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Delivered (Part Two): Podcast Transcript

Kaia Findlay
Hi, you've reached the voicemail for team Embodied. This week, we'd love to hear about your experiences during the postpartum period. Leave us a message.

Kyesha Jennings
My name is Kyesha.

Amanda Magnus
Hi, this is Amanda.

Taylor Matthews
Hi, my name's Taylor.

Nick Knittel
Your body is moving at 100 miles per hour, and your mind can only go so fast to keep up with it.

Kate Gardner
By the time she arrived, my nipples were cracked and bleeding. She helped me figure out how to get a proper latch. And I think that...

BB Ware
My theme for this postpartum has been embracing the ambiguity. I am so exhausted, and I'm so grateful.

Amanda Magnus
Do I have PPA, are my hormones just raging right now?

Priyanka Rao
Postpartum images I had were of these women with voluptuous breasts.

Jamie
During my postpartum time, the thing that stands out the most to me, is the staggering vulnerability. I remember in the early days and weeks, just feeling so raw and broken open emotionally, and so directly in touch with the impermanence and fragility and preciousness of life. So, when I think of postpartum, I think about my earliest contact with that visceral, vulnerable, shattering, life-affirming love.

Anita Rao
It was Christmas Eve 2020, and my sister and I were two hours into a five-hour drive for a family beach trip. Her partner couldn't take the time off, so I was serving as the parenting assist for the journey. The 2-year-old was mostly fine until the two-month-old lost her marbles. A diaper change, a feeding session and many lullabies later, things were still total chaos. We went from trying to whack-a-mole outbursts to aiming to find internal zen in an enclosed space with screaming children.

After unloading the car and drinking a glass of wine, I got eight hours of sleep and quiet. My sister, a night of two-hour sleep stretches in preparation for a day when she did it all over again. This parenting thing is relentless. Yes, it is also beautiful and tender and, as they tell me, indescribable. But that never-really-get-a-break feeling, especially in those early months, when you're running on almost no sleep and navigating big unknowns about caring for another human being — it can be a lot, and sometimes too much.

This is Embodied, our show about sex relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

Kyesha Jennings
Taking care of the baby, for me, was the easy part. Dealing with postpartum anxiety, that was challenging AF. My mind would go from zero to 100 quickly. I would have fears of dropping the baby, fears of her stopping breathing, just erratic fears that don't make sense to a normal person who isn't going through postpartum anxiety.

Amanda Magnus
You have to fill out this form at all of your pediatrician appointments and your postpartum appointments. And it asks if your level of anxiety exceeds the situation that you're in. And that's so hard for me to answer. Of course I'm anxious. All of a sudden I have to care for this new person, and I have no idea what I'm doing.

Anita Rao
That was listener, Kyesha Jennings, and our editor, Amanda Magnus, just two of the many people we heard from about their postpartum experiences. You're going to hear more stories as we go along, but I'm going to tell you one recurring theme: struggle. Surging hormones, physical exhaustion and nursing challenges had many new parents feeling the toll on their mental health. Last week, we talked about the physical aspects of the postpartum period. If you didn't catch it, cue it up next to get the full story. But now, it's time to get real about postpartum depression and anxiety and figure out how to better support parents.

BB Ware
I'm currently three months postpartum with my second son. My first time around, I definitely should have seen a therapist. I needed support and help, but in my head, I just was like "Oh, I'm not depressed, I don't need help," and it was rough. This time around, I am fully aware of how much I'm struggling. And just the transition from one to two kids for me, and seeking out help has been really difficult. The lists of people that my midwives and pediatrician gave me, none of them — who were postpartum specific — accepted insurance. I think they deserve to get paid, I can't afford to do out of pocket.

Taylor Matthews
Your entire pregnancy, you have a bazillion doctor's appointments, then as soon as you give birth, it's kind of like "Peace out! Good luck!" So, I found it really difficult to get the care that I think I need postpartum. And also, just not feeling like I matter anymore since I'm no longer carrying a child.

