‘I was looking to not feel alone’

By Michelle Ruby, Brantford Expositor

For decades Jane Flinders has been surrounded by mothers and their gurgling newborns.

An early childhood educator for 35 years, she has worked with hundreds of women experiencing that extraordinary first year with their children.

Her programs include lots of chatter, lap games, singing and laughter.

But Flinders also has become adept at recognizing when there is a problem, when women just aren’t coping well with the demands of new motherhood.

“I can red flag people when they are really struggling,” said Flinders. “When I miss something and I find out afterward, it breaks my heart. They are working so darn hard to keep up a front.”

Hoping to fill what Sharon Brooks, executive director of Kids Can Fly, calls a “huge gap in services in our community,” Flinders is leading a new support group with the aim of helping women facing the challenges of life with a new baby.

While Brooks said The Parachute Program — Transitioning to Parenthood, operated by Kids Can Fly, is not a medical or therapeutic group, it will offer support to women, some of whom may be suffering postpartum depression.

The program recently received a $7,600 grant from the city to assist with its operation and the cost of public education.

Statistics indicate that there are about 1,500 births a year in Branford and Brant County.

Stats also estimate that four in five new mothers experience “baby blues,” a condition that includes symptoms of sadness, crying spells, poor concentration and irritability that lasts up to 14 days.

But about 20% of women experience postpartum depression when these symptoms and others get worse or last longer than two weeks.

Women suffering PPD also may feel as if they’re not bonding with their babies and could be having scary thoughts of harming themselves and/or their infants. Many feel guilty and ashamed, hopeless, anxious and restless.

Untreated PPD can lead to stress and strain on marriage and impact the social, emotional and cognitive development of the baby.

A PPD support program, housed at the Early Years Centre and run by the Brant County Health Unit, was discontinued about three years ago.

“At Launch Pad and Best Start we have quarterly meetings,” said Brooks. “Postpartum depression was coming up over and over. It was obvious that there are a lot of women struggling with this and there is nowhere to send them.”

In January, Brooks and several others formed the Brant Working Group for PPD.

Brooks said the group polled 50 family doctors and their staff, asking them if they knew where to seek help for PPD. Almost 70% of them said they did not.

“Doctors could be prescribing medications, but women also need some social supports. We gathered an inventory of what local agencies said they could offer. We need some front-line supports put in place. We need to get stuff in place to help moms.”

Tracy Woodford, a research co-ordinator at St. Joseph’s Women’s Health Concerns Clinic in Hamilton, is part of the working group for the new Parachute Program.

“I recognized the need for something in Brantford,” said the city resident. “Social support is a huge component for getting through this vulnerable period.

“We don’t have extended families anymore. Women can go to these groups and talk to others and have their feelings validated.”

Rebecca Godderis, assistant professor of health studies and contemporary studies at Laurier Brantford, began researching PPD while working toward her PhD at the University of Calgary.

Part of that research involved scouring psychiatric literature to determine when PPD actually began to be discussed.

She discovered that, although there are references to the condition dating back to the 1960s, it didn’t become a major concern in psychiatry for another 20 years. Earlier references to PPD centred on postpartum psychosis and the rare instances when mothers kill their children.

“They are very, very different conditions,” said Godderis.

One of her main research findings was that when PPD was mentioned in the media, it was also most often in cases involving infanticide. One of the most infamous cases is that of Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned her five children in the bathtub in 2001.

“These stories are picked up in the media and played over and over again,” said Godderis. “That is postpartum psychosis. Postpartum depression would never lead to this.

“When women read these stories, PPD becomes even more difficult to talk about. They worry, ‘Are they going to take away my kids?'”

Jackie, a Brantford resident, went looking for local help shortly after the birth of her third child. She was becoming increasingly concerned about the well-being of her baby, eventually, she said, becoming a prisoner to her own irrational thoughts.

“It’s very difficult to reach out and admit that you’re not coping,” said Jackie, not her real name. “There is a denial and acknowledgement phase. Usually the time you are reaching out is the time you are in crisis.”

While Jackie discovered that several local organizations were willing to offer her counselling, there was no support group where women also experiencing PPD could meet and talk.

“I was looking to not feel alone.”

Godderis said support groups are “incredibly important” in order to share information and reduce isolation.

“They get confirmation from each other that you’re not supposed to automatically know what to do so they don’t feel like they’re failing as moms.”

Flinders said the Parachute Program will be open to women and their newborns up to 12 months old. Information about PPD will be interwoven with games and music. The 90-minute drop-in sessions will include talks from experts about breastfeeding, nutrition, and other pertinent subjects.

“There will be more focus on moms,” said Flinders. “There will be more emphasis on challenges with the new baby. And we will be referring women to other services.

“The first six months will be a learning process to try and find out their needs.”

Lesley Neeve has been a birth and postpartum doula, also known as a labour coach, in Brantford for the past 10 years.

She provides new moms with wide-ranging services: housekeeping, running errands, laundry, help with breastfeeding, help to initiate routines.

“There isn’t enough information out in Brantford about PPD and women don’t know where to look for help.

“And a lot of women are in denial. It’s very important for the people closest to them to, after a couple of weeks, call their doctor.”

Brooks said one of the main goals of the Brant Working Group for PPD is to help remove the stigma around the condition.

Many women are afraid of being seen as complaining or not able to handle motherhood. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed or fear that admitting to negative feelings during the perinatal period may lead to their children being taken away or they will be labelled as bad mothers.

“We are taught that a good mother is ‘on’ all the time,” said Jackie. “There is such a stigma. I didn’t find a lot of understanding. It’s such a place of pain in your life.”

Brooks said the new support group is a starting point in the city, which she says needs a “buffet of services” to help women struggling with PPD. That could include a telephone help line and one-on-one counselling.

Woodford said it would be ideal to have some reproductive mental health professionals in place in Brantford.

Targeted screening of those women who may be at higher risk of developing PPD — single mothers and those with a family history of depression, for example — could also be helpful, said Woodford.

“Public education needs to be put forth more. People need to pony up and say, ‘We need to help new mothers.'”


At a glance

What: The Parachute Program – Transitioning to Parenthood drop-in support group

When: Wednesdays from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Where: St. Andrews Community Centre, 95 Darling St.

Cost: Free


Need help?

* Your health care provider (family physician, midwife, nurse OB/GYN, psychiatrist, private therapist)

* Mental Health Emergency Crisis Line (24 hours) Brantford General Hospital, 519-752-2273.

* Mental Health Crisis Services (24 hours) St. Leonard’s Community Services, 519-759-7188 or 1-866-811-7188.

* Telehealth Ontario (24 hours), 1-866-797-0000

* Canadian Mental Health Association, 519-752-2998

* Family Counselling Centre of Brant, 519-753-4173.