Natasha is a self-described woman of “strong faith.” She believes in God and prayer. She is also an African-American woman, a leader in her community, and an advocate for women. For all of these reasons, Natasha’s interview was an educational experience for me.
I met Natasha on a sweltering summer day as we both walked several miles for Postpartum Progress, a national non-profit that provides support to women experiencing postpartum mood disorders. Natasha had helped organize our local Postpartum Progress fundraiser, Climb Out of the Darkness. Although I’d been raising money for the event for months, I hadn’t met Natasha until the day of the walk, and I immediately wanted to talk to her. Natasha has an energy, a strength, an exuberance, that pulls others to her.
Our recent phone interview only lasted an hour, but we could have gone on and on all day. Natasha, like me, has used her postpartum experience as a catalyst to help other women.
The week before I spoke with her, Natasha had “come out” on Facebook about her postpartum struggle with depression. And she had specifically spoken about PPDA not being solely a white woman’s disease. Natasha was hesitant about taking this step and prayed about making this public declaration because she “didn’t want to offend anyone, but white women are speaking up while African-American women are still too ashamed.”
Natasha has a hypothesis on why this is, why so many minority women are suffering in silence: “Our ideas about mental illness begin long before we encounter PPD. In our community, we are raised to have strong faith. You don’t complain. You suck it up. You pray about it and believe things will be okay.” But after a postpartum experience that Natasha repeatedly described as “darkness,” she knows that PPDA needs more than prayer. What Natasha believes women need is education, and she has begun to do this in her community by sharing her story, but she wasn’t always as open with her struggle. She was so good at “faking it” that her friends didn’t know she was suffering. She would say “I’m having a really hard time” to friends or family members, but what she meant was “I’m dying on the inside. Help.” And the main responses she heard back were: “Trust in God” and “Have faith.” Looking back, Natasha realizes how dangerous it was to simply pray and not get professional help: “The car was almost in the ocean. I just hit the brake.” Thankfully, her husband pushed her to seek professional help and stood by her through the healing process.
Now Natasha also privately hears from other women of color who say “Me too, but I can’t talk about it publically.” We know that a lack of social support is a risk factor for PPDA. Thus the overwhelming stigma and silence within Natasha’s community could increase the number of women who develop postpartum mood disorders.
Unlike many women, though, Natasha did find help from her pediatrician office and OBGYN. They talked with her via the phone on weekends and would follow up to make sure she was surviving. But she didn’t use medication until around seven months postpartum because she was still of the mindset: “I am a strong black woman. I’m the strength of my family. I can’t be crazy. Not in my family.” Natasha has since gone down a long road of accepting her illness for just that: an illness. However, she is not alone is resisting help. While the statistics show that white women and minority women experience postpartum mood disorders at about the same percentage, 15-20%, up to 9% of white women seek treatment and only 4% of black women get professional treatment. However, minority women are underrepresented in research studies, so we also don’t have as many current studies to refer to on this topic.
Through this process of accepting, she has determined that having a second child is not possible for her. She fears the darkness of what she experienced with her first, and now last, postpartum experience. And this acceptance is difficult when those around her don’t fully understand her experience. But she tries to explain it like this: “What if the doctor said if I conceive again, it would put me at risk for losing my life? Then would your feelings be different about me having another baby.” She speaks her truth, even to her family, and even when it’s uncomfortable.
Here’s what I know from my brief interactions with Natasha: she is a strong woman. She is a role model for those in her community, as I saw the most minority women I ever have speaking up at our Climb Out of the Darkness event. While Natasha’s experience was “hell,” and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I am so thankful it has led her to this work. She truly believes “The more I talk about my journey, the more I heal, the more time that passes by, the more I realize my journey is less about me and more about the next woman that I can help.” And every time she speaks up, she embodies a courage that I cannot fully understand as a white woman, but I am so thankful for it.