On a recent rainy Monday night, Jessica Dodds swung open the glass door of a women’s health clinic in Fulton, water still dripping off her coat. She was dressed in a gray sweater and matching leggings from Costco, her hair tucked behind her ears under a baseball cap. She dropped her coat on a chair, found a seat with distinct familiarity and awaited the start of the meeting.
Dodds moved from Cleveland to the Baltimore area three months ago. The moving process, which can be grueling for anyone, was exacerbated by her anxiety and caring for her 14-month-old daughter. She’s found routine and comfort every Monday night in the lobby of the Capital Women’s Care clinic.
As a fax machine buzzed behind the front desk of the clinic, which closes at 4:30 p.m. except for meetings that use the space, support group organizer Jenn Riley welcomed Dodds and other women to the Postpartum Depression and Anxiety Therapeutic Support Group.
“I was nervous. I’ve never openly talked about it," Dodds said. “[I’ve] only talked about it with close friends and [my] husband.”
Postpartum depression, a major depressive episode, is the most common complication of childbirth, according to Dr. Jennifer Payne, director of the Women’s Mood Disorder Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who also practices in Howard County.
Riley decided it deserved more attention in Howard County. She started the group in the beginning of November after realizing there was no place in the county for women to talk about their postbirth experiences.
“I had postpartum depression, anxiety and [obsessive-compulsive disorder],” Riley said. “When I was going through it, I was trying to find a support group and I couldn’t in Howard County.”
A mother of a 2-year-old, Riley wanted to create a place for parents to come without any shame about how they were feeling and to provide them with necessary support. By day, Riley works as a coordinator for Postpartum Support International, so she said starting a support group was a logical next step.
“Once I recovered [from childbirth], I kept having this feeling inside of me,” Riley said of the depression. "We need to bring more awareness. There needs to be more places for moms to go so they’re not suffering alone. It’s OK to ask for help. You’re not alone, you’re not going through this by yourself. There’s so many people who have gone through this as well. With help, you will get better.”
Riley, a Catonsville resident, shuffled through her handwritten notes and began the week’s meeting reiterating nutrition and dietary notes from the previous week. She asked the moms to check in and give a progress update on the week.
The holidays can be a common denominator for stress among moms — setting up a Christmas tree, bringing family into town, making time for work parties — but for new moms, each of those seemingly customary routines can initiate anxiety, depression or OCD tendencies.
One mom mentioned the stress of her toddler ripping ornaments off the tree. Another mom in the group talked about the stress brought on by a family member who was visiting for the holidays and kissed the mom’s newborn baby on the cheek before she said goodbye.
“She wasn’t sick, but I’m just like, ‘Ahhh,’ ” said a mom, who declined to give her name for this story. “The next couple of days I’m going to be paying extra attention to make sure she’s not getting sick.”
The mom also described her journey of having three kids and four lost pregnancies, and how she felt like a failure for being diagnosed with postpartum depression.
“The anxiety is much worse this time than it was with my older child,” she said. “Basically you stress, especially if you’re someone who’s more prone to depression and anxiety. You stress during pregnancy and you stress after the baby’s born. There’s hormones raging both during pregnancy and post-pregnancy. It’s this magic, perfect storm where if [you have a] predisposition, it just hits and there’s nothing you can do.”
The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and globally, recently switched from using the term postpartum to peripartum, which encompasses the time during and after pregnancy. Payne said the DSM change recognizes that depression also can occur during pregnancy, not just after childbirth.
“We know that in the postpartum time period there’s a higher risk than normal of developing a depressive episode or another type of mood disorder. We know that there is a genetic basis for [postpartum depression]; women with mood disorders [also] have a higher chance of having postpartum depression,” Payne said.
“It’s really important to treat postpartum depression because when it goes untreated, the mother and the child don’t bond properly, and that can have effects on the baby’s language development, IQ, behavior, etc. It’s becoming better recognized now that we really need to be screening for postpartum depression and getting women treated.”
Men can get paternal postpartum depression as well, and Riley said men are welcome to attend the support group, whether they are coping with depression themselves or want to be able to help their spouses going through it.
As the minutes passed at the meeting, the body language of the moms relaxed and they found comfort in each other’s stories; each anecdote was met with head nods of agreement.
“You don’t want anything to make you feel weak, but every time I go to the group I leave feeling like a weight has been lifted,” Dodds said. “All of the ladies in the group are very different and have gone through very different things, but there’s no fear in talking.”
They talked about the potential for more children; for some there’s an eagerness, for others there’s reservations of recurrent postpartum depression.
“I’m terrified of it happening,” Riley said. “I’ve heard that it happens worse with your second [child].”
Dodds said she used to zoom in on her baby monitor to see if her daughter was still breathing. She’s reached the point where she’s no longer watching her 14-month-old on the monitor, but she’s unsure if that means she’s ready for a second child.
“I was so grateful for being pregnant, and the baby came out healthy and everything was great,” she said. “I want another child, but the thought of having to go through all of that again, and then what if it isn’t right or maybe I can’t get pregnant. I’m feeling so much better — I’m so terrified of taking a step back.”
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The Postpartum Depression and Anxiety Therapeutic Support Group meets every Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the lobby of Capital Women’s Care, 7625 Maple Lawn Blvd. in Fulton. There is no fee to attend, and people are encouraged to just show up.