The Motherhood Center - Mothering the Mother
Q&A with Paige Bellenbaum, Program Director of the Motherhood Center
interview conducted by Jessica Vanderberg
Founded in 2017, The Motherhood Center is a first of its kind, NYC based resource for women in the Tri State area experiencing anxiety and depression during the perinatal period. We were lucky enough to catch up with the center's co-founder and program director to learn more about the center, its mission, and how you can tap into it for support.
How and WHY did The Motherhood Center come about?
Sadly, there is a huge lack of services available to women in our country suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. After I had my son 11 years ago, I was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and anxiety. When I finally got better through therapy and medication, I swore to myself that I would find ways to ensure that new and expecting moms would not have to suffer silently like I did for so long. My first venture was to draft legislation for New York State, recommending screening for all new and expecting women, and mandating educational materials on baby blues vs. PPD upon discharge from the hospital. This bill was signed into law in 2014.
In 2015, I joined forces with the Co-Founders of The Motherhood Center, Dr. Catherine Birndorf, and Billy Ingram. All equally committed to providing high-quality care to new and expecting moms suffering from PMADs, we worked together diligently to open the doors of the Center in early 2017.
What have been some of the biggest takeaways a year into your organization?
The realization of how many women who are actually suffering from PMADs. I knew hypothetically that the statistic of 1 in 5 pregnant and new mothers was true, but the volume of calls that we get from women around the U.S. searching for support and treatment is astounding. And the fact that treatment works! We always tell women who are suffering, that with treatment - everyone feels better, and it’s true. Every single woman that we have treated here – well over a thousand at this point – has left treatment feeling better and more equipped to handle motherhood.
What was your personal motivation for starting The Motherhood Center?
I too suffered from severe postpartum depression and anxiety. It was the darkest, loneliest period of my life. I felt helpless, hopeless, guilty, and unfit to be a mother. I couldn’t stand myself - or my son. One day I was at the park with my son when he was only 3 month old – I needed to get out of the house and just sat on a park bench staring into space with Max in a sling over my shoulder.
A beautiful woman came and sat down next to me. Her hair was done, she had makeup on and was super skinny, and she and her baby girl all in pink just smiled at each other and cooed at one another. She turned to me and said “Isn’t this the greatest thing you ever did?” I looked at her and said, “No. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, most of the time I wish I never did it at all.” Her smile started to fade, and tears welled up in her eyes. She said to me “Thank you for saying that. I feel the same way.”
I didn’t know it then, but once I wasn’t drowning anymore, I realized the relevance of that exchange – and I knew that I wanted to give every new and expecting mother suffering from a PMAD the permission to talk about how hard the transition to parenthood can be.
There are some staggering statistics related to PMADs, especially when it comes to WOC. Why is this?
African American women have a much higher risk of developing perinatal depression compared to white women. (Latina women also have a higher risk.) Research from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that 44 percent of African Americans reported depressive symptoms two weeks after delivery, compared to 31 percent of white women. Although there's not a lot of research on why the incidence of PMADs is higher in African American women, many experts believe that because a larger portion of African American women are low-income, and that factors associated with this including limited financial resources, housing issues, limited social support, limited access to quality healthcare and single parenthood.
African American women not only face a higher chance of developing PMAD than white women, but they are also less likely to receive treatment. Experts say significant cultural and societal factors may be keeping African American women from seeking and getting the help they need. Though there is a general stigma around mental illness in the United States, experts say it is even stronger in African American communities.
What tools would you gift new parents so they can help themselves mitigate risk factors?
Education on the front end. Any provider that comes in contact with a new or expecting mom should mention the fact that PMADs are the number one childbirth complication. Childbirth prep classes, infant and newborn care, doula’s, lactation consultants, pediatricians, midwives and OBGYN’s all need to help educate new and expecting parents so they are aware of the likelihood and have access to treatment options prior to delivery.
What is the one thing you wish someone told you before having kids in regards to your mental health?
If you have a history of depression and/or anxiety you are at a much higher risk to experience these symptoms in the perinatal period.
What are some things that people have said about their experience when they’ve been through a PMAD and come through the other side?
I have learned how to love myself and my baby
I want to do something to make sure other women don’t have to struggle the way I did
I’ve learned that it’s ok not to be perfect and that being good enough is great
I never thought I was going to get better – and I did
I wish I had sought treatment sooner
Why do you think it’s so hard for mothers to ask for help? How can we help other moms?
New and expecting moms suffering from a PMAD experience an enormous amount of shame and guilt for having their feelings. They are convinced that they are the only woman that has ever felt this way and that it is all their fault for being such a 'horrible' new or expecting mom. This thinking forces so many women to keep their suffering silent - for fear of being judged. And PMAD or not, women in American society learn how to not ask for help. That asking for help means we are weak, or incapable, which is not true, and even less so in the perinatal period.
How can moms help other moms?
Be kind to one another. Ask each other “How are you doing?” and truly listen for the answer. Give each other permission to love and hate aspects of becoming a new mom. If you are someone who uses social media frequently – post pictures of good days and bad days as a new mom. Don’t tell other new or expecting moms what they should or shouldn’t do – ask them what they plan to do, and don’t pass judgment – just listen.
If people can’t easily access help, what is something you would tell them to do?
If a new or expecting mom lives in New York City or the Tri-State, call The Motherhood Center at 212-335-0034. We will help you get the care and treatment that you need. If a woman in need lives outside of the Tri State area – contact Postpartum Support International: http://www.postpartum.net/
They have Coordinators in every State and City that will help you identify a treatment provider nearby.