Elice
I tried some therapy sessions, but ultimately, I trusted my midwives, and I started Zoloft. I hadn't been able to bond with my baby, and that really scared me. It took a few months to really feel like myself, but I feel so happy now. And, I finally understand when people say you never knew you could love so much.

Anita Rao
That was BB, Taylor and Elice. Therapy and medication are some of the essential tools for treating postpartum anxiety and depression. But, we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. To solve a problem, you need to recognize a problem.

A'Driane Nieves
After delivery, I remember the first time that they brought him in from the nursery, he started crying. And it felt like there was this fire that just started burning inside of me, and I felt like I wanted to just break out of my skin to escape from it.

Anita Rao
That's A'Driane Nieves. She's an artist. She has three children, but it was during her second pregnancy and postpartum period that she really started experiencing physical manifestations of her anxiety.

A'Driane Nieves
It was a very jarring and disorienting experience, and it was also very confusing to have that type of physical sensation in my body. And it was pretty frequent. And it was usually triggered by kid-related noise, especially if he was crying.

Anita Rao
So you were noticing these symptoms — these feelings in your physical body — and you were part of a church community where there a number of other mothers. And, you started to share a little bit about your mental health concerns. What kind of responses did you hear from folks who you spoke with?

A'Driane Nieves
The majority of the response was silence. At the time, there was even a licensed therapist, who was a pastor at the church. And even she didn't pick up on what I was sharing, or, you know, she didn't identify it as a postpartum mental health issue. Any response that I got, it was really rooted in, you know, "Well, you're just living with the consequences of your actions because you're an unwed single mother with two kids, you're partnered with someone who isn't a Christian." Like, my struggles were pretty much framed as a moral failure, and, you know, as the justification as to why my life was falling apart.

Anita Rao
A'Driane didn't have the resources to diagnose her own issues. Her OBGYN never brought up postpartum depression. Pamphlets in the waiting room mentioned the baby blues, but depicted women looking sad, holding their head in their hands — not exactly her symptoms. But eventually, she did come across a website with descriptions that sounded more familiar. It's a blog about maternal mental health called Postpartum Progress.

A'Driane Nieves
On that website, they had what they call "plain mama English" guides. Those guides explained just the full range and scope of symptoms that can be experienced, whether it's postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD or even postpartum psychosis. Finding that information and reaching out to Postpartum Progress for help, actually got me connected to Postpartum Stress Center in Pennsylvania, and that was the first phase of my treatment.

And then, the second phase was after I had pretty much graduated from therapy, and I considered myself to be in recovery from postpartum depression and anxiety. I started to notice that my symptoms actually were not easing up, and that in many ways, they were getting worse. And over a course of a couple of months, it really just became unbearable. And I knew that if I didn't get intervention immediately that I would not want to continue on with my life.

I remembered that as a veteran, I could go to the VA hospital, and I went to the website and looked to see if they had a mental health clinic, and they did, and it mentioned that they had walk in hours. And so, I got a sitter for my older son, and I strapped my infant to my chest, and got on a bus. Went into the mental health clinic at the VA Hospital in Philadelphia, met with the intake psychiatrist and just started telling him everything that I had been experiencing during that first year.

Anita Rao
A'Driane learned a lot in that intake appointment. Psychiatrists told her that her family and personal history put her at high risk for a mental health condition. He said her intense periods of anxiety and depression growing up were signs that she likely had bipolar II disorder. And importantly, he told her that she wasn't a broken person.

A'Driane Nieves
He said, "So I'm telling you this because I want you to see that this is not your fault, you didn't create this. It's — it's a convergence of nature and nurture, pretty much amplified by you giving birth." And that felt like such a weight off my shoulders. And I found being diagnosed with a rapid cycling onset of bipolar II, to be very relieving to be quite honest with you.

