Editor’s note: This article discusses maternal health, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Postpartum Anxiety (PPA) and some readers may find it triggering.
It was a mild January day in the Northeast and we were setting out in unfamiliar territory after learning our intended destination was closed for hunting season. “Yes, we will happily go somewhere else,” our hike leader responded to the county park ranger who pulled up in a truck next to her car in the parking lot. Thankfully, her quick thinking meant we didn’t have to abandon our intentions of hiking that morning.
More than an hour after the original start time, our tenacious group eagerly trekked into a nearby forest gem with the little ones strapped to our backs. The adults leading the way caught up on the busyness of the holidays and chatted about current events while my friend and I anchored the pack in deep discussion.
One mile later, we descended into a ravine that looked like a scene straight out of a Middle Earth movie with the sunlight filtering through the fog rising gently above the river ice. It was breathtaking! We all felt that hiking high from the fresh air and scenery when she smiled and said, “It’s great to see you have found something that you are passionate about.”
I was still relatively new to Hike it Baby on that winter hike at Hacklebarney State Park last year. I had a handful of stroller hikes under my belt, but this was one of my first real trail hikes with my son in a carrier.
Being physically able to hike like this was exhilarating! It was also probably the last thing I ever expected to be doing so soon after surviving what I dubbed “the medical gauntlet.”
Surprising me and my family alike, hiking with a pack of parents and young children in the forest became one of the ways I began to emerge from the grief following pregnancy and postpartum trauma.
Dodging Death Not Once, But Twice
In 2015, I not only became a first-time mother, but I also became one of the many faces of the Maternal Health Crisis in the United States. It would be an understatement to say I had a challenging pregnancy and postpartum, dodging death not once, but twice. When the dust began to settle after my near-misses, I was shocked to learn that the United States is the most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), maternal mortality in the U.S. has been on the rise – taking it to 46th in the world – while the rate is declining in other wealthy nations. While the majority of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, many people are surprised to learn that 700 women die every year in the U.S., and another 60,000 mothers come incredibly close to death. That is one every ten minutes!
I am confounded by the stinging and unexpected contradiction of women dying while trying to give life. What should be a happily exhausting time in a new parent’s life is shrouded in tragedy and grief for so many others. Also troubling is that a significant number of women don’t get the care they need because their complaints are dismissed as a normal part of pregnancy or postpartum recovery. This delay in diagnosis can be enough to make treatable conditions catastrophic.
I don’t share these statistics to frighten anyone, but the reality is that the Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) is a key indicator for the quality of a nation’s health care system and the U.S. has a lot of room for improvement. It also means that many families are deeply affected by the long-lasting trauma from these types of maternal events and many suffer in silence.
You may know one of these families or maybe you are even a survivor yourself. Healthy mothers and babies are a cornerstone of our society and certainly of the next generation. When one family hurts, we all hurt too.
I was completely blindsided by my near-misses and their effects still reverberate loudly two years later. My physical recovery was long and difficult, and I was not prepared for the emotional weariness that followed either. I missed a significant portion of my son’s early life while fighting for my own. The weight of nearly leaving my husband alone to raise our newborn left me mourning so many aspects of new motherhood that I would never get back. I struggled with sky-high anxiety for my own health, insomnia and flashbacks, in addition to the typical paranoia that plagues first-time moms. With my physical limitations, my expectations of motherhood were turned on their head.
When I started to feel physically stronger a few months later, I knew I had to get out of the house more if I wanted to combat the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Postpartum Anxiety (PPA) I had acquired. I started walking with the stroller a few times a week and often thought to myself, “I wish I could find or form a group of moms to walk with.” It wasn’t just seeking the benefit of increased physical activity – I knew I needed more social support too.
Two things dramatically changed the course of my recovery during the summer of 2016. The first breakthrough was that my trial run of every mom group imaginable was rewarded by a chance meeting with a Hike it Baby mom. I went on my first hike a few weeks after meeting her and never looked back. Knowing families met regularly and that I could just show up was an invaluable resource for me. I could bring my son too, which helped ease my anxiety. Best of all, I was teaching him to love the outdoors and take care of himself by example.
