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“I would just lie in bed while Hannah was sleeping, and my heart would pound and my mind would race. I felt almost like I was choking.” Virtual support groups and other services offered by IU Health/Riley Perinatal Mood Disorder Program give women a life preserver when they’re “in the deep water.”
By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
When Alyson Spille gave birth to her baby daughter Hannah in February, she and her husband, Thomas, were overjoyed. They had already lost two babies to miscarriage, so Hannah’s birth was a beautiful blessing.
Little did they know what challenges lay ahead barely a month after her arrival at IU Health Methodist Hospital.
Because it was cold and flu season, they didn’t want their newborn around too many people, but they welcomed family to their home. In fact, Alyson leaned heavily on her mom and sister for support in that first month. As a first-time mom, she was already experiencing some anxiety – she found it difficult to relax anytime her baby was out of sight.
Then COVID-19 hit, and her world immediately shrank to the confines of the couple’s home out in the country, near Greenfield. No family, no visitors.
And soon not even her husband could be with her.
Thomas is a firefighter/paramedic with the Fishers Fire Department. As a first responder, he was on the front lines early in the pandemic, caring for COVID-positive patients.
“When COVID first hit, there was so much unknown about the virus. That’s when my anxiety really started to go up,” she said.
SUDDENLY SHE WAS ALONE
Worried about him bringing the virus home with him, they decided in April that he would live outside their house – in a 32-foot travel trailer on their property. It had everything he would need – a kitchenette, bathroom, bedroom. But no family.
Meanwhile, Alyson was completely alone with Hannah. She kept in touch with her husband and family via phone and FaceTime, but she could feel her anxiety level rising.
“He lived in that trailer for three or four weeks, while I was with Hannah,” she said. “That’s when I was really struggling. I felt very isolated. I think anybody would who’d just had a baby and was struggling with hormones and postpartum.”
She was lonely and a bit lost. She knew there was no way for the virus to get into her home because nobody came in and she never went out. Still, she couldn’t quiet her mind.
“I would just lie in bed while Hannah was sleeping, and my heart would pound and my mind would race. I felt almost like I was choking.”
She contacted her obstetrician, Dr. Caroline Rouse, who referred her to Tracey McInnes, coordinator of the Perinatal Mood Disorder Program for IU Health/Riley Hospital for Children.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Because in-person visits were halted due to COVID, McInnes called Alyson to introduce herself.
“She got me on a really bad day,” the new mom recalled. “I was at a breaking point; I was bawling on the phone as I told her my story.”
But just having that release, that connection with a woman who had walked in Alyson’s shoes herself as a new mom, made a difference. McInnes reassured Alyson that her feelings were normal and that she could help her navigate the days and weeks ahead, with help from a virtual support group.
“She told me I was taking on a big role as a first-time mom and doing this all by myself during a pandemic,” Alyson said. “She was just really reassuring.”
ANXIETY AMID COVID
McInnes, who was used to doing face-to-face assessments before COVID, was forced to shift to virtual visits and phone calls. She was already doing one weekly virtual support group but decided to add another one to serve more women.
Now, every Monday morning and Thursday evening, moms and moms-to-be “meet” to talk about their struggles and their victories, with McInnes facilitating the group and offering tips for dealing with anxiety at the end of each session.
“Heightened anxiety has been the biggest issue,” McInnes said. “Referral numbers have grown because women are struggling with that part of perinatal mood disorder way more than usual.”
Perinatal mood disorders are specific conditions that occur during pregnancy or up to one year after the birth of a child. These can include depression, grief, postpartum anxiety disorders and postpartum psychosis.
Isolation has always been an issue with new moms, but COVID only exacerbated that reality. Before, at least women could go to the store or the park and see other moms with babies and know they were not the only person handling newborn life.
“When you’re at home with them alone, you really are on your own planet – at least that’s how they explain it,” McInnes said.
Their doctor visits are going virtual or being canceled, which only increases the anxiety for moms with past losses, she explained. They can’t help but obsess whether or not this baby is OK.
Women are also suffering high levels of insomnia. Those who begin taking medication are starting on a much higher level than before, McInnes said.
“It feels like there’s more desperation for getting better because their symptoms are a lot more severe or they feel that way.”
