As moms, the pressure to appear as if we have it all together can feel insurmountable. Many of us pretend we are loving life and enjoying our kids at every possible moment. But secretly, we are overwhelmed, anxious, and some of us are knee-deep in the dark waters of postpartum depression.
In recent years, many brave mothers have come forward about their most heartbreaking parenting challenges. And we desperately need to keep sharing about them, as the outcome of talking openly can literally be life-saving.
Last fall, Kara Kovlakas tragically succumbed to a mental illness she’d been secretly suffering from for years. She had struggled with anxiety long before she had her two children, and her condition only worsened with each birth. A few months after her second child was born, she felt helpless and overcome with the pain of her condition.
So, on the morning of October 13, 2016 — just one day before her 33rd birthday — the Connecticut mother of two took her own life.
The news came as a complete shock to those closest to her, especially when they found out that Kovlakas had planned out her suicide.
While a trusted few knew Kovlakas had felt crippled by her anxiety and the severe postpartum depression that accompanied it, the rest of the world saw her as an enthusiastic, loving woman who regularly uplifted everyone around her.
“On the outside, Kara was a beautiful, outgoing, and energetic mom,” Kovlakas’ older sister Lauren Shrage tells Babble. “She wasn’t lying in bed all day miserable — she was up and active, doing fun things with her kids … She was always dancing through life with an energy and light that was contagious.”
On the inside, it was a much different story.
“She was terrified she wasn’t good enough – her self-confidence was extremely low. She was seeing doctors and [was] prescribed medication for anxiety,” Shrage explains. “We knew she was struggling and my family had banded together to support her, but we had no idea to the extent she was suffering.”
Since her sister’s death, Shrage is still trying to pick up the pieces and take stock of her own life. The two sisters were inseparable, talking almost every day and enjoying ongoing Sunday night dinners with their families.
“Kara was my best friend. I don’t know how I will move on without her,” Shrage says. “But I am trying to get up each day and remember to be happy — I have a lot to be thankful for. Never take one second for granted. Life is so precious and short.”
In addition to her own family, Kovlakas leaves behind a close-knit group of six sisters, all who are trying to turn their grief into something positive. Their efforts have resulted in Light for Kara, an advocacy website that Shrage is hoping will help other families who are seeking support and information. The site contains educational links about postpartum depression and suicide, along with a scholarship fund for Kovlakas’ daughter Aydan and son Ari. The family will also be donating a portion of the fund to Malta House, a Norwalk women’s shelter that helps new mothers in need.
The biggest goal for Shrage is spreading awareness to transform the way society views mental illness, especially in new parents. She also wants to ease the shame so many mothers feel, causing them to think struggling in silence is their best option.
“We hope that by sharing Kara’s story, other moms will have the courage to reach out and get help,” Shrage says. “We also hope to educate dads and other family members on how to be more aware of the signs of PPD. There is a real disconnect between gynecologists, pediatricians, and maternity hospital staff, where I think they could do a much better job educating parents and families on the warning signs of PPD.”
And while they continue their work to honor Kovlakas’ memory, the sisters are also doing everything possible to support her children as they grow up in a world without their mom.
“As a family, it is our job now to help her husband take care of her children,” Shrage notes on the Light for Kara website. “To make sure they know how much their Mom loved them. To share our memories of her and keep her alive in the only way we have. We need to figure out how to live the rest of our lives without her.”