Black Mothers in Central Texas Helping Others Deal With Postpartum Depression
By Madelyn Gee
When Austinite Marsha Stephanson got home from the hospital with her first child, she was unsure of her next steps and unprepared for the abrasive and bleak emotions to come.
“I remember the military having us go through different childbirth classes and stuff, but not even that covered postpartum,” Stephanson said. “They were focused on what you need to do to prepare for your baby but not what you needed to do to take care of yourself.”
Stephanson finally figured out she was suffering from postpartum depression, a disorder that disproportionately affects Black women. Now, she and other Black moms in Central Texas are rising up to offer support and their stories to help other women cope with the problem.
Postpartum depression is “suffered by a mother following childbirth, typically arising from the combination of hormonal changes, psychological adjustment to motherhood, and fatigue,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Symptoms include “feeling worthless or guilty,” “feelings of being a bad mother,” and even thoughts of “death or suicide.” While serious, the condition is treatable through talk therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.
Postpartum depression occurs at significantly higher rates in the Black community. Black women generally are “more likely to experience postpartum depressive symptoms, postpartum depression, or both” compared to white women, according to a study by the Maternal and Child Health Journal.
In the United States, one out of seven women experience postpartum depression — and the numbers are growing. Nine American maternal mortality review committees found that mental health problems, ranging from depression to substance use or trauma, went unidentified in many cases and were a contributing factor in pregnancy-related deaths.” Nonetheless, struggling mothers still have trouble finding resources, education and support in Texas and beyond.
Postpartum depression can also impact babies. If mothers are unable to care for their child, there is a higher chance of behavioral issues and lower cognitive ability due to the struggle to create a stable attachment between mother and child.
Stephanson, now a mother of three, founded the business Cater to Mom in 2018. The business sells postpartum care items — such as their postpartum recovery box, which includes items such as essential oils, body wash and designer snacks.
Stephanson said that after the birth of her first baby she “experienced a sense of feeling like I wasn’t a good enough mother. I felt like I was doing everything wrong, and then I was afraid to even talk to family members for being judged about the thoughts I was having.”
“I remember going to my doctor and expressing how I felt, and I remember her saying ‘Oh, you are just going through baby blues. It will pass.’ It didn’t. In Black culture, it is always ‘pray about it.’ But no other solutions or therapy are presented,” Stephanson said.
The Black community is “less likely to use the term depression, but they may say they don’t feel like themselves,” Alfiee Breland-Noble, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, told National Public Radio in 2019. Even though they may be hurting, there is still a stigma and fear in the Black community surrounding mental health, Breland-Noble said.
After experiencing an unexpected C-section with her first child, Austin mother Jerika Dykes also experienced symptoms of postpartum depression.
“My postpartum has definitely been a challenge. There is not a day that goes by that I look at pictures of my daughter from when she was born, how much she has grown, and have thoughts about how I did not get to see her born,” Dykes said.
She attends support groups and sees a therapist, but Dykes says finding her therapist was not easy.
“It did take me many months to find a therapist to meet that need for me, and I unfortunately have to pay out of pocket for her,” Dykes said.
Psychiatry professor Breland-Noble told National Public Radio that screening tests for postpartum depression such as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale survey were developed “based on mostly white research participants.” Resources and support specifically tailored to the Black community are necessary in breaking down the stigma against seeking professional care and helping mothers feel healthier.
Black Mamas ATX provides Sister Circles, anxiety support groups, and mindfulness support groups for mothers to be able to connect, share, and hear other Black mothers’ experiences. They also have a social worker, Alicia Beatrice, on staff to refer for case management and individual therapy.
Mama Sana Vibrant Woman has a free postpartum support group called Mama 4 Mama circles “to encourage connection and self-care. All sessions include free childcare, a nutritious meal, and transportation assistance.”
Black mothers also struggle with pain during and after their pregnancy.
“There is a stereotype around Black women that we somehow are able to withstand more pain … It tends to get written off as, ‘You look like someone who can withstand more pain so you are probably OK,” Lexi Losch, a licensed professional counselor at Austin’s Open Heart Counseling and postpartum doula, said.
The stereotype “has racial roots. It is not true at all. We feel the same contractions that our white counterparts do,” she said. “I definitely think that is a big reason why Black moms, after hearing all of the Black maternal mortality rates, are looking towards less hospital-based options.”
Many Black women in Central Texas do not have the resources or financial support to talk to someone about their postpartum depression symptoms. Community engagement is key to treating postpartum issues effectively, Losch said. Caregivers need to “educate the community on what the perinatal mood and anxiety disorders look like and what you should be looking for as an aunt, uncle … rather than saying ‘Oh, we will just go to church and we will pray on it. I will give these feelings up to God,’” Losch said.
“If there are more people that at least understand that Mama is just not doing well and she doesn’t have to do it alone, she’s more likely to at least get in touch with someone close to her.”
While encouraging community support, Stephanson also says it is important to look out for yourself.
“The most important thing is being an advocate for yourself. You have to speak up and say ‘These are the questions I have. What is going on?’ and demand that you get the help that you need,” Stephanson said.