As a military family life counselor, Patience Riley saw many pregnant or new mothers with depressive symptoms walk through her door. Her father spent his career in the Navy and her husband is an Air Force officer, so she has always had empathy for military families. Soon she would know exactly what those women who came to her office were feeling.
Four days before her husband was deploying to Qatar, the couple found out they were pregnant with their first child. This licensed therapist began her own journey into maternal mental health. Thankfully, she eventually found the support she needed – and her life’s work.
May is National Maternal Mental Health Month, when we shine a light on the challenges that many women face during pregnancy and for the first year after childbirth, the perinatal period, as well as the many opportunities to better support them. Perinatal mental health disorders are widespread. Postpartum depression is the most common complication of childbirth. We can all help women experiencing perinatal mental health symptoms simply by talking about it. It is easy to convince yourself that every other mother on the planet is managing beautifully, that you are uniquely bad at mothering. In the great silence around maternal mental health, these lies can reverberate inside our heads. It’s important to drown them out with some truths.
While Riley was still dealing with her own mental health challenges, she signed up for a training with Postpartum Support International (PSI), where she learned to help women facing similar situations. She volunteered to lead their virtual support group for military moms. Today she leads PSI’s support group on mindfulness.
“I am grateful that I was connected to information on treatment, women who knew exactly what I was going through and a national directory of clinicians who focused on women’s health,” she said.
Not only did her husband deploy early in Riley’s pregnancy, but he later received a promotion that required her and the new baby to move from Nebraska to Florida, while dad was away at training. By her second pregnancy, the family had moved three times in two years. Again, her husband’s service had him flying around the world and away from the family. Riley had a 2 year old to care for, no matter how tired she was.
“COVID-19 isolated us at home when it would have been great to be out meeting friends in a new community,” she said.
Her platelet count was low. If it dipped too far, it would mean that Riley could not have an epidural during labor and that she was at risk of increased bleeding.
“I was well aware that Black women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women. I had heard too many stories of Black women whose health care providers dismissed symptoms and disregarded pregnant women’s wishes. I didn’t want to be ‘the angry Black woman,’ but I also knew that my life could depend on my ability to strongly advocate for myself,” she said.
Riley thought of herself as a hornet during this time, “always mad: at the military, at my husband, mad because deep down I was incredibly sad.” Thankfully, her husband was able to be there when she delivered. But he was soon gone and trying to stay connected by video chat. Every call inspired their older son to throw tantrums and eventually declare, “I’m mad at Dada!” That broke Riley’s heart, she said, because she knew that mad really meant sad.
Friends and relatives would come to Georgia, where the growing family had finally landed, to help out on weekends. Sometimes it felt like Friday would never come. Eventually, Riley decided to pack up her boys and temporarily move in with her parents, where she had a standing invitation.
“I only regret that I did not do it sooner,” she said.
In August, she joined PSI in a communications role, because so much of the challenge is to let women know that they are not alone.
“Every chance I get, I write and speak about what happened to me – because what happened to me could happen to anyone. It doesn’t make us bad moms. It makes us human, and one of the first rules of being human is: You are allowed to ask for help,” Riley added.
Visit Postpartum Support International for resources and support.
This story was written by Colleen ShaddoxRead comments