Ask any mother about the happiest moment of their life and they will most likely tell you ‘the birth of their child.' But for some women, the moments that follow childbirth are not happy at all.
For 20 years, women struggling with a variety of emotional issues after childbirth could reach out to the St. Louis nonprofit organization Mother To Mother for free. But at the end of the year, the organization is closing because of financial troubles.
Eleven months ago, Erin Shetler gave birth to her daughter, Amy; a happy baby with bright red hair and blue eyes. Now Shetler smiles as she lifts Amy out of her crib after the little girl’s nap. She kisses her forehead and tickles her belly. But Shetler felt very differently after Amy was born, a delivery she calls traumatic.
“I didn’t feel very good about the way that it went," Shetler said. "After about five or six weeks, I still didn’t feel good. I started not wanting to come to the door for visitors. I just felt like something was off.”
So, Shetler reached out to a counselor for help. During their first session, the counselor gave her a flier with Mother to Mother’s phone number.
The Baby Blues
What Shetler was experiencing is not uncommon.
"Eighty percent of women will experience the baby blues," said Shellie Fidell, a licensed professional social worker who practices psychotherapy. "And they are typically feelings like feeling overwhelmed, crying, feeling irritable, feeling sleep deprived. These are things that come and go and don't interfere with your ability to take care of your baby. That's one of the distinguishing features."
Fidell did not treat Shetler. But she treats many women like her.
She says of those 80 percent of women who will have the baby blues, for 10 percent, to as high as 20 percent, of them, those symptoms will worsen and develop into postpartum depression.
"I couldn't get off the bathroom floor."
Things did get worse for Erin Shetler.
"I couldn’t get off the bathroom floor," Shetler said. "I just sat there and cried. I had all my What to Expect When You're Expecting books. None of them told me what to do. Or, I felt like none of them would help me."
That’s when Shetler remembered the flier for Mother To Mother. She called the number.
"All of a sudden after feeling really, really alone, all of these women had just dropped everything to help me, with no questions asked, for no money," said Shetler. "And all of a sudden I started thinking I might be able to get through this; I’ve got some women who can help me."
"I get what you're saying"
Darcy Sharff founded Mother To Mother 20 years ago while working on her dissertation. She was trying to identify resources for women suffering from symptoms of postpartum depression. She found that a lot of them just wanted to talk to other women who went through the same thing.
“We were women who had experienced postpartum depression," said Scharff, who is also vice dean of academic affairs at Saint Louis University. "So we could talk to the moms on the other line and say ‘Yeah, I mean, I get what you’re saying.’”
But despite its success in helping women adjust to motherhood, the program never really took off. Some hospitals would send fliers home with moms. But when money started running out Mother To Mother stopped printing them.
Before deciding to call it quits, Scharff tried to get area hospitals to absorb the program, but they all said no.
“We approached a couple of hospitals, with some enthusiasm, I might say, from the clinical people," said Scharff. "And then it went to administration and couldn’t get the support."
Hoping To Continue
Though Mother To Mother has stopped accepting new moms and will close completely on Dec. 31, mothers like Erin Shetler hope that someone will come forward to keep the program going.
“I guess it’s my hope that people start to recognize that with a little bit of investment we really could tackle this," said Shetler.
Women who think they might have postpartum depression should call their doctor to seek treatment, but women are losing a friend in Mother To Mother. That’s because the program was open to all women needing emotional guidance after giving birth, not just those who might be clinically depressed.
Shetler says she has remained friends with women she met at Mother To Mother support groups. She’s feeling better now and can focus on being a good mother to Amy. And a happy mommy equals a happy baby.
Follow Julie Bierach on Twitter: @jbierach