Mom who overcame crippling postpartum depression now helps others
By Desiree Battaglia, firstname.lastname@example.orgWomen's Health July 06, 2021
It’s been a few years since Allison Showalter experienced crippling anxiety after the birth of her first daughter, Lili. Although she is no longer struggling, she knows other moms are; so she continues to attend the postpartum support group at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital to help guide others.
“I keep going to group to support and encourage new moms, because I remember what it’s like in those early days,” Showalter said. “It means a lot if I can just be a listening ear to someone or give a word of encouragement or advice if they want it.”
Beth Moorhouse Sperry, a clinical social worker certified in perinatal mental health, facilitates the weekly support group. She helps guide conversations among new moms to help them find comfort and connection with their peers. Showalter recalls how important that peer support was during her journey.
“I had so much anxiety the first time I went that I made my mom come with me,” she said. “It took everything for me to put clothes on and go, and I was probably sobbing the entire time. There were two influential members that I’m still very close friends with, Mary and Janelle. I remember Janelle telling me, ‘It will get better, this is not for forever, this is not who you are.’ That was exactly what I needed to hear.”
After struggling with infertility for over six years, Showalter was overjoyed to be pregnant and had a relatively easy pregnancy. However, when it came time to deliver Lili, Showalter experienced complications she describes as traumatic.
“Lili had to be taken to the NICU after she was born,” she said. “All those built up hopes and dreams of skin-to-skin interaction with your brand new baby that you’ve waited so long to see, all of that was taken away. It didn’t go how we hoped or dreamed.”
When Lili came home, Showalter had difficulty breastfeeding and had to take medication for her milk supply. The medication had an increased risk of anxiety and for about 10 days, Showalter only slept a couple hours each day.
“I suddenly became so anxious about everything that I couldn’t even be alone with Lili in my own house,” she said. “For me to not be alone with my own child was so devastating. I was asking myself, ‘Is this the new me?’ and I knew it wasn’t who I was at the core.”
Showalter reached out to her OB/GYN at Northwestern Medicine, who advised a psychiatrist evaluation. She started to work with a psychiatrist and a therapist, and learned about the support group at the hospital. She recalls having difficulty getting over the stigma tied to mental health and perinatal mood disorders.
“The more people I talk to, the more I realize it is way more common than people think, but a lot of people are too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about it.”
Breaking the stigma of mental health disorders is why Showalter wants to share her story and continue to help other moms who are struggling.
“It’s a privilege to now be on the other side of it and encourage someone else, and be the person that Janelle and Mary were for me,” she said. “I remember in those early days, I just needed to hear that even though it is bad now, it will not be this way forever. That’s the approach I try and take with new moms.”
It is estimated that as many as 15 to 20% of pregnant and postpartum women experience a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder. Increasing awareness about treating perinatal mood disorders is a passion for Moorhouse Sperry. When moms can openly share about where they are struggling, it helps take a burden off them and encourages acceptance.
“It helps them know they’re not alone and this is a common issue, and to know they’re not at fault,” she said. “This not only helps moms now, but in the future. An untreated mood disorder can have effects for years.”
Roughly 80% of women experience the “baby blues” after childbirth, which can last for up to two weeks. Postpartum depression, however, is more pervasive and long-lasting. There’s often a misconception that postpartum depression is brought on only by hormonal changes, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.
“Biology and hormones definitely play a factor, but there are also situational stressors,” Moorhouse Sperry said. “Mom may have had a traumatic birth experience, or baby has a medical complication or mom is struggling to breast feed. External stressors such as a move, financial changes or changes to a support system – these are some of the factors that can contribute to a maternal mood disorder.”
No matter the reason, Moorhouse Sperry wants women to know there are many options out there. The support group is one that can help women voice their concerns and find additional options for help, if needed.
“It’s helpful to know that you’re not the only one experiencing something like this,” Showalter said. “Everyone’s story is unique, but at the end of the day we’re all moms walking through this journey of parenthood that has so many ups and downs. It’s important to have a place to go and people to talk to who understand.”
For more information about Northwestern Medicine’s offerings in perinatal care, visit https://www.nm.org/conditions-and-care-areas/womens-health/obgyn/obstetrics/postnatal-care/resources-for-new-mothers.