PPD Changed This Mom’s Life—Here’s What She Wants You to Know

“It’s like being in an ocean and not being able to swim, and just waiting for someone to throw you a life preserver.”
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By Stephanie Grassullo, Contributing Writer
Published November 15, 2018
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As a social worker with more than 20 years under her belt, Paige Bellenbaum is devoted to helping others. But when she faced severe postpartum depression and needed help herself, she felt alone and hopeless.

Eventually, she sought support from doctors and was able to find her way out of a very dark place. Now, the mom of two is an advocate for new moms and works as the chief external relations officer of The Motherhood Center, a new clinical treatment facility for postpartum depression. She gave us an inside look into The Motherhood Center’s progressive facilities and opened up about what motherhood means to her, including the good, the bad and the ugly.

Image: Courtesy Paige Bellenbaum

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m a California girl–born and raised in San Francisco. I moved to New York City in 2000 to attend Columbia University for my Masters in social work. I was all ready to move back to San Francisco, but right before then, I met my husband-to-be. In 2005, after one month of marriage, we found out we were pregnant. I guess I’m fortunate in the sense that my husband only had to look at me for that to happen. After our son Max was born, I was immediately filled with intense anxiety, which led to severe postpartum depression. Catherine Birndorf, MD, co-founder of the Motherhood Center, was actually part of my clinical treatment team, but we didn’t realize this connection until much later!

What are some feelings you experienced before getting help?

It was the darkest time of my life and I almost lost my life because of it. It’s like being in an ocean and not being able to swim, and just waiting for someone to throw you a life preserver. I couldn’t believe that nobody was talking about it, despite the fact that research suggests 1 in 5 new and expectant mothers experience a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, otherwise known as postpartum depression (PPD).

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Is that what made you become a champion for the cause?

After I recovered with the help of medication and therapy, I became furious that nobody was talking about how common PPD is. Instead, women like myself feel guilty and ashamed for their feelings and thoughts and keep it to themselves. I worked with a New York state senator to draft legislation requiring new mothers to be educated about PPD before they are discharged from the hospital, and strongly encouraging ob-gyns and pediatricians to screen for PPD.

My primary goal in life is to make sure other women suffering from perinatal depression and anxiety don’t have to suffer silently, which is why I agreed to help open The Motherhood Center with Catherine!

Image: The Motherhood Center

Can you explain what The Motherhood Center is?

The Motherhood Center is a first-of its-kind clinical treatment facility in New York City for pregnant and new moms suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), otherwise referred to as postpartum depression. We offer various tiers of treatment based on the client’s symptom severity, including:

  • A day program with a nursery for the babies
  • Outpatient therapy and medication management
  • Support groups for new and expectant moms who are having a difficult transition to parenthood
  • Various classes and workshops preparing mothers for childbirth, breastfeeding support, and much more Clients are referred to us primarily by ob-gyns, pediatricians, doulas, psychiatrists and therapists, but we also get a lot of referrals from our social media efforts.

That’s incredible! What are some services it offers to new and expecting moms?

The Motherhood Center is one of only a handful of “Perinatal Day Programs” in the US. Our Day Program provides clinical treatment for new and expecting mothers with severe PMADs, who are having a very difficult time caring for themselves and/or the baby. Clients of the Day Program are with us five days a week, five hours a day and their babies are cared for in the nursery. Clients participate in therapeutic support groups, mindfulness, meditation, art therapy, yoga and more, and each one is followed by an individual therapist and psychiatrist that specializes in PMADs. What truly differentiates us is that, unlike the handful of other day programs out there, we’re not affiliated with a hospital. We are a standalone center, meaning we have the ability to create a warm, nurturing, non-clinical environment for women receiving treatment. It feels like a giant living room!

How has the stigma around PPD changed since you first got involved?

People are starting to talk about it more! Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Serena Williams and Adele sharing their personal experiences with postpartum depression gives permission to women everywhere to talk about it and hopefully seek treatment. Many states have legislation on the books, which includes mandatory screening, PMAD education, public awareness campaigns and more. And many national medical associations are strongly recommending screening for PMADs.

Image: The Motherhood Center

How can someone support a friend who’s struggling with PPD?

Ask mom how she is doing. All the attention is on the mom until the baby is born, and then mom is left in the dust. If mom appears to be overly anxious, depressed or easily irritated, is having obsessive thoughts that are running like a hamster wheel in her head or feels helpless or hopeless, she may be suffering from a PMAD.

You can let her know that she’s not alone—more than 20 percent of new moms experience postpartum depression and anxiety, and those are just the ones who talk about it. Tell her it’s not her fault and that she can feel better with the right support and treatment.

If you could go back in time, pre-baby, what advice would you give yourself?

I would have told myself women who have a history of depression and/or anxiety are at a much greater risk of developing a PMAD. I didn’t know that at the time. I would have had a treatment team all set up for me, and I would have warned everyone around me to look out for the signs. I would have screamed in my own face, yelling, “Asking for help does not mean you’re a bad mom! Every new mom needs help! We are one of the only cultures in the world that doesn’t have built-in support for new moms!”

What was it like to gave birth to your daughter so soon after overcoming PPD?

It was the second hardest thing that happened after my PPD. My daughter was a huge surprise. It honestly compares to the immaculate conception (remember earlier when I told you all my husband has to do is look at me?!).

I was so not ready to have another baby. In fact, I was never going to have another baby after Max was born. I couldn’t tolerate going through that again. But after some serious soul searching (and therapy), I decided that I was not going to let my first experience define me. I took total control over my situation, and I created a plan that covered all the areas I felt had contributed to my PPD the first time. I did everything differently, and it paid off. I did have a PPD relapse when she was 9 months old, but it was less severe and I knew exactly what to do. Antidepressants are wonderful thing.

How does raising one child differ from two?

Going from one to two kids is like going from 1 to 10. My kids are two years apart, so they were both in diapers for a substantial period of time. And sorry, No. 2, but by the time mom gets to you, we have often been through the worst of it with the first one and now we have perspective. The second-born has to figure out a lot of things on her own!

What’s your guilty mom pleasure?!

Red wine and binge-watching British crime shows with my 85-pound mama pitbull snuggled up under my chin.

What’s one thing you think all new parents should know?

If you or someone you know is suffering from postpartum depression and you live in the New York Tri-State Area, call The Motherhood Center at 212-335-0035 to get the help that’s needed to feel better.

For national resources, visit Postpartum Support International (PSI). PSI has PMAD resources available in every city and town across the US.

Published November 2018

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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