Birtle mom makes space for education, healing
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When Jessica Fouillard had her first child 11 years ago at the age of 19, she knew becoming a mom would present unique challenges due to her young age.
What she didn’t realize was how difficult it would be to deal with postpartum depression — or how she’d end up triumphing over it and helping other mothers in the Birtle area, located 145 kilometres northwest of Brandon.
“I’ve come a long way,” said Fouillard, who is due to give birth to her fourth child in June. “I’m not ashamed of anything.”
Fouillard’s first pregnancy came as a surprise. By the time the baby — a little girl — was born, Fouillard was 20 years old. She can easily recall how hard the early days, weeks and months of motherhood were, though just over a decade has passed since then.
Never having expected she’d end up needing one, Fouillard eventually had to have an emergency caesarian section to give birth to her daughter, Quinn.
“The C-section was probably the hardest thing, because everybody, even my doctor, said, ‘Oh, you’ll have births like your mom.’ My mom had super quick, easy labours with no complications,” she said.
Fouillard also felt as though the doctor who presided over her pregnancy and delivery was very dismissive of her due to her young age. She laboured for 44 hours, and once the baby became distressed, a C-section was the only way to ensure her safe delivery.
“I was horrified because I didn’t know what to expect. I could feel things, which I didn’t like, and it was just very, very traumatic for me and it caused a lot of issues.”
Recovering from a C-section usually takes six weeks, though it varies from person to person. Mothers often need to take pain medication for the first one or two weeks. During the entire six weeks, it’s important to rest and avoid heavy lifting, strenuous activities and exercises that strain stomach muscles.
Fouillard’s memories of her recovery are fraught with pain and sadness.
“I just remember crying all the time because I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t lay down. I had to sit up all the time and just felt in pain. I didn’t even know that I could take more medication — I was just not ready for a child.”
Things continued down a challenging path after that. Breastfeeding was difficult, and Fouillard’s baby seemed to fuss constantly. She and her now-husband Jordan had just began living together on their own, which added another layer of difficulty to the new parents. All of the changes added up to a lot of anxiety for Fouillard, and when a nurse told her she wasn’t producing enough milk to sustain her baby, she felt even worse.
“She said that I needed to go to counselling, that I needed to start getting help, and so I did that. And it kind of worked a little bit. But I was still young, and I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she said.
Looking back now, Fouillard believes her infant daughter had been suffering from acid reflux and a possible milk allergy, which her subsequent children also experienced.
When the couple decided to have their second child — a boy named Beckem — Fouillard was so scared from her first C-section that she tried to have a vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC), but ended up having to have a surgical birth, which proved to be just as traumatic as her first.
“I was so traumatized from the first C-section that I had a complete meltdown, and they had to put me to sleep. It was not a very good situation at all.”
Traumatic birth experiences may lead to postpartum depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder, La Leche League Canada says. The organization, which supports breastfeeding, says many women feel sad or weepy after birth in a phenomenon known as the “baby blues.”
The condition often starts on the day a mother’s milk supply increases between days three and five following birth. Feelings of sadness may come and go in waves over a few hours or days and improves as breastfeeding is established and as pregnancy and birthing hormones leave the body.
Around 50 to 80 per cent of mothers experience the baby blues.
Unlike the baby blues, women like Fouillard, who experience postpartum depression (PPD) find that their sad feelings don’t fade away after a few weeks. They can also start any time during the first year after birth. Around 13 to 20 per cent of mothers and two to 25 per cent of fathers experience PPD, and if underlying causes aren’t dealt with, symptoms can get worse over time.
Common symptoms of PPD include mothers feeling as though they aren’t doing a good enough job in their new role, feeling guilty for having had a child, worrying they will never feel happy again and having difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Women can also experience disrupted appetite and sleep patterns beyond what is expected with a new baby in the house, and isolation due to being unable to get out of the house or interact with other people.
Much like her first baby, Fouillard’s second child proved to be fussy.
“I knew something was wrong this time, and I went to a doctor,” she said. “The doctor told me there was nothing wrong and I just needed to keep breastfeeding, and that it wasn’t that hard.”
The doctor’s dismissive behaviour prompted Fouillard to seek a second opinion, and a new doctor prescribed acid reflux medication, which helped. A few weeks after that, Beckem was diagnosed with a milk allergy.