Anita Rao
Yeah, and there — I mean, there's so much in what you just said about acknowledging that there is silence and generational silence around mental health that can impact how you're able to express what you're experiencing, and how people receive you. And then, that getting a diagnosis is only the beginning of a journey. It doesn't mean everything is solved, it means that there's, you know, there's a lot more to come. And, that was true for you, you worked with a number of people. And you eventually had a therapist who really suggested that you work with your hands. You were experiencing some impulses for self-harm, and she knew that you were someone who really liked data and information. So she said, "Okay, there's data that supports doing things with your hands can help." So, tell me about that and what that led to.

A'Driane Nieves
My therapist knew that I was very much into the science behind mental health by that point. And, she was like, "Listen, you know, studies have shown that people who create things with their hands, or do something constructive with their hands, you know, see an improvement in their mood and in their symptoms." And so, that pushed me to try to find something creative to do. And I remembered when I was a kid that I used to use those, you know, really cheap, like, rainbow looms that you would get, you know, for Christmas or for your birthdays. And so, I grabbed my kids, I went to Walmart and I was walking around the craft section looking for yarn. And, on my way to the yarn, I passed a bunch of like cheap craft paint and brushes and these little canvas boards. And just, really on a whim — it was a very fleeting thought and impulse — I just threw some of that stuff in my cart and kept moving to the yarn and the hooks because I was like, "I'm going to crochet." Even though I cannot stand tedious things, and so, crocheting and knitting is very tedious to me. So, needless to say, my experience with crocheting did not last very long.

And I came back from a therapy appointment, and saw that I still had those craft paints and brushes in a bag in a corner of my room, and I pulled them out. And, you know, I just started playing around with paint, you know, using my fingers mostly, to push the paint around on these little canvas boards. But yeah, I just remember in those moments, feeling the paint on my fingers, and pushing it around and, kind of, just getting lost in that. And I remember how quiet my mind became, and that was the start of my experience with using art as therapy.

Anita Rao
I read an interview that you did with an online magazine called Mother Maker, and in it you said, "I want my kids to see their mom not just surviving motherhood or surviving her life, but living it and thriving and pursuing it." And, I really loved this, and I'm curious to hear your reflection on what you wish you could go back and tell your earlier self about your experience now — the self where this type of thriving may have been hard to envision for you. What do you wish that she could hear?

A'Driane Nieves
Oh man, I just started feeling tears. That was unexpected. You know, I would go back and tell her that it's not her fault. And, I would tell her that she's not a failure, and that struggling with your mental health, whether it's postpartum or in general, is not any kind of a moral failure. And I would just tell her to, just, give herself way more grace. And honestly too, I would just, I would really just hold her. And just sit with her. Because I remember just feeling very alone back then.

Anita Rao
Grief and love often go hand in hand in postpartum life. This is how the founder of Pregnancy and Postpartum Athleticism, Brianna Battles put it.

Brianna Battles
For a lot of postpartum athletes in particular, there is a mourning and a grieving of an identity that no longer exists. And again, this is a common theme for all postpartum people — not just someone who identifies as an athlete — where there's been significant change in routine, in abilities, in aesthetics, and in, you know, what we have typically found our self-worth and outlets in.

Anita Rao
We also heard how challenging it can be to run into problems with things you think are supposed to be intuitive, like nursing and feeding.

Kate Gardner
Before giving birth, I remember scheduling a home visit with a lactation consultant. She came to our home the day after arriving back from the hospital. By the time she arrived, my nipples were cracked and bleeding. She helped me figure out how to get a proper latch, and I think that completely saved me and made the breastfeeding experience possible for me.

Anna
I had very little milk supply at first, and he struggled to latch and nurse for me. Two weeks postpartum, I still had very little milk supply, and the doctor started to be concerned that I might still have retained placenta, and so I underwent a DNC procedure. Many people think these are just done as an abortion, or if you have a retained miscarriage, but I found out that they can also be done after you have a baby. But, at 16 months postpartum, I'm happy to report that we have the most positive nursing relationship we've had so far right now. And, thanks to the support of my partner and my family — and Zoloft — I'm doing great.

