After I gave birth to my daughter Abigail, I was immediately thrust onto New Mom Island. The frenetic excitement leading up to her delivery fizzled the day I came home from the hospital. Suddenly it was just me clutching her, stranded on this island without a clue what to do.
Not to say I was completely alone; I was lucky enough in the early days of parenthood to have my husband, in-laws who came to help during the first couple of weeks, and friends who brought meals. But I, like many other new parents, still felt the sharp pain of loneliness. In the hospital, I was given around-the-clock care, but once I got home and the adrenaline wore off, the panic crept in. I knew I needed support from others in the trenches.
Our culture loves pregnant women and showers them with attention (especially white pregnant women; it should be noted that black mothers in Georgia face a maternal death rate that’s six times the rate for white women nationally). But all that attention seems to disappear when we become new mothers. As pregnant women, we’re asked to come up with a birth plan—a way to communicate our wishes to nurses, midwives, and doctors who care for us during labor—but what about a plan for after the baby arrives? Parents who have perinatal depression and anxiety, which are exacerbated by isolation, stress, and fatigue, especially need support. But finding it is harder than it should be. My doctors and nurses didn’t ask where I’d be seeking support once I gave birth, and most women don’t see their doctor again until six weeks after delivery. When I left Northside Hospital, a flier advertising its free support group was handed to me, but when I called the number to sign up, I didn’t hear back for weeks. Learning to take care of a newborn while recovering from delivering a baby is hard, but if you want support, the onus is on you to find it.
“We [culturally] value the whole premise of pick up yourself by your bootstraps and keep on going. It’s really a maladaptive approach, and it’s not good for mothers and babies [or] the whole family system,” says Elizabeth O’Brien, a licensed therapist who specializes in postpartum care. She’s one of the group leaders of Motherwise, a free support group offered weekly at Atlanta Birth Center in Midtown. In her opinion, every new mother can benefit from a support group.
“We know that isolation is one of the biggest features of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and it can be everything from disheartening to dangerous, because first-time mothers have nothing to compare their experience with. It’s such a lived experience,” O’Brien says.
The support groups at Atlanta Birth Center are free and offered every Tuesday morning, as well as the second and fourth Saturday of the month. The group meets in a cozy room where mothers and their babies can get comfortable for the 60-minute session ahead. When I attended a session, there was one pregnant woman and about 14 other new mothers (and a couple of second-time mothers) speaking candidly about the challenges they were facing. There were conversations about everything from breastfeeding to self-care to feeling comfortable leaving the house with a newborn in tow. As O’Brien explains, “To say those things and have another person be like, Oh, I know what you mean, sister, I’ve been there, can be very validating. If you didn’t have someone to say that out loud to, you might think, Gosh, am I a bad person that I’m not loving this like I expected that I would?”
When my daughter was four weeks old, I decided to try to find a group that was smaller and more structured. I ended up joining a Mama Circle, offered by Taryn Rioseco, a postpartum educator who founded Here We Grow and who’s been conducting Mama Circles for seven years. It wasn’t free ($260 for a six-week session), but I liked knowing that I’d be meeting with the same group of parents week after week. Each 90 minute session included a lesson about the babies’ current developmental stage, so we’d have a better idea of what to expect. Then we would do different singing activities with the babies, learning simple songs that we could continue to sing to them at home.
After each session, I left feeling uplifted and heard. The most important part for me, though, was making my first mom friend, whose baby was born just five days after mine. Having someone else I can talk to who is in a similar place with her baby has been hugely helpful.
“Honestly, that is probably my favorite thing about the work that I do,” Rioseco says. “I’ve seen hundreds of women, over the course of the last seven years, come into these groups, essentially as strangers and leave like sisters. I’ve seen how these relationships have blossomed and grown throughout the years.”
Rioseco isn’t currently offering her Mama Circles for parents with infants, but she does conduct parenting workshops and is gauging interest for future Circles. The Bunny Hive, a membership-based self-described “social studio” for caregivers and their babies, offers similar support groups in Chamblee. In addition to their various classes, they also have a “Support Group for Cool Moms” ($10 per session for drop-ins).
In recent months, informal community settings where parents and caregivers can go hang out with their babies and toddlers in comfortable, safe spaces have become more popular, too. I found that spending time at HavenHyggeHouse in Decatur gave me a boost on the days I felt particularly lonely after my husband went back to work. The community space is the creation of Christine Christensen, a Danish cellist-turned-doula who drew inspiration from similar centers she attended in Sweden. The space is bright and welcoming with a colorful mural, comfy couches, and padded floors for children to roam on freely. You can pay a drop-in fee ($14) or buy a subscription ($64 per month). Christensen also works with parents who may need financial assistance. The Bunny Hive also has a community space that’s open to members ($150 per month) and drop-ins ($25). And although not a physical place, Mothers & Co. was established in 2019 and offers support to new mothers through postpartum courses and events, like the Mother Shower held this past fall.
New dads, who are increasingly becoming primary caregivers, have options for finding some support too, but those options are even more limited than the ones available to new moms. “Conservatively, one in 10 dads suffer from their own perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. We also know that if mothers are suffering, it doubles the risk factors that their partners will suffer, too,” says O’Brien. While there has been interest in a father’s group at Motherwise, she says, as of now there isn’t one. And while structured support groups specifically for dads seem to be nonexistent in the metro area, fathers are welcome to attend the Bunny Hive’s classes and to hang out at HavenHyggeHouse. Both places also offer occasional dad and baby events, like “Dad and Baby Morning Out.” Dads seeking help can find some resources through Postpartum Support International.
Even though I didn’t experience perinatal depression or anxiety, I’m glad that I sought out postpartum support. Like O’Brien says, “These groups are really a place for everyone, and they’re good for anyone, not just if you have higher risk factors. You’re getting out of the house, you’re making those connections, you’re normalizing your experiences, [and] you are feeling comfortable.”