Even though the family now had answers as to why the baby was suffering, Fouillard’s own pain was not diminished, and she ended up being hospitalized. If she hadn’t been admitted, she said, she’s not sure if she would still be around today.
“My postpartum depression was very scary. It could have taken my life completely. It was awful,” she said.
During her hospital stay and afterward, Fouillard felt better, thanks to counselling and working hard on her therapy. At the time, what she’d been through was still so fresh that she didn’t think she ever wanted to have children again.
“It took me years to come out of that postpartum depression, and it was just really, really rough,” she said.
But seven years after that, Fouillard and her husband decided that they wanted to expand their family. Fouillard had been working with a counsellor on healing the trauma her two c-sections had caused her, which she says was an “awesome” experience. She was able to make so much progress that her third c-section, in which she gave birth to her third child, Navy, turned out to be a wonderful experience.
“It was amazing, actually. I was so prepared and so calm. I was still nervous, but I had a lot of other things in place. I worked with a really good doctor,” Fouillard said.
Being able to face her fears, work through them and bring another child into her family now fills Fouillard with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
“It’s so much work to face up to something so traumatic. To be able to fully face that and be like, ‘I’m going to do it again, I’m going to have another baby, I want more kids’ – it felt so good,” she said.
Navy ended up having a tongue tie, known as ankyloglossia, that happens when the tissue that attaches the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too short, which can limit the movement of the tongue. The problem got fixed right away, and Navy also struggled with acid reflux and a milk allergy.
“Those are really hard things to deal with and make a very, very colicky baby. He never left my arms for about six weeks,” Fouillard said.
Last year’s formula shortage also meant that the family was under extra stress.
“It was a little touch and go at the beginning, but I just kept working really, really hard with my counsellor, and with all the tools that I’ve gathered over the years,” Fouillard said.
Now looking forward to the delivery of her fourth baby, Fouillard is aware that the chances of PPD coming back are very high. Women with PPD after a previous birth have a 30 to 70 per cent chance of developing it again after subsequent births, and the risk is higher depending on the severity of the first bout of PPD.
Having prior struggles with anxiety and depression – which Fouillard also experienced – further increase a mother’s chances of subsequent experiences of PPD.
“All the odds are against me to have PPD again, so I was very aware of that, and worked with a counsellor,” she said.
One of the things Fouillard’s counsellor suggested to her after she was struggling with loneliness in the wake of Navy’s birth was to join a mom and baby group. The closest one was 52 km away in Russell, and though she enjoyed attending it, Fouillard eventually decided to start her own group.
“I’m a person that likes to be a leader – that’s just one of my strengths. I’m good at organizing, so really, there was no reason way I couldn’t do it,” she said.
Fouillard’s group, called the Organized Chaos Collective, has been bringing parents and caregivers together since last November for socializing and conversation. Usually, the group talks about whatever challenges and triumphs the parents are experiencing at the time, but sometimes, awareness and education of PPD takes the spotlight, Fouillard said.
“I feel like I’m always hyper aware of PPD, because I’ve been through it so many times. If I feel like somebody’s struggling, I’ll try to help them, or reach out to them privately, or just be there for them.”
Fouillard advises all moms dealing with PPD – or who think they might experience it – to have a plan, and to involve their spouse. Discussions about what symptoms and signs to watch out for are essential, and learning more about PPD is, too.
“Speak to other people who have gone through it and ask questions,” Fouillard said. She also highly recommends working with a counsellor even before the baby is born. Knowing what to expect is extremely helpful, she added.
In sharing her story of PPD, Fouillard hopes that she’ll help destigmatize the condition, which Statistics Canada says affects 23 per cent of mothers, and give hope to those who suffer from it or who have loved ones affected by it.
“It could happen to anyone. Nobody’s really immune to it,” she said. “If you take the right steps and you have the right support, you will get through it.”
Fouillard also wants people to know that there is no shame in seeking help for PPD or any other mental health challenge.
“It’s okay to accept help. We all need help, because parenting is really hard,” she said. “Having a baby is a lot of work, and it really does take a village.”
» Twitter: @miraleybourne
Updated on Thursday, May 25, 2023 2:10 PM CDT: Removes photo. Fixes cutline in new photo.