Amanda D’Addario was thrilled at the prospect of welcoming her first child into the world after suffering a miscarriage of twins last February. But as her due date neared, the coronavirus pandemic was spreading within the United States. Suddenly, her foray into parenthood drastically changed. Since giving birth to her son on March 22, everything has been completely different from what she had hoped for.
“My husband and I only spent one night in the hospital with our newborn,” said D’Addario, 31, a marketing manager in Philadelphia. “As much as I was happy to leave that environment for the safety of our home, I feel like I missed out on a lot of the initial support after birth. Our families live in New York, so no one was able to visit us, and no one has met our son. He’s over a month old now and no one but us will have felt his newborn head or those tiny hands.”
Though the birth was complication-free, the pandemic has exacerbated a seemingly endless barrage of fear and angst. “I’ve felt like this atypical postpartum experience is robbing my newborn of my best self, as both a new mother and a person,” D’Addario said. “I get anxiety every time my husband and I attempt to get some fresh air and venture outside. The walk starts out fine, but the tension slowly builds until I’m tearing up, moving quickly, holding my baby to my chest tighter, just eager to get home.”
Approximately one in seven people experience perinatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders—statistics that pre-date COVID-19. And now that 95 percent of the country has been urged to shelter in place, isolation, a lack of in-person support and resources, and the looming threat of impending economic hardship and job insecurity have created a perfect storm in which perinatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders can thrive.
As a psychologist who specializes in reproductive and maternal mental health, I have the privilege of helping my patients find the support they need. Therapy, for those lucky enough to have health coverage or to afford paying out of pocket, marks the initiation of a healing process as people aim to overcome their struggles with postpartum mood disorders. But in the face of an unparalleled crisis with no definitive end in sight, now more than ever moms are facing the challenges of postpartum life on their own—challenges that will no doubt negatively impact their mental health. What they need is support, a sense of community, and, most importantly, understanding.
Kaitlyn Erb, a 33-year-old senior content strategist and mom to a 3-month-old baby, feels the same overwhelming anxiety when leaving the house. “There’s this absolute fear of bringing the virus home to our baby whenever we do leave our house for groceries or other essentials,” she said. “We have no support besides each other, so there’s a daily fear of my husband or I getting sick as well. At one point I was so scared and anxious, I broke down in tears immediately upon entering the store. I felt as if I was taking my entire family’s lives in my hands just by shopping for food to survive.”
The fear of bringing the virus home to their babies is only increasing the amount of isolation and loneliness new moms are feeling during this profoundly uncertain moment in history. Studies have shown that low levels of social support, low socioeconomic status, and a traumatic experience during pregnancy and/or childbirth are all risk factors for postpartum depression—factors that have also become part of our new “normal” as we continue to navigate this global pandemic. Close to one in 10 workers lost their jobs in just three weeks due to the crisis, and a reported 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. The crisis itself is a traumatic experience which has altered pregnant people’s birth plans, creating additional stress. In order to protect partners, pregnant people, newborns, and hospital workers, delivery wards across the country have changed their visitor policies, allowing only one support person present during birth (and briefly, in the case of New York City, none at all) , and forbidding visitors, including partners, in postpartum recovery wards.
Moms are losing the pregnancy and childbirth moments they once envisioned, are left alone post-birth and therefore unable to rest or receive in-person support from those who know them best, and are facing financial uncertainty as they bring their babies home. This amounts to overwhelming challenges, especially for a sleep-deprived mother who needs to mentally, physically, and emotionally recover from the grueling task of labor and delivery.
For Gina Daughenbaugh, a 35-year-old kindergarten teacher and mother of three living in Cheshire, Connecticut, it’s the isolation that has been the most detrimental. “Postpartum can already be isolating, but when you add a pandemic to the dynamic it is paralyzing at times,” she said. “I love my children, and I love being a mother, but the four of us all day is very stressful, anxiety ridden, and difficult. I don't get five minutes alone during the day, not even to pee. I love being a mom but I also love being me.”