Anita Rao
That was Kate and Anna. Navigating the challenges of lactation was part of Shannon Purdy Jones' story, and one contributing factor to her postpartum mental health experience after having a traumatic birth.

Shannon Purdy Jones
I don't actually really remember the first time I really tried to breastfeed our son. The combination of the blood loss, the, like, you know, the first couple times trying, I was really out of it. And so, we didn't realize we weren't getting a good latch. All of these factors, kind of, combined to the effect that my breast milk never completely came in. I had planned from day one to to body feed and, you know, had been planning for that and, like, reading up on it. And so, having my body kind of betray me in that way was not something I anticipated at all.

Anita Rao
We first learned about Shannon and her husband Darren's story through our producer Audrey, who works with Shannon at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. Shannon shared that lactation consultants recommended that they try triple feeding: a process where you chest feed, pump, then feed your baby the pumped milk. It didn't go well.

Shannon Purdy Jones
I didn't sleep for the first couple months of our son's life. I was either feeding him, pumping, feeding him, you know, what had been pumped. And then, you know, by then — by the time you finish that process, it's time to feed them again from the breast, and then you're back restarting this process.

Anita Rao
And, it's such a catch-22 because sleep deprivation and the stress impacts your milk supply. And so, you're kind of, like, fighting yourself and in fighting this cycle, and also, fighting the messaging that, you know, you know that there are a lot of health benefits to body feeding. But, you're also coming up against, kind of real, you know, obstacles in taking care of your own mental health if you continue to do this. So, Darren, tell me about, kind of, the breaking point, and then, how you all decided to stop trying to body feed and try formula.

Darren Jones
It was probably two or three months in. We were feeling, I think, very fatigued and overwhelmed at that point, and like we just couldn't do it anymore. We had seen, like Shannon said, a number of lactation consultants — both through the hospital, through our pediatrician. And finally, you know, the last one we saw was like, well, you know, you keep hearing "breast is best." Well, fed is best. And in the office, you know, she made a point to have us feed our son and kind of get through this mental barrier: a bottle of formula. That kicked off another series of events in that, we found out my son had an allergy. So, there was another, you know, 30 or 45 days of not knowing what was going on, and a lot of tummy troubles, a lot of doing circles around our house with the baby on my shoulder trying to comfort him with an upset stomach. And so even, you know, we felt like we get over one hurdle and then face another, and that was really challenging for both of us.

Anita Rao
And this is why I wanted to talk to a couple like Shannon and Darren. When you're juggling so much, how do you keep a relationship together and meet both partners mental health needs? What does it mean for intimacy and sex?

Priyanka Rao
I really had very low sex drive in my postpartum period. I think I just felt so touched-out from spending all day either pumping or actually feeding an infant, that I didn't feel drawn to that sexual connection anymore. That part of our relationship has grown and cultivated again, but has taken time and effort to sort of reconnect to my body and mind in that space. And, same for my partner.

Kyesha Jennings
Trying to adjust to my new identity as a mom and hold on to my identity as a sexual being, at times, felt super impossible. What made it worse was older women in my family making me feel guilty for not having sex with my partner. They totally ignored my emotional and physical needs during the postpartum period, and were prioritizing only my partner's sexual needs.

Anita Rao
That was my sister Priyanka Rao, and listener Kyesha Jennings. Here are Darren and Shannon's thoughts.

Darren Jones
The biggest thing for us I think, was making sure that we stay close to each other in terms of communication — make sure we continue to talk to each other. You know, I was thankful that, you know, throughout this whole period, with the birth of my son, we were able to still have some physical intimacy in terms of like touching each other. You know, sleeping in the same bed as one another, supporting each other in that way, even if we weren't having sexual intercourse. And so, that was still helpful for me as a partner, you know, to kind of get that sense of touch and intimacy from my wife. But, you know, there's this long period of healing physically and healing mentally that had to happen before I think we were ready to, kind of, take that next step.

