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Mnookin: Helping New Mothers

The Women’s Film Festival just celebrated its 25th year in Brattleboro. It’s the largest fundraiser for the Women’s Freedom Center, which works to end domestic and sexual violence in Windham and Southern Windsor Counties.

One of the films that touched me - both personally as an expectant mom and professionally as a new birth doula - was Dark Side of the Full Moon, a documentary exposing the unseen world of postpartum depression and maternal mental health. The film highlights powerful personal stories about pregnant women and new moms who didn’t receive the treatment they needed, often despite their best efforts. The filmmaker herself was shuffled between 29 providers, a harrowing experience that prompted her to create the film. The consequences can be disastrous: self-harm, child abuse, and sometimes suicide.

Maternal mental health disorders such as postpartum depression affect 1.3 million people in this country. One out of every 1,000 women suffer an extreme form called postpartum psychosis, yet the medical community has been largely unable to effectively screen, refer, and treat these mothers.

Though I found much of the film’s content discouraging, I have been heartened by the ways in which our Brattleboro community is taking strides to lessen the burden on new families in general, and new moms in particular. Trained volunteers from It Takes a Village visit new families in their homes each week to help with cleaning, meal prep, and childcare, or simply to hold the baby so parents can rest. A grant-funded Mothers’ Circle meets on Tuesdays for a confidential, peer-led discussion by a trained facilitator. The New Moms Network meets at the hospital every Wednesday with a lactation consultant and registered nurse. Perhaps as a result of these efforts, women also seem to feel more comfortable sharing their stories. A recent anthology entitled Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience includes a personal exposé by a local writer.

I’m excited about having a baby on the way. Although this is our second child, my wife is pregnant this time; new motherhood will undoubtedly be different for each of us. Dark Side of the Full Moon served as a chilling reminder of what can happen to any mother, even those lucky enough to have every known precaution, advantage, awareness, or safeguard in place. Postpartum depression requires immediate diagnosis and a strong base of accessible support - for everyone, no matter what their circumstances. As a culture, we must maintain a safety net that will rise to help catch new mothers if they fall.

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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