Around the same time, I found an online peer-led support group for Maternal Near-Miss Survivors which has been nothing short of a godsend! Regularly talking to women who intimately understand perinatal trauma and the challenges of living with it has been a critical element to processing my own experiences. Couple that with Hike it Baby’s organizational platform that encourages social support, exercise, fresh air and sunshine and I felt like I had finally found the two healthy outlets I needed to survive and thrive in this new season.
Now, many of my friends are Survivors and Hike it Baby parents and they have enriched my life far more than I could ever tell them. There is an underlying current that we are all in this parenthood thing together. Even though our journeys are as unique as they come, the threads of sleepless nights, and sometimes even suffering, are the same.
No Mother Left Behind
With statistics like more than 150 near-misses per day and even more women suffering from perinatal mood disorders like postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety (PPA), chances are high that there are a lot of hurting moms in our branches already. As a hiking organization, Hike it Baby’s motto is “No Hiker Left Behind” and I believe that sentiment can reach even farther. Our community encompasses the single largest demographic affected by the maternal health crisis, and we already know how the outdoors provide a wealth of physical and mental health benefits. What if we all started being more open about our stories and offered to be a part of the lifeline that these struggling families need?
I see an opportunity for a strong symbiotic relationship between Hike it Baby and maternal health to develop over time. We have the chance to come alongside other moms in our circles and help them emerge from one of the darkest times of their lives simply by imploring them to get outside with us. Hike it Baby offers the social support of a community of parents and the vast benefits of the outdoors proven to help combat numerous health conditions.
I cannot emphasize enough how a personal invitation has the potential to change this season in a new mom’s life! At the same time, near-miss survivors and those suffering from mood disorders have the unique ability to put faces to the crisis. Survivor stories are a largely untapped resource we can learn from. They empower a huge population of women to better advocate for their own health while raising awareness about the signs and symptoms of perinatal complications that should trigger an immediate trip to the emergency room. Together, we can make sure that no mother is left behind.
Joining a Movement
Spreading awareness about Maternal Health issues and the need for donated blood are two of the passions that emerged since my trauma. Thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University and The Tara Hansen Foundation, this coming January 23 is the first annual New Jersey Maternal Health Awareness Day and it coincides with National Blood Donor Month. As someone who received over fifteen units of blood after childbirth – more than my entire blood volume – I can’t think of a better way to celebrate both initiatives than by teaming up with other mothers to collect donated blood for the community. With the help of Woodside Chapel Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS ), I hope to raise awareness about the increasing rate of Maternal Mortality and Near-Miss in the United States. We hope to share information about the signs and symptoms of perinatal complications – conditions such as Postpartum Hemorrhage, Pre-eclampsia, HELLP Syndrome and Pulmonary Embolism to name a few – so women can recognize when they should seek immediate medical attention and advocate for themselves in those situations with more confidence. We also hope to encourage regular blood donations.
Are you interested in joining the Maternal Health movement? It is as simple as rolling up your sleeve to donate blood. The demand for blood always outpaces the supply, and many people depend on the kindness of strangers for their second chance at life. Please consider joining us at the blood drive on January 23 if you live in the New Jersey area. Visit Heroes for Moms to learn about other survivor organized blood drives nationwide or visit the American Red Cross to find a collection location near you. Your blood donations go a long way in giving families like mine hope during a crisis. Let’s make January 23 a day that unites our voices regardless of where we live and change the course of Maternal Health in the U.S. Motherhood shapes the future and we each have a role to play in making it safer.
To learn more about our blood drive and the Maternal Health Crisis, visit our Facebook page.
Photos courtesy of Casey Cattell.
Casey Cattell struggled with infertility for more than a decade before giving birth to her son in 2015. She is a two-time Maternal Near-Miss Survivor writing at The Heart of Home to give hope to women in the midst of hardships. She enjoys sharing her latest adventures and creative exploits. Casey and her husband live in the Garden State and in their downtime like to explore new places with their young son. If you liked this post or were encouraged by it, please consider passing it on. Find Casey on Instagram and Twitter.