Shannon Purdy Jones
The biggest thing for me was the mental shift because, obviously, you have that six to eight week physical healing time that has to happen before, you know, any kind of vaginal intercourse can happen. But for me, it was, like, feeling like I was back in myself mentally. Because, you know, I was struggling so much with having like, that sense of inadequacy from not being able to feed my baby. And, not sleeping and, like, all of that, just led to me feeling like I was this inadequate person, because I couldn't do these things. And so really, for me, it was taking, like, figuring out the feeding issues and figuring out, kind of, you know, that it was okay that I couldn't do those things. And that I wasn't inadequate for that, really was what had to happen for me before I wanted any kind of, like, sexual physical intimacy.

Anita Rao
And there's, you know, that direct correlation between the experience feeding and your ability to sleep, if you are having postpartum anxiety or, even if you're not, just worrying about that. We heard from a listener named Elice about that experience. Let's listen.

Elice
If you think about it, sleep deprivation is a form of torture. And when you are sleeping one hour at a time a few times a night, it is impossible to cope with anything — let alone the biggest transition of your entire life. The whole "sleep when the baby sleeps" is one of the most deceptive statements. First, you are having safe sleep content thrown at you from every direction, and that safe sleep does not include the baby sleeping on your chest during your own nap. So, when you have a baby that only sleeps while being held, and you have severe anxiety that something bad will happen to your baby because they're not in that safe sleeping environment, there's really absolutely no chance a mother will be able to sleep when the baby sleeps. I had a birth that I really needed to process because it did not go as I hoped. And those thoughts ran on repeat every time I'd close my eyes. Add sleep deprivation to the roller coaster of hormones and breastfeeding struggles, and you have a recipe for that postpartum anxiety and depression.

Anita Rao
So Shannon, hearing that, I'm curious about what resonates and what the effect of that lack of sleep and that connection to anxiety was on your relationship with Darren.

Shannon Purdy Jones
Darren was a really supportive partner to go through this process with, but even then, you know, you do end up feeling — even with an incredibly supportive partner — you do end up struggling a little bit with some feelings of resentment if you're the birthing partner. Because, even though he was up and, you know, changing diapers, and, like, helping me with whatever I needed, like, it was still — none of this was happening to him. It was all happening to my body, like the feeding struggles, you know, were coming from my body. And you know, that wasn't something he could do or take on or had, you know, on him. And so, even though he was, like, this incredibly supportive, wonderful partner to go through this experience with, I still was like, "Yeah, but it's not you. It's me that this is happening to."

Anita Rao
Totally, and even the most supportive partners, you know, they can't take on some aspects of it. And, that leads to mental health concerns of their own, which is that we heard from a listener named Nick. Let's listen.

Nick Knittel
What surprised me most was how subtle the feelings were. Feeling anxious, tired, depressed. I feel like I was so busy looking for those signs in my partner that I never quite considered how they were affecting me. As for care, I was really good at encouraging my partner to seek the care that she needed for everything regarding postpartum, whether that was just taking the baby so that she had time to go to the gym, or take a walk, or just have a breather to herself. I would say part of the issue was trying to make sure that I am cared for in that same way from myself, by myself. I was in therapy, I'm looking to start it again. There was a simple question of whether or not there's even an hour in the day to carve out for that on top of everything else.

Anita Rao
So Darren, tell me about your own mental health needs in that postpartum period, and how you were processing those?

Darren Jones
Yeah, I mean, I think it was a lot of fatigue and anxiety. You know, the first couple of weeks is a bit of a whirlwind. And, I think I wish I had more memories, because I just felt so tired, all the time. And, there was a bit of, kind of, separation from what was happening, and just kind of going through the motions and trying to get it done. You know, if you're up every hour with your partner in the middle of the night trying to feed, you know, you just — you try to be supportive, try to be there. But, you know, I felt at times like a robot. And so, you know, that's really challenging. I think more than anything, what helped me get through that was just time and starting to see improvement, you know, both in our child and in my partner. It made a world of difference to me. You know, I think that helped kind of keep me going and push me along.