Grief is also casting a cloud over some new moms. They are grieving the loss of their expectations. Baby showers were canceled, and new parents weren’t able to celebrate with friends and family at the hospital or when they brought their baby home.
The support groups are just one resource available to women experiencing perinatal mood disorders. Individualized therapy and medication are offered to those who need more intervention.
“The mental load of motherhood got so much heavier during COVID,” McInnes said. “We are validating how hard this is.”
Women might have had their village lined up to help them when their baby arrived, but suddenly there could be no in-person support from extended family or friends as people everywhere quarantined.
Alyson attended her first virtual support group the same day that McInnes called her. She joined about a dozen other women on the call and found almost immediate relief in the sharing of common experiences and fears.
When she learned that other couples were living apart due to similar circumstances, she felt relieved.
“I wasn’t the only mom doing this alone,” she said. “I felt so much better.”
That solidarity is the biggest benefit of the group meetings, McInnes said.
“These women are all walking the same path at the same time in this world we’re living in,” she said. “Even though they have never met, they are connected. Friendships are being made. I remember feeling that very way, but unless you’re in that person’s situation it’s hard to understand the depth of how much that can help.”
She lets the women share their stories and support each other, while also encouraging them to focus on gratitude – to remind them on the darkest days that there’s something positive to be found in their situation.
“We spend a lot of time on self-care and kindness to ourselves and those with us in quarantine,” she said. “It’s about giving themselves and others grace.”
She offers tools they can use to calm themselves – mindfulness activities including meditation, guided imagery and journaling.
McInnes acknowledged that she wasn’t a fan of virtual support groups before the pandemic, figuring that it was better to make eye contact with people and observe body language. Now, she’s a believer.
“Really, I did this hesitantly, but I will never not have the virtual option going forward,” she said, noting how women from all backgrounds feel safe sharing intimate stories in virtual anonymity.
In those early weeks, while she was by herself “and in the deep water of it all,” Alyson attended both the Monday and Thursday group meetings. Now that she is back to work part time, she still tries to attend at least one session weekly.
“Tracey and the other women have just been awesome. The educational tools at the end of each meeting have helped me relax, and I feel like I’m on the other side of it now.”
Her husband is back home, too, but every day is a struggle, she said. He goes through a safety protocol when he comes home from a shift to ensure that home remains a safe place for Hannah.
The family is still isolating in their home, other than going to work. They each care for 4-month-old Hannah while the other is working.
“A lot of families are returning to life as normal and I’m still kind of worried with Hannah. I don’t want to take the extra risk.”
Now that she is through the worst of her postpartum anxiety, Alyson said she has learned that she is stronger than she thought. When she looks back to the long month of April, she wonders how she got through it.
While she did not have trouble bonding with Hannah as some women who experience postpartum depression and anxiety do, she feels that she missed out on some of the enjoyment that comes along with new motherhood.
“When I was going through the worst times, I didn’t feel like myself so I felt like I wasn’t able to give my all to her, which broke my heart,” Alyson said. “It was a struggle for me to put on a happy face, but that love and being her protector was always there.”
Her advice for women going through similar struggles is to reach out for help wherever that may be – talk to your obstetrician or midwife, join a support group, get therapy or find a friend with whom you can share your story. Be an advocate for yourself.
FINDING THE GOOD
While the pandemic has forced McInnes to change how she interacts with the women she helps, there are positives that have come out of it, she said:
More women are reaching out for help at this time.
They feel safe on a virtual platform sharing their stories of trauma that they’ve never shared before.
They’re sharing intimate stories, going to a different level, which is therapeutic.
They are finding solidarity in the group and feeling less alone.
They are being more intentional about self-care – meditating, taking baths and going for walks.
Women are lifting each other up by opening up.
“I have seen women go from texting me or calling me, desperate for help, to coming to group and slowly sharing that the light has switched for her and she’s totally in love with her baby and feeling better,” McInnes said.
“In that relative short amount of time, women are hearing her get better, which is sharing a lot of hope. That is the best encouragement – women being happy for other women seeing that with treatment they are getting better.”
For more information on the IU Health/Riley Perinatal Mood Disorder Program, call McInnes at 317-962-8191 or email email@example.com.
Photos submitted and by Tessa Tillett Robbins Photography