What we tell new moms—to reach out for help, to rely on their “villages,” to sleep when the baby sleeps, soak up every moment, and let people take the baby—is no longer feasible. Now more than ever, new moms are alone, and the loneliness will only exacerbate any lingering or forming feelings of anxiety and depression.
“I don’t feel like I have the time to meet with my therapist, and I don’t have much support in friends and family that can relate to this experience,” said Megan B., a 30-year-old software quality assurance analyst in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She gave birth to her first living child on February 4, and has been struggling with depression and anxiety since—a struggle that has been made exponentially more difficult as a result of COVID-19. “I am now working full-time from home and taking care of my baby. My husband and I are sharing the baby’s care during the day, but there is no extra time to seek professional help. It feels like I’m always making a choice between doing something for my mental health or doing something physically essential, like eating or showering. Without being able to have another care person come relieve us a little bit, we’re sort of just doing what we have to do to survive right now.”
Like D’Addario, Megan feels robbed of the postpartum and newborn experience she should have had. In addition to grieving the massive loss of life and the freedom to come and go as we please, soon-to-be and new parents are grieving the loss of typical baby showers, in-person baby introductions to friends, grandparents, and other family members, and time to simply bond with their babies. “I probably say it every day to myself this is not how my maternity leave should be,” Daughenbaugh said. “I absolutely feel like this pandemic has screwed me out of a beautiful postpartum time to bond with my beautiful girl and spend time with my other two.”
“We were counting on a lot of help with the baby from my mom, but we no longer feel comfortable letting her in our house, in case she carries the virus to us or our baby,” Megan said. “This has been a huge challenge. Not only do we miss our family, but we really needed that support with a new baby. I am overwhelmed and feel a sense of pressure that I don't think I would have felt before.”
“I went from bedrest [during pregnancy] to being a stay-at home-mom with a newborn and 10-year-old; it has been so lonely,” said W. Shelby, a 34-year-old substitute teacher in Riverside, California, who gave birth to her second child on March 9—and whose partner has been deployed the whole time, leaving her by herself (he was on video chat for the birth). “It has made my anxiety and depression more severe.”
After Shelby reached out to her friends, they started a group video chat. “We chat daily now, and that has helped quite a bit,” she said. Establishing community, even online, is vital during the postpartum period, and especially at a time when taking care of our neighbors and communities means isolating ourselves from one another.
Checking in with oneself regularly during this time is also important, if only to help gauge what you can and cannot handle. At this moment, we are all enduring a traumatic, ongoing and unpredictable experience, so resisting the urge to “do it all,” especially as a new parent, might help mitigate the impact of postpartum depression and anxiety. Women notoriously handle the bulk of the parenting duties, despite more of us working outside the home (or in this case, working from home). Establish an open dialogue and ongoing communication with your parenting partner, if you have one, and make sure they’re contributing to the household chores, child-rearing duties, and other responsibilities so that you can focus on your mental health.
Other support options include teletherapy with mental health providers. Postpartum Support International and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also provide online resources—like a disaster distress helpline, behavioral health treatment services, a directory for additional support, and additional information—to those who are struggling. But these solutions might seem frankly insufficient in the face of the overwhelming impact that postpartum depression can have.
The United States has a history of failing moms, and new moms in particular. In a country without mandatory paid family leave, a rising maternal mortality rate, and no universal childcare, moms have, for lack of a better phrase, notoriously been on their own. And never so much as they are now.
“Everyone says to just focus on the baby and enjoy him, which feels unfair because they don’t actually know what it feels like,” D’Addario said. “I want to just be so grateful for this precious time with my newborn, but worry and fear are always in the back of my mind.”
Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in women's health and the author of the forthcoming book I HAD A MISCARRIAGE: A Memoir, A Movement (Feminist Press, 2021).