Corie Hess gave birth to her second child during the pandemic. Like many pandemic mothers, Hess’s experience was tinged with isolation and anguish.
“My baby was born six weeks too soon, and he couldn’t breathe on his own,” said Hess, 37, of Muncie, Ind. Evan, her tiny infant, spent nearly two weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. “The whole experience was somewhat terrifying and traumatic,” Hess said.
Hess isn’t alone.
In one study, Sharon Dekel, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and her colleagues found that women who gave birth during the pandemic were more likely to experience birth trauma.
For the study, the researchers compared the pandemic birth experiences of 1,161 women to 640 non-pandemic births. Women who gave birth during the pandemic reported higher levels of acute stress, which were related to mother-baby bonding difficulties, as well as breastfeeding problems.
Another study, published in November, found that 42% of women who gave birth between March and May of last year reported mild symptoms of postpartum trauma, while 29% experienced moderate symptoms. But over a year after the pandemic began, it is becoming clear that the trauma many mothers suffered doesn’t always leave a permanent scar.
For approximately 52% of trauma survivors, adversity leads to post-traumatic growth (PTG), which is positive growth that coincides with traumatic stress. Studies have found that PTG can deepen one’s appreciation for life, increase personal strength and make relationships more meaningful. “For these mothers, distress leads them to ask questions like, ‘What is my life worth?’ ” Dekel said.
Giving birth to a premature baby wasn’t Hess’s first brush with maternal trauma. “After my first baby was born, I had a miscarriage that nearly took my life,” she said. After her most recent hardship, Hess decided to change her work-life balance. “Before the pandemic, I was close to finishing my doctorate in psychology, but I put work on hold to focus on my family,” Hess said.
She also took new relationship risks. “After my miscarriage, I didn’t talk to anyone about my loss,” Hess said. But this time around, she’s told other mothers about her experience. “There’s so much power that comes from sharing your story,” Hess said. “I wish I had done it sooner.”
Forging a new career path, becoming more empathic and cultivating more intimate connections can result from PTG. That said, moms who experience PTG don’t solely put a positive spin on suffering; growth is one way of making sense of the trauma. And while PTG may sound a lot like resilience, Dekel says the two differ.
“Resilience refers to how quickly one recovers, but PTG isn’t solely about recovery, it’s a positive change that often leaves mothers feeling better than they did before,” the psychologist said.
For some mothers, however, trauma doesn’t turn a corner.
According to psychologists, several factors can affect whether suffering lingers. Trauma severity or previous trauma, such as child abuse or sexual assault, can make it harder to bounce back from tragedies. And when losses such as of a child or a loved one challenges one’s outlook on life, women may be less likely to experience PTG.
Coping styles can also play a role. Mothers who reported a robust bond with their babies and saw childbirth as pivotal to their motherhood identities were more likely to experience PTG, Dekel and her colleagues found in one study. Research also suggests that creative problem-solving skills, having a spiritual or religious practice, and adopting a positive mind-set may correspond with PTG.
Traumatized mothers may worry that their anxiety, trauma flashbacks and scary thoughts will morph into something more serious such as postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder, which can affect up to 17% of moms. In these cases, cognitive therapy can teach moms how to restructure their thinking and identify new coping tools, said Anna Glezer, a reproductive psychiatrist in Burlingame, Calif.
Along with therapy, it may also be useful to know that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it’s entirely awful. In many ways, stress can be adaptive because we need some level of stress to grow, Dekel said.
At the height of the pandemic, Tessa Joos, 36, a mother of three in Arvada, Colo., gave birth to her third child prematurely.
“Two days before my daughter was supposed to leave intensive care, she stopped eating and was unresponsive,” Joos said. “I watched her fight for her life.” Instead of going home, the baby remained in the NICU.
“There were days I didn’t want to go to the hospital to see her,” Joos said. “I didn’t want to get attached for fear of losing her, but I went. I never missed a day.”
How mothers recover from postpartum trauma and other mental health concerns can also be tied to social support.
“Talking with loved ones, as well as joining a support group or finding a therapist can help moms realize they’re not alone and that trauma isn’t permanent,” said Kasey Balin, a trauma-focused therapist in San Francisco.
Joos said therapy, as well as speaking with a mom who was in a similar situation helped. “I met my friend at the hospital, and we checked in with each other every day,” she said. “A year later, I’m closer to her than I am to some of my family members because the trauma brought us together.”
When it comes to recovery, Balin said processing trauma is a key component of healing. “Once mothers are able to recognize their inner strength and acknowledge they survived, they can come out on the other side,” she added. Often, growth takes place alongside trauma, but mothers may not see the benefits until the crisis recedes.
A year after her daughter’s health scare, Joos said she feels even more grateful for her family and children.
“Now, I want to support friends and family who experience trauma,” she said. “I want to pay it forward.”