The Power of a Personal Story
Gretchen Mallios, LCSW, MPP
How I Became Involved with PHA
As the President of Postpartum Health Alliance, I want to share with you the story of how I became involved with PHA so many years ago. The truth is that PHA found me in the winter of 2007, through a posting on the Parent Connection parent listserve by then President, Sharon Jones. In it, she shared the story of her own postpartum journey and how PHA had been essential to her during a very dark and difficult time. She courageously shared her experience in order to raise awareness about the painful realities of postpartum emotional health. In addition, she invited others to join the cause and support PHA, in order that it would continue to be available to others. I heard her message loud and clear and I have been deeply involved ever since. Clearly, her story made a profound impact on me, and this is why.
Like many advocates who work on this issue, I felt blindsided by the difficult transition to motherhood. It was far more challenging and emotionally demanding than I could ever have expected. For the first six months or so, I was fine and rose to the occasion. Much of my experience was joyful and positive at the start and I felt blessed with a healthy and vigorous little girl and a loving and supportive husband. But gradually over time, my foundation slowly eroded away. Less than a year after my daughter was born, I was becoming exhausted, discouraged, and deeply doubtful of my abilities as a mom. My daughter was difficult to soothe and had a high temperament that required long hours of nurturing, holding, and caregiving. This went on beyond the usual ‘colic period’ and it did not get easier for many, many months. Eventually, I felt like a fraction of the person I had been before her birth and I was having a harder and harder time finding my way back. I began experiencing terrible physical pain and joint problems that impacted my mobility and physical activity. Our outings had been my most helpful outlet and now even that was becoming hard. It felt so scary at the time and I wondered if I was ever going to get through it. Though my experience was different than Sharon’s, I still resonated with her pain; I understood her heartache. That seemed like reason enough to offer help, if I could.
Around this same time, I re-entered my profession and began working part time, as a child and adolescent clinician with Medi-Cal clients. Technically, this was the same job I had done before I became a parent, only now the work felt entirely different. With a new understanding about the challenges that children and parents face, I was a witness to their deep suffering, under the strain of parenting. What’s worse, in these instances, the children were now showing the signs of their parents’ emotional distress and functioning. Young children were being referred for emotional, behavioral, social and/or academic problems. Some of them were already being medicated for bipolar disorder! It was heart wrenching. In the eyes of the behavioral health care system, it was the children who needed treatment. But for me, it was clear that the parents’ untreated emotional pain and distress had manifested in significant challenges in their children.
With a new perspective on my work, I began routinely asking parents about their pregnancies and the infancy period with their children. Invariably, mothers and fathers would widen their eyes and begin to tear up. They would start to share stories that they clearly had never been asked to share before. Stories about devastating medical traumas during childbirth that had never been processed; about depression and anxiety that surfaced after their child was born; about doctors and family members who turned their backs on them or judged them for having a difficult time. The expressed pain was always raw, despite the many years that had passed. The word ‘Postpartum’ in postpartum depression only applies if someone is screened and identified during that time. Otherwise, it gradually becomes a broader mental health problem that threatens to define the identity of the entire family system and the relationships within. And that’s what I had discovered; countless cases of children who were emotionally dysregulated as a result of being cared for by parents with their own emotional challenges. So there I was, in 2008, witnessing the next generation of kids entering the public mental health system. It seemed to me that our systems were failing our families and the outcome was extremely costly to these individuals and families, and to our communities overall.
It was at that intersection of my personal and professional experiences that my fate was sealed. PHA’s mission became my mission too. Like so many others, I have been working to address the problems of perinatal mental health disorders ever since. In my household, countless hours, resources and priorities have been absorbed under the tab “PHA” and I am not the only one. One would need to multiply my experience dozens of times in order to tally up the many providers, volunteers, and community members who have worked on behalf of PHA and its mission. They include PHA founders Drs. Leslie Craig and Janet Jaffe, who helped bring the organization to San Diego. PHA’s legacy also includes numerous Board Presidents who have provided guidance and leadership to keep the San Diego perinatal community strong and growing, like Dr. Chris Bernet, Mary Obata, Sharon Jones, Holly Herring, Amber Rukaj, and Jessica Heldman. Supporting members of the Board of Directors help to ensure that PHA continues to fulfill its mission to raise awareness about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, their signs and symptoms, and link people to the right kind of help and support they need to recover. This list of acknowledgements is in no way exhaustive; there are too many people to thank to make it so. But all of these people have made PHA what it is today. And I am certain that they each have a story too.
I hope you believe in PHA as deeply as I do. If you can help us continue the great work that PHA does, please make a donation to support our work. You can also visit us on Facebook and share your story with us. No one person can do this work alone. But we can all inspire each other, just as I was inspired so many years ago.
Thank you for support.