Part of what makes postpartum so difficult for many women is how alone they feel. Often, they are literally alone with their baby and simply don’t have enough time or help to do basic tasks, like take a shower or eat lunch. But it’s more than that — the thoughts that can flood a postpartum woman’s mind can be stressful, dark, or even embarrassing.
If left unaddressed, they can sometimes spiral out of control and lead to disorders like postpartum anxiety or depression. That is why it’s crucial for us to let mothers share their thoughts and feelings about the postpartum period. Their real feelings — even the most difficult ones. The ones they are too afraid to speak.
A team of kickass women are on a mission to address this issue head on and with a healthy dose of humor. Meet Karen Kleiman, a social worker with 30 years of experience working with postpartum moms. Kleiman is director and founder of The Postpartum Stress Center in Pennsylvania, and she recently teamed up with illustrator Molly McIntyre to create #speakthesecret, a comic series that portrays the real, unfiltered thoughts of postpartum moms.
Kleiman tells Huffington Post that she wanted to encourage women to give voice “to their scary, negative thoughts and post them as a brave and honest expression of their unsettling experience.” And that is exactly what this series does.
The comics depict ordinary conversations that a postpartum mom might have with a friend or acquaintance. As we all know, people are sometimes quick to ask new moms how they are doing. But these questions aren’t always as innocent — or judgment-free — as they are intended to be. All of this (and more) is why it is so hard for new moms to answer these questions truthfully.
In one comic, a woman asks a new mom, “Don’t you think this is the best time of your life?” Her answer is a polite, “Of course.” But the reality of what she is actually thinking is a whole lot more complicated and disturbing, and the comic shows her real thoughts in a thought bubble beside her head.
“I think my baby would be better off without a mother,” the comic shows her thinking. “I think I made a huge mistake.”
One of the aims of the series is to bring light to postpartum depression and anxiety, which afflict 1 in 9 mothers nationally, but which are usually spoken of in hushed tones. As director of The Postpartum Stress Center, Kleiman hopes to use this series to help change that.
“Despite an increase in public awareness and recent attention to postpartum depression, women continue to be silenced by the taboo against expressing negative feelings and thoughts about being a mother,” she tells Huffington Post.
Of course, women who are dealing with postpartum mood disorders need professional help and/or medication to get them through. But they also need a safe forum to let those difficult and distressing feelings out in the open. And they need to know that it’s acceptable to do so — without judgment.
“There are many reasons why women don’t reveal how bad they might be feeling or the thoughts they might be having,” Kleiman shares with Huffington Post. “Some women fear judgment from others, or they judge themselves as bad mothers, or they consider it a weakness or something terrible is wrong with them. Some women worry that if they disclose how they feel, they will be deemed an unfit mother, or worst of all, and their baby will be taken away from them!”
Kleiman wants new mothers to know that they are not alone, even in their darkest thoughts. In fact, as she tells TODAY Parents that the majority of new moms (91%) have scary thoughts at at least at some point during the postpartum period.
“It’s normal to have scary thoughts,” Kleiman tells TODAY Parents. “Most new moms will admit to thinking, ‘What if I drop the baby? What if I slip on the ice? What if I drop him in the tub?’ but we consider those thoughts to be normal.”
Thoughts like these are articulated loud and clear in the #speakthesecret series, which is definitely reassuring to all of us who are having such thoughts. But the question becomes: How do you know if your scary thoughts are abnormal? How do you know if you have crossed the line into a postpartum mood disorder?
Kleiman addresses this too. She says it’s all about how much these thoughts interfere with your ability to function in your life.
“The determining factor is how much distress it causes,” Kleiman explains to TODAY Parents. “If you or I are having a thought about, ‘Oops, I could drop my baby,’ we hold our baby tight and we go on with our day. But, if a mom starts obsessing about it — if she starts worrying about the thoughts, if it means she can’t leave her room because of her ‘what if?’ worries — her distress is higher. And that’s when we treat it, when the distress is so high that it’s interfering with their functioning.”
But whether you are experiencing a postpartum mood disorder or not, the #speakthesecret series speaks to the universal experiences that postpartum women have, but so rarely are given a forum to share.
“As an artist and mother of a toddler, it’s been so great working with Karen to create comics that speak to the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and stress that so many new parents experience — many of which I can relate to all too well,” Molly McIntyre, the fantastic illustrator behind the series, tells Babble.
Together, McIntyre and Kleiman have really captured something special, highly relatable, and necessary. And what they are doing seems to be to be working — really uniting new mothers together and allowing many of them to speak their truths, often for the first time.
“Some women tell us they have never before uttered these words,” Kleiman tells HuffPost. “Or, that this thought they are having is so scary to write down, but they felt better after doing so!”
Congrats to these fantastic women and the incredible work they are doing. Let’s hope it helps more and more new mothers out there feel less alone — and encourages anyone struggling with PPD or PPA to get the help they need and deserve.