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2 Bloomington-Normal moms are shining a light on postpartum struggles

Mothers helping other mothers through the challenges of postpartum depression and anxiety makes Florida's mentoring program unique.
Veronica Grech/Getty Images
Veronica Grech/Getty Images
Surviving to Thriving is a peer-to-peer support group for mothers.

Adjusting to life with a newborn baby is difficult. Under the best of circumstances, it can be exhausting, overwhelming, and confusing.

But for some mothers, the birth of a baby can result in the development of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. These disorders that comprise a range of symptoms like depression and anxiety that can be especially difficult to contend with during a time when new mothers are expected to be filled with joy.

A Bloomington-Normal group called Surviving to Thrivingis offering support to new moms who may be struggling with perinatal mood disorders. The group was founded by Nicki Petersen, a maternal mental health specialist. Petersen was inspired to start the peer-to-peer support group when a friend, struggling after the birth of her child, had trouble locating resources.

“At the time, the closest support group was either Springfield or Chicago,” Petersen recalled. “And that's just not doable for a mom who is struggling with her mental health.”

Petersen founded the group and began advocating for maternal mental health. The more she spoke out, the more she heard from mothers. Some were moms seeking support for current issues while others contacted Petersen to thank her for helping them understand past struggles.

“I had messages coming from women of all ages saying thank you so much for giving a word to what I was experiencing all those years ago,” Petersen recounted. She said it’s “heartbreaking” to know that so many women went years believing that they were bad mothers, rather than understanding that they were dealing with a perinatal mood disorder.

Petersen said it’s typical to go through an adjustment period following the birth of a baby. Many moms experience the “baby blues” that Petersen describes as a normal and temporary feeling of being overwhelmed, exhausted, or anxious. But when a new mom still feels off after a couple weeks, Petersen recommends reaching out to a doctor to see if something more serious is going on.

“If at any time it's impacting your daily life and your ability to function, you should definitely reach out,” said Petersen, offering the inability to sleep as an example of a potential problem.

“We all know new moms don't get a lot of sleep. But a complete inability to sleep — maybe your mind is racing, maybe you're afraid to fall asleep — things like that where you're just not functioning is definitely a reason to reach out,” she said.

Petersen acknowledged that asking for help can be daunting. Many mothers don’t want to admit that they’re not adjusting to motherhood they way they envisioned.

Catherine Carroll is open about her experience with perinatal mood disorders. She said seeking support through Petersen’s group helped her make peace with the disconnect between expectation and reality.

“I always thought becoming a mother was going to be my life’s purpose and it was going to be wonderful, and sunshine, and rainbows. And it can be on some days,” Carroll said. But not always. And Carroll found that she struggled around certain aspects of parenting that she believed were supposed to come naturally, like breastfeeding.

“I had seen other people do it and it looked so easy, so natural,” Carroll said. “Nope, it is hard. It is a lot of work. And that was a huge contributing factor for my postpartum depression and anxiety.” Finding support from other mothers with similar experiences helped Carroll navigate her symptoms. It also inspired her to become an advocate for maternal mental health.

“Especially new moms and parents, I like to tell them that don't ever should yourself,” Carroll said. “I should be breastfeeding. I should be loving my baby. I should be doing this. No, you have to find what is best for you and your family, whatever that looks like,” she said. “There's no normal in parenting.”

Carroll is organizing this year's Climb Out of the Darkness event to raise awareness about the importance of mental health for new families. It’s a job she took over from Petersen, who’s been heading up the event the past few years. Sponsored by Postpartum Support International, Climb Out of the Darkness is a community walk and a “family hang,” Carroll said.

The walk takes place on from 9-11 a.m. on Saturday, June 25, at Rosa Parks Commons in Normal. Carroll said the goal is to spread the word about resources to help families struggling with perinatal mood disorders. While she hopes to reach as many people as possible, Carroll said the mission will be accomplished if just one new mom understands she’s not alone.

“That's the best thing we could do,” she said. “Help one person at a time.”

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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