Anita, mother of one, learned she was a carrier for the BRCA (an abbreviation for breast cancer gene) mutation one month after her wedding.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, every human being has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. When either gene gets mutated, they may no longer be effective at repairing broken DNA and helping to prevent breast cancer.
Her doctors recommended they begin considering family planning as soon as possible, especially before any surgical preventative measures had to be taken for her diagnosis. Because of this timeline, she and her husband decided to try assisted fertility to help them have a baby. During a break from her fertility treatments, she became pregnant with her son.
Anita, a primary care doctor, has administered the official Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale screening for many women. As a doctor, she is often the first line of defense in helping moms get the support they need if they are exhibiting symptoms of depression. She has witnessed women at all stages after their babies are born. Most women receive this screening at least three times, usually during their babies’ first couple of checkups after birth.
Anita delivered her baby via C-section. As a healthcare professional, Anita didn’t have as many concerns about the procedures. She understood the medical risks and potential trauma on her body.
What she didn’t know was how much the procedure would impact her ability to connect with her baby after he was born. Because of the procedure, Anita was unable to hold her son until she had spent some time in recovery, hours after he was born.
When women deliver via C-sections, it’s harder to have the skin-to-skin delivery room moment everyone talks about. But there are ways to make this possible, and data shows it could help mothers with milk production.
Anita doesn’t remember much of her time at the hospital. She had planned to let the nurses take care of the baby while she was in the hospital. To her, this was the last real break she’d get before she brought the baby home. After she recovered from her procedure, her husband told her it felt like she just couldn’t turn off. She knew too much about the health factors and potential risks for her son.
“As a doctor, you are trained to detect the worst. I was so fixated on his health factors. What’s his weight, what’s his APGAR score? I was so hyper-aware of all of the factors, my brain couldn’t turn off.”
When she returned for her son’s first check-up, she was met with some bedside manner that prevented her from coming clean about her symptoms.
While her doctor asked her essential postpartum depression screening questions, she learned her doctor was surprised she was “crying still.”
“Crying still? I wanted to punch her in the face,” Anita recounts as she talks about her visit. When she returned for her second visit with her son, she lied to the doctor when asked the screening questions.
Doctors have to be careful with the amount of counseling recorded in their charts. They are often concerned about the way counseling could impact their patient and community perception.
Growing up, Anita had been in and out of counseling due to non-traditional family circumstances. She chose to keep her therapy private, knowing people in her community may not understand the value of seeking professional help to navigate life.
Anita told me how she remembered all the cute photo props she had bought for her baby just stayed in the corner. She expected her maternity leave would include a lot of time celebrating her baby. Her reality looked more like watching TV, while the baby was kept safe and fed in the corner —away from her.
After months of struggling with anxiety, irritability, and really struggling to connect with her son, she finally opened up to her husband and some close friends. She felt a weight lifted off her shoulders, simply by opening up. She reached out to her OBGYN who prescribed her with psychotherapeutic medication and counseling.
“Hearing her prescribe something to me so objectively… I guess now I knew what it was like to be on the other side.”
I asked Anita, especially given her Christian and Indian background, what she felt about taking medication and if she would prescribe it to patients.
“Starting mothers on antidepressants—during that time frame—has a very good place in conjunction with therapy. If there is something wrong right now and beyond what you can control, medicine and therapy can be essential to help you. By doing this course of treatment, you can truly be in the moment.”
For many Indian Christians, the fear of “tossing pills” is a big one. We’re taught to trust in Jesus and pray more. The reality is, in many instances, God has given us the wisdom to seek professional health and modern medicine.
“I wish I had started it. I definitely carried my ego as a healthcare professional. It’s easy to talk to somebody and the cultural narrative to be on antidepressants. It’s just how we’re raised.”
Anita, battling this stigma, decided to pursue counseling for six months. Through counseling she was able to develop strong coping skills, making it so much easier to enjoy her son.
When I asked Anita how we can support new mothers with postpartum depression, she really emphasized the need to focus on the mother, and especially avoid conversations that may make them feel unfit or inadequate. When we redirect our questions about how the mother is doing, we give her space to open up and allow us into her home and life with her baby.
Her story reminded me of how important it is to acknowledge that mental illness is an infirmity of the body. It deserves the care and attention we give to anyone who is sick. We have to support mamas who may be going through this season, encouraging them to know they can, and should seek help, to be a better mother.