the goal of bringing awareness and accessibility to perinatal mental health treatment.
Happily, and with the support of professionals and loved ones, Samantha welcomed her second child (a son named Brooks) in 2020. She is a happy, loving, goofy, and proud full-time mother to her children, who are usually climbing all over her – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Sam continues to be open about her struggles as a mom and how she works on overcoming them by accessing support through parent groups and other forms of therapy. She makes herself available to speak with struggling moms whenever they need.
Sam and I share the commitment to helping moms (and all parents) feel healthy and learn how to advocate for themselves if they feel they are not. Postpartum Support International (PSI), a fantastic organization for whom I volunteer, offers various free resources including a Mental Health Discussion Tool that you can use to check in with yourself and your medical and mental health providers. We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get support and to build your village; as PSI’s motto indicates: You are not alone. With help, you will be well.
Lauren A. Tetenbaum, LMSW, JD works with parents & aspiring parents, millennials, young adults, and teens. She is intensively trained in and passionate about maternal mental health.