Jennifer Norris-Hale is a perinatal mental health advocate and Founder of The Greater Good of Northeast Indiana. Following her 2019 TEDx Talk “Raising Mothers: It Takes a Village where she shared her isolating experience with postpartum depression, the outpouring of response from other moms was so enormous that it inspired her to set up a community initiative for new moms, Mission: Motherhood

It was through her own struggles with postpartum depression that Jennifer realised that new mothers these days don’t have enough support. Maternal mental health conditions are the most common complications of pregnancy and childbirth, affecting 1 in 5 women – which is a very sad statistic. It is essential that we talk about perinatal mental health and raise awareness, so new moms don’t have to suffer in silence.

Jennifer knows first hand how isolating postpartum depression can be. When she became a mom she was living in New York having a successful career and a very busy life – which she absolutely loved. But motherhood was a different territory: “When I had my son I had this huge battle of career vs motherhood. It was really hard. Also, there was so much unexpected trauma surrounding his birth, and I didn’t know how to process it.”

She didn’t realise she was slipping into postpartum depression, even though she had been dealing with anxiety and seeing a therapist for a long time: I remember having so many racing thoughts, and talking to my therapist, reading about postpartum depression and not thinking that it applied to me.” 

It is common for mothers not to realise they’re suffering from postpartum depression – this is why it’s so important to share these stories. Mental health issues can look different for everybody. As Jennifer says, it’s not just depression or anxiety – it’s centred around your experience of motherhood, and shows itself in many different ways.

Eventually Jennifer reached out and got help. According to her, this is the hardest part: understanding that you need help. “When I had my son I still wanted to work 60 hours a week, and I was just not accepting those changes. And nobody was there. I got help, reaching out and saying I’m not OK, I need medicine. And my partner was supportive, but he also didn’t know what was going on. A lot of it was just getting over my own ego that I’m not superwoman, I don’t have to be everything.”

“I have to talk about postpartum depression”

By 2019 Jennifer had given up her New York life and was living back in Indiana close to her family again. She just had her third baby, and this time she didn’t develop postpartum depression. When she decided to take the TEDx stage in Fort Wayne she originally wanted to talk about community and engagement, being already involved in volunteering and community work. But one day, as she was holding her baby she realised that sharing her story about postpartum depression is what she should do instead:

“When holding him, suddenly that weird feeling washed over me and I thought ‘why are we not talking about postpartum depression? I’m here and my family is around me and I still feel lonely.’ And I didn’t have depression with him, but what I experienced with my first son was coming back to me. It was just one of those moments, and I was like ‘I have to talk about postpartum depression’ because as a mom here, in the middle of Indiana, nobody is talking about it.”

The more we talk about postpartum depression, the better. There is still not enough awareness in the wider community about perinatal mental health – but sharing our stories can help that. As mothers, we’re all in this together – and if we don’t speak openly and honestly, if we don’t share our stories about our motherhood journeys, then we are doing each other a huge disservice.

The truth is, perinatal mental health conditions don’t just affect the mother: they have far-reaching implications affecting the wellbeing of the baby, the relationship between the parents and the family unit as a whole, and through that they have implications on the wider society as well. All the more reason to talk about them.

“Once I shared my story so many people came to me and shared their own stories” says Jennifer. “And I’m not the type of person to sit back and say ‘I guess there’s nothing I can do’ so I really wanted to advocate. That’s how I got involved with Mission: Motherhood.”

R.A.I.S.E. – Reverence, Awareness, Inclusion, Support, Education

Jennifer came up with the acronym R.A.I.S.E. to highlight how we as a community can help raise mothers with Reverence, Awareness, Inclusion, Support, and Education.

There’s not enough awareness and support for mothers. I really wanted to find a way that could teach the general community about motherhood, and being respectful to mothers and giving them grace and understanding. I’d like to give people something to think about when they’re interacting with someone who is a mom, because we’re not gonna just come out and say ‘I’m having the worst day, and I feel like a bad mom.’ We’re not gonna come out and say that. But if you can understand some of what moms are going through, we can start to create that increased awareness.”

Community awareness is key. As a community, we’re interacting with mothers on a daily basis – ordinary people, friends, family, strangers in the grocery store or work colleagues can all be moms as well. A small act of kindness, showing some empathy, giving a compliment, or simply asking “How are you doing?” can make a difference to that mom.

Another area Jennifer highlights is reverence:

“The importance of motherhood has fallen by the wayside. We can educate all we want, but if we don’t place any importance on mothers, we’re not doing anything to help them.”

She is spot on: as a society we need to acknowledge mothers and what they do. The work of a mom goes far beyond feeding or nappy changing. Mothers are raising the next generation, and all the invisible and intangible work they do is equally important.

In our modern society, being a mother is not easy. The support network of the wider family that always used to be there is no longer available for most moms. People move around for work and extended families don’t live close together any more. The push and pull between career and family is very real, and women often have to make a choice because they just can’t do both. As Jennifer explains, as a society we haven’t caught up to these changes:

“As a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s you were kind of raised that you could do it all. We had a lot of opportunities and choices and things that we are very grateful for – but when it comes to having a baby it changes everything, and a mother shouldn’t have to make a choice between her family or her career. There’s a lot of work to be done, moving those conversations forward.”

Mothers can’t do everything – nobody can. They also need someone to help them and take care of them. Jennifer remembers how her doctor reminded her of this: “On that day when I felt like I was just completely falling apart, my doctor said something like ‘women need wives’, so that they can help take care of themselves.” Moms also need people to take care of them – something Jennifer is implementing in her own community.

Community programs

The traditional support networks might not be there any more – but we can create new ones through community initiatives. This is exactly what Jennifer is doing through Mission: Motherhood: “I’m trying to create an added support system for moms, a program that reinstates that sense of community that’s so lacking.”

One way of providing support for moms is through a mentoring program: Motherhood Mentors are community volunteers who offer emotional and practical help and support to a new mom. The new mom is matched with another mom in the community, and the mentor mom checks in on her mentee regularly via text or call. “It’s about building a relationship so that the new mom has someone else in the community who she can reach out to, someone who can offer support to her without judgement.”

In-person support groups are also starting in September in partnership with other organisations, something Jennifer is very excited about. It’s certainly great news for all the local moms, and especially for those who don’t have family around and need that extra support.

There is a clear need for all of us to step up and help mothers. And for those who would love to help but don’t know how, Jennifer has some practical advice:

“Going back to the R.A.I.S.E. acronym, just think about what you can do. Ask a mom how she is doing, ask her what she needs, tell her she’s a good mom.”

It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, says Jennifer: “We need to know people care, and that people see us, and to be validated on this journey.” It’s about changing the conversation around motherhood little by little, planting seeds all over.

The future is bright, and Jennifer is full of optimism going forward: “2020 is a year with so much disaster, but at the same time this is also a catalyst for change – and if we don’t take this opportunity we’re doing a complete disservice to our community and society.”

Thank you Jennifer for sharing your story with us!


Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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