Ottawa·The Slow Return

The trauma new moms bear and why they feel forgotten

Abigail Burke and Erin Girouard both gave birth during the pandemic — a challenge, they say, that has lingering effects for both moms and babies as society reopens.

Perinatal and postpartum mental health resources are strained, say experts

A father and a mother look at their newborn son during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Moms who are pregnant or gave birth during a global pandemic are under additional layers of stress, which will have lasting effects on their mental health as they navigate a reopening society, say experts. (Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

Now more than a year into the pandemic, CBC Ottawa is looking at how people are adapting to new realities with its series The Slow Return.

Anxiety, isolation, grief and trauma — these are some of the words new moms are using to describe their pregnancy and postpartum experience during the pandemic, and they say steps toward normal life are just as daunting.

After spending the majority of her first pregnancy in lockdown, Abigail Burke says her traumatic birthing experience was the beginning of her life taking a dark turn. 

"It's been the hardest time in my life," said the Ottawa mom. "I had to mourn what I thought this year of life would be." 

Burke described the "traumatic birth" of her son, Hugo, after doctors finding a hole in his heart and having an emergency C-section.

Burke is one of many moms who became pregnant or gave birth during a global pandemic under additional layers of stress, which will have lasting effects on their mental health as they navigate a reopening society, say experts.

Burke said not being with family took a big toll on her. She described months of sleepless nights (even when her son was sleep trained), crying daily, feeling "paralyzed with anxiety," and even having her first-ever panic attack while out walking with her baby.

"After I spent all of my first Mother's Day crying basically, that was when I realized I needed help," she said about her decision to seek therapy.

Her baby's heart defect is now healed but society's reopening has caused her to worry about her son catching COVID-19 because of her choices — like going on a date with her husband or attending a play group. 

"I hope my new normal is activities with him, him playing with other kids, and me slowly, maybe with time, becoming more comfortable with the idea of getting out and doing things with him."

Abigail Burke holds her son Hugo, who turned one in August. Burke has struggled with isolation during the pandemic. (Submitted by Abigail Burke)

New mothers 'forgotten about' during pandemic

"We are a demographic of people who were just forgotten about," said Erin Girouard, who gave birth to her second child last year. "It felt like borderline torture to be so isolated, to not have your village."

Girouard, the program director for Mommy Connections Ottawa, says she spoke to hundreds of women who have struggled having to give birth wearing masks, had little support, and were fearful or unsure of the COVID-19 vaccine — but the stories of women birthing alone leave her struggling the most.

"We have a big maternal mental health crisis on our hand," she said. "My big fear ... is that the mental health support is not adequate in our province."

She wants the government to provide free and widely available mental health support to families who have birthed babies in the last two years.

"To access any kind of mental health support is so expensive as it is, and anything free has yearlong wait-lists," she said. "What are they going to do for us?"

Erin Girouard is seen with her second child, born during the pandemic. Girouard wants the government to provide free and widely available mental health support to families who have birthed babies in the last two years. (Submitted by Erin Girouard)

Biological, psychological and social stress

Rekha Chagarlamudi, an Ottawa child and family therapist, has seen a dramatic increase in referrals for pregnant or postpartum moms during the pandemic, specifically with anxiety and depression.

"We're struggling to provide as much service as we can, because our wait-lists are getting longer," she said. "We struggled pre-pandemic to provide that service ... There aren't a lot of us."

Chagarlamudi says moms can connect with other moms, attend walking groups, make sure they get their physical activity in, and ask for help — but the most important thing is they need specialized maternal mental health resources.

WATCH | Perinatal mental health expert on why moms need help

Why life as a new mom can be challenging during the pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 1:37
Jasmine Gandhi, medical director of the perinatal mental health program at The Ottawa Hospital, says many new moms have struggled to navigate the isolation of the pandemic, which has left them without the support system they might normally have had.

Jasmine Gandhi, the medical director of the perinatal mental health program at the General campus of The Ottawa Hospital (one of two hospitals that provide this service in the city), says about one in five expectant or postpartum women were diagnosed with psychiatric illness pre-pandemic. That number is now one in three, she says, citing a recent study out of Alberta.

"It's a huge, huge issue," she said, noting new moms who delivered in the last two years are impacted biologically, psychologically and socially.

She says as scary as it can be to have "all these unknowns and the lack of control," new mothers must try and embrace those.

"The best surprises come when you're not expecting them — and I say that as a clinician but I also say that as a mom," she said.

Gandhi says there's no one-size-fits-all solution for all cases, but for those anxious about COVID-19, she suggests moms limit their consumption of news and information from social media. She reminds moms that data shows vaccines are helpful in protecting against COVID-19, and young children won't get as sick. 

For women worried about their safety or mental health, she encourages them to seek professional help.

"Know that you're not alone."

Here are some resources for moms: