Our community, my peers (older and younger) do not feel safe sharing it.
Our organization is so fortunate to be connected to women around the state who are willing to share their stories of maternal mental health. Then there are women like April Charlo who bring to it a whole new level! She began by performing with Melissa Bangs and other storytellers, or “Momedians” in MOMedy, a stand-up tragic comedy performance in Missoula. April then helped bring storytelling workshops to Billings, Lame Deer, and Polson, where she told her story for the first time in Tribal communities. We were honored to share her story in the 2021 issue of the LIFTS magazine in an article called “Sacred Motherhood,” written by Courtney Gerard. Watch April tell her story by viewing HMHB’s Our Stories Are Our Healing series.
April Charlo grew up on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, a postcard-perfect landscape of glacial mountains and expansive valleys. When she got pregnant at 38, she thought she’d have a birth rife with traditional elements—the land, a teepee, and songs. Like so many things in life, though, births don’t always turn out as planned, and April’s early years of motherhood did not go as she expected either.
“The second I got pregnant with Chief I was super anxious because I have a friend that lost a baby at five months, and I didn’t know what I would do mental health-wise if I was to miscarry and have to tell everyone. These stigmas were really ingrained in me early on, that the world doesn’t need to know how I feel around a miscarriage and mental health. I didn’t want to tell anyone [I was pregnant] ‘til I got past the five-month mark because I didn’t want people to have to feel sorry for me if something went wrong,“ says April.
When her son Chief was born, she didn’t have the experience she thought she would have. Since she was a teenager, April dreamed of having a baby of her own and was convinced she would be the best parent she could be. It turned out it wasn’t that simple. “All my friends disappeared. I couldn’t go anywhere. I would put him in his car seat and he would scream. It was just such, such an anxious time. I would go into fight or flight, definitely a dysregulated, hyperarousal state where I would just shut down if I had to go to a store or anything. It was really intense,” says April.
She didn’t realize she was experiencing postpartum depression—a condition affecting up to 20 percent of women in the first weeks after giving birth that is classified as a serious mental health issue.
“Postpartum depression was completely hidden in my community. At thirteen I went from playing with dolls to not being able to wait to have my own baby. In the  years between then and when I had Chief, I thought there was no way that was going to happen to me. I wanted this baby more than anything. More than anyone else who ever wanted their baby,” says April, choked with tears.
Postpartum depression manifests uniquely in every woman, but common symptoms include depressed mood or mood swings, excessive crying, difficulty bonding with your baby, withdrawing from family and friends, change in appetite, changes in sleep, overwhelming fatigue, reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy, intense irritability or anger, hopelessness, feelings of shame or guilt, diminished ability to think clearly, and thoughts
of harming yourself or your baby.
For most women in America, and Native American communities in particular, postpartum depression comes along with a whole lot of stigma.
“It’s very hidden because it’s very embarrassing. In any culture, how this affects anyone of any color or status—it’s the same. It’s the same fear of being judged or ostracized. It’s the same fear of sharing the intrusive thoughts with anyone beyond yourself. What will that mean? Are they going to take my kids if I share these intrusive thoughts? Postpartum depression doesn’t discriminate,” says April.
Unlike the “baby blues,” which typically clears up after a few weeks, postpartum depression can last for anywhere from a few months to several years.
“I didn’t even know that it was postpartum depression,” says April through tears. “I thought I had some unique condition. It never occurred to me that it was postpartum depression. My brain chemistry had me so locked in tunnel vision of just getting through the day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll kill myself. If I can’t make it through tomorrow, I’ll kill myself and my son. It still shakes me to my core.”
April attributes much of her community’s silent struggle with postpartum depression to the lack of traditional knowledge being handed down—a paradigm that has been pervasive since the colonization of the Americas when boarding schools forced Native children out of their homelands and disrupted their chain of cultural heritage.
Despite past struggles, the dialogue around Native American prenatal and postpartum care is gaining traction. With more gatherings and conversations happening in public forums than ever before, Native women are finally finding their voices on the issue.
“Once I told my story, it was like story after story after story of ‘I had that.’ It tells me that our community, my peers (older and younger) do not feel safe sharing it. The dialogue has slowly started on social media which is great to see,” says April.