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‘Becoming a mother broke me’: For a woman collecting pandemic postpartum stories, the work is personal

Jessica Bradley holds her son Troy shortly after giving birth at Fair Oaks Hospital in Virginia in January. (Ariane Audet)

Ariane Audet grows quiet on the phone.

She is usually the one posing questions about motherhood, and now, she’s not sure how to answer one I’ve asked her.

What do you think would have happened if you had to give birth now?

She stays silent for so long that I glance at my phone’s screen to make sure we didn’t get disconnected.

“I’m afraid to say it,” she finally says. “But I don’t know if I would still be alive.”

Three years ago, Audet gave birth to her first child, and five months later, she ended up in a psychiatric unit of a hospital.

“Becoming a mother broke me in a way I didn’t know was possible,” she explains. “But by breaking me, it finally let me rebuild myself in the way that I wanted to, which is probably someone who needed meds her whole life.”

While being treated in that hospital for severe postpartum depression and anxiety, Audet came up with an idea for putting her photography skills and PhD in literature to use. She decided that once she returned home, she would start a storytelling project called “Faces of Postpartum.”

Since then, she has nurtured that project alongside her children, two girls who are now 3 and 18 months. She has collected stories and taken photographs of women throughout the Washington region and as far as Canada that capture the parts of parenting that aren’t Pinterest-pretty. They show moments that are makeup-less and messy — and, because of that rawness and realness, are therapeutic for both the women who get to share their stories and those who get to read them.

But before Audet got to that place where she could help others, she first had to walk into an emergency room in Virginia to help herself.

She doubts she could take those same steps now that covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has overwhelmed medical services across the country and made going into any building feel like a risk for contagion.

“I wouldn’t want to go to an ER now, and I’m not even sure an ER would see me,” Audet says, thinking of the women who are currently struggling in the same way she did at a time when “the world was fine.”

She is worried about them. She is worried about the new moms who can no longer walk into a lactation consultant’s office and get in-person help with breast-feeding. She is worried about the women who desperately want to be moms and have seen their adoption plans and fertility treatments put on hold, indefinitely.

She is worried about the people who are now isolated at home with their children, feeling alone in ways that go beyond social distancing.

As the death toll from covid-19 rises around us, it is natural to focus on the loss of life. The stories so far about whom this virus has claimed have been devastating and will only grow more so.

But this virus is also causing other types of losses behind closed doors — and those are the ones that Audet has spent a lot of time thinking about lately.

Don’t neglect your mental health during this pandemic

A few days ago, she decided to transform her project into a place where women could share their “pandemic postpartum” stories, and already she has received submissions. She shared them with me with the agreement that I wouldn’t identify the women who wrote them. On her website, facesofpostpartum.com, Audet uses only first names to allow people to speak freely without worrying about Google searches.

The recent submissions contain hilarious observations and intimate confessions. They also show what is happening beyond those pictures on social media of fresh-baked cookies and at-home art projects.

“My nephew asked me what I wanted for my birthday over the phone and I said: I want nobody to touch my boobs,” one woman writes. Being at home makes her son want to breast-feed all the time, she writes. “Makes you resent him a little. You don’t want to feel that way towards your child, but you do, and it adds to the whole situation that is already stressful.”

Another woman writes: “Moms are posting all the ‘fun’ educational things they are doing with their kids while I’m barely staying afloat with work and running the house. I’m struggling just trying to feed them all the meals they need let alone make sure they are learning. Are they exercising enough? Will they be behind next year? Am I dropping the ball?”

A woman in Woodbridge shared with Audet the quarantine diary she posted on Facebook.

On Day 3, she writes: “The amount of people who are allowed to be together is shrinking and soon may mean there are too many people in my house. Well, let’s be real, we know there are too many people in my house already. We ate cupcakes and pop tarts. Some of us bathed. Some of us are in yesterday’s clothes and some of us only put on fresh clothes.”

Day 4: “Fewer of us have bathed or changed our clothes today . . . Since my kids refused to go outside to play (and leave me alone) on several occasions I decided to disappear outside myself. It worked. I almost finished a book before they found me. But, I may have also got a sunburn. Once they come outside I go back in — it takes a while for them to figure it out.”

Day 6: “Tomorrow is Saturday but it’s not really gonna be different from today. #makeitstop.”

Audet, who also runs a photography business, used to drive from her home in Reston to meet with families. But now, because of the need for social distancing, she is doing interviews over the phone and accepting submissions through her email, which can be found on her website and Instagram page. It’s an unfamiliar way of working for her, but then again, everything about this moment feels unfamiliar.

So far, she has published three #pandemicpartum stories. One of them is her own, taken from a newsletter she writes weekly.

“More tears, more meds, more laughs, more screens,” she writes, “Not to mention sugar, flour, and yeast. My family is diving into this pandemic WWII style, while middle-aged white men are playing golf in groups of eight next door. Sharing carts and chest bumps. I’m anxiously waiting for the state to shutdown. I’m anxiously waiting, point. What does it have to do with (faces of) postpartum? Nothing. And everything.”

The country’s maternal mortality rate was already one of the highest among developed countries before the pandemic. If mothers weren’t taken seriously when the world was well, she asks, “What about now?”

She writes about how she is now spending her days — sleeping less and worrying more. She writes about how she is enjoying reading about the shared experiences of parents who are suddenly finding screens and frozen food back in style.

And she writes about how the project is also helping her.

“Here I am, writing to you this morning despite this s--- show of a week,” reads the last paragraph of her story. “A feeble but stubborn attempt to climb out of darkness, grab that darn buoy, and make my way back to shore.”

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

At a place where memories are fleeting, some powerful ones are being made through a glass door

The one undoubtable positive to come of the coronavirus: A new appreciation of teachers

She was homeless, sleeping outside a condemned house, 6 months ago. Now, she’s a published author.

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