Anita Rao
So, for you all, kind of, knowing that the stress that can happen with sleep deprivation and how that kind of limits your ability to connect, I'm curious about any ways that you kind of instituted to reconnect with each other or have moments together, given that your new parenting experience was going to be now parenting two kids. What did you all do to prepare for that, whether that was within your relationship, or reaching out for external support?

Darren Jones
You know, we had a good support structure in place. You know, both of our mothers were very supportive. And, Shannon's mother lives nearby, and she was wonderful in that process — in giving us some space, or allowing us to take some space for ourselves. That was really helpful. You know, other than that, I just keep reiterating — we try to talk through what was going on, what issues we're having, you know, what, you know, what fears each of us are having with the situation, and how we can help support each other. I think that was the most important thing.

Shannon Purdy Jones
From early on in our relationship, we were very fortunate before we got married that we decided to go to, like, a couple's premarital counseling with a licensed therapist. And, that — like, in our entire relationship, not just navigating the postpartum process both times — has made such a huge difference for us in our relationship. And, if people have the means, like, I would definitely recommend doing that with any partner you're serious with. Because, it gives, yeah, the ability to communicate effectively and express each of our needs to each other. It really, you know, could have potentially saved our relationship going through this process.

Anita Rao
A skill to add to our Embodied life hacks: communication, communication, communication. Shannon and Darren did have a second kid, and that time around, sought out professionals to talk to about their fears of traumatic delivery and feeding. Shannon's experience underlines the need for a better approach to the postpartum period from all systems involved: health care, childcare and workplace support. In the absence of systemic support for postpartum folks, family and friends try to fill the gaps. And, some support is more helpful than others. Shannon remembers exactly what she needed from friends to ease her mental load.

Shannon Purdy Jones
If you're going to go over to somebody's house when they're immediately postpartum, don't go expecting them to, like, entertain you and you just ooh and ah and coo over the baby. Like seriously, if what they need is to sit and breastfeed on the couch while you do the dishes, that's what you should do. You should go into that experience expressing to them, "I am here to give you what you need." So, you should go and tell them like, "Look, do you need to unload about the ugly parts of this?" Like, that's something I always tell, like, any friend of mine that I know is, like, trying to get pregnant or is pregnant — getting ready to have a baby. I say, I will tell them early on in their pregnancy, "Hey, like, I am a safe person for you to come complain to." Like, kind of joking, but kind of not, because people in society, we have this thing about, like, only focusing on the good parts. Like, "It's a gift. It's a blessing. It's, like, these moments you'll cherish forever." I'm like, yeah, it is all those things, but it's also really really hard. Being pregnant is hard. Being immediately postpartum with a new baby for the first time is really hard. So, if you can be that friend that says "Hey, it's okay for you to complain and talk to me about the ugly stuff," like, that can go a long way to giving someone permission to then say, "I'm not okay, I need some help."

Anita Rao
For other parents going through, this here's Shannon's advice.

Shannon Purdy Jones
Be easy on yourself. It's okay if everything is not perfect. It is okay if you try your hardest to body feed and can't. Like, it is okay to give that baby a bottle. It is okay to reach out to people in your life like I did to my mom and say, "I need help, I haven't slept in weeks." You know, it is alright to cut yourself some slack.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and Audrey Smith. Amanda Magnus is our editor, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

If you enjoyed this show, check out the first part of the series on the physical aspects of postpartum, and send the episode to a couple friends who you think would like to hear them. Thanks so much to everyone who contributed their thoughts and experiences to this show and the whole series: Jamie, Amanda, Kyesha, Taylor, Elise, Brianna, Nick, Priyanka, Kate and BB. Thank you.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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