The Weight of Motherhood: Black Maternal Wellness
Updated: May 12
I struggled physically and emotionally for years after the birth of my son. So on August 5-6, 2022, I had a full circle moment as a consulting facilitator in the Black Maternal Wellness Innovation Lab. I spoke on "The Weight of Motherhood: Embrace Your Body-Mind-Spirit Postpartum Wellness." Rather than hiding behind facts and statistics. I decided also to share my pregnancy and postpartum journey of overcoming postpartum anxiety and perinatal obesity. I'll admit, it was scary to be so vulnerable. I wanted to share someone else's story- a patient or celebrity. But as I searched for "Black celebrities with postpartum depression," I didn't find anyone sharing openly. So I asked myself, "Why hide behind their story when I have my own?"
Specifically, I wanted to share the Body-Mind-Spirit lessons I learned on my healing journey. So here's a bit of what I share in the Innovation Lab.
Embrace Life's Lessons
I mentioned I struggled physically and emotionally for years after the birth of my son. During my pregnancy, I gained 60lbs and had preeclampsia. Only, I ignored the warning signs my body was sending me, such as extreme fatigue, rapid weight gain (3-5lbs/ week), and shortness of breath. As a third-year medical resident, incoming Chief Resident, and a bona fide workaholic, I worked 80+ hours weekly. By the third trimester, I was exhausted, achy, and heavy. My body screamed for rest. But I kept slugging through because I wanted the maximum maternity leave, 9 weeks, home with my son.
After an emergency c-section and a week of hospitalization, I went home, sore, with my magnificent baby boy. Maternity leave was gloriously exhausting. But not as difficult as leaving my tiny baby boy and returning to work. Plus, any positive health changes I'd started during maternity leave disappeared as I waded through the sludge of stress at home and work. I started emotional eating. Cheap pizza and sugar in any form were my favorite fuel sources to get me through the stress and sleep deprivation (my son didn't sleep through the night for 11 months and 13 days, but who was counting?).
I learned the hard way that stress increases your cravings for sugar and fatty foods.
None of this helped my weight loss"bounce back." However, even the "dribble" that had started during maternity leave stopped.
And I carried around an extra 40lbs for over 2 years.
When you're a perfectionist, you strive for everything to be precisely right and go as
planned. Babies are disrespectful because they don't care about your "perfect" plans or schedules. I remember keeping detailed logs of my newborn son's sleep and bowel habits to understand his behavior pattern & plan around it. Very nerdy and ambitious, right? You can guess what happened. He'd switch up the schedule as soon as I thought I'd figured it out. I was learning the hard way that people aren't science experiments, nor do they follow textbook descriptions. But my perfectionism didn't want to accept that right away.
Little did I realize the combination of being a Black woman, having a complicated pregnancy, and being a perfectionist for developing a postpartum mood disorder.
While postpartum depression is the most discussed postpartum mood disorder (after baby blues), I had postpartum anxiety. The main symptoms are irritability, tearfulness, and excessive worrying. Thankfully my mentor at the time recognized the signs. She recommended I see a therapist, which helped tremendously. Unfortunately, many women, especially Black women, do not get the mental health support they need for various reasons. While external factors like systematic bias and health disparities are key. Shame and stigma are another big reason. We're taught to be strong and invincible. Also, there's a lot of fear of being seen as "crazy." Let's normalize seeking mental health support. It's never "crazy" to recognize you need help and decide to reach out for support.
If you're reading this and struggling with your mental health and wellness.
You are not crazy.
You are not alone. Please seek help.
There are several resources listed at the end of this blog.
Lastly, in the BMWIL we discuss the weight of childhood trauma and how it can lead to worsened health for mothers. The ACE or Adverse Childhood Experiences Quiz was created in the 1990s by Dr. Robert Anda and Dr. Vincent Felitti. After the doctors found most of the people who had severe obesity in their weight loss clinic had been sexually abused as children. The 10-question quiz correlates with a ACE score, the higher your ACE score the more likely you are to have an adverse health outcome. There are important limitations to the quiz. But knowing your score can be a start to seeing how trauma may be impacting your wellbeing. You can take your ACE quiz using the link in the resources.
"Let all that you do be done in love." 1 Cor 16:14
I wore my struggle as 40 extra pounds. The excess weight was due to more than the cheap pizza and sugar I was self-medicating. The extra pounds were also a symptom of my perfectionism, people pleasing, and not prioritizing my needs. But
of course, back then, as a yo-yo dieter, all I could see was the number on the scale. I wanted the weight off- fast. But the more I tried to perfectly diet, the more miserable I felt. The scale barely moved. Finally, I heard God say, "I'm no longer going to allow you to make a positive change with negative motivation." It was time to do more than count calories or overexercise. I needed to make a body-mind-spirit transformation. Starting with learning to love myself right where I was, not for the ever elusive perfect version of me. That's how my Embrace You Journey began 9 years ago. On my journey, I've realized perfectionism isn't self-love. It's self-punishment. Now I choose to release perfectionism & embrace self-love.
Furthermore, as a woman of God who's been involved in church since age 8 & Christian leadership since 13, God had to break me of religious perfectionism. Spirituality isn't religion. Religion is the "container" for some people's spirituality. However, spirituality is 3 Cs:
Connection with God; Self; Others; Nature/ Environment.
Community- your place of belonging.
Charity- how you give back & receive from others.
Motherhood is a Divine blessing. However, it can also shift your 3 Cs. Specifically answering the question, "Who am I?" Becomes more challenging. So much of your identity becomes engulfed in the precious human(s) you are raising. It's easy to forget who you were before. Or, more importantly, who you are and want to be. Part of the spiritual journey in motherhood is being able to answer the question "Who am I" without including what you do or your roles.
My who am I is:
"I am a loving woman of God, a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. I use my talent, skills, and resources as an integrative obesity specialist to help women live life lighter, heal, and be whole."
Transforming Obstacles-> Opportunities
I like to say, "I learned these lessons the hard way, so you don't have to." Everything obstacle I've experienced and experience now is an opportunity to learn and grow. Not only for myself but to help others grow also. At the end of the Black Maternal Wellness Innovation Lab, I shared the mindset shift and tools that I learned on my journey.
Like the women of BMWIL , I encourage you to embrace your B.E.S.T. wellness in motherhood. Especially if you are struggling with postpartum mood changes. Here's how you can Embrace Your B.E.S.T. Wellness:
For years I carried the weight of shame for having postpartum anxiety. It's much easier to tell the physical weight loss journey without the emotional journey behind it. However, if we hide our stories, other women won't have safe spaces to tell theirs. Nor will we create opportunities to prevent women from traveling down the same painful paths we've walked.
Thank you to Sabrina Kelly, MPH, for creating the Black
Maternal Wellness Innovation Lab and Naketta Lowery for inviting me to participate. T my
co-facilitators, Larisa Harrington & Kristin Carraway, thank you for your transformative work. Collectively we are helping Black mothers do more than survive pregnancy but thrive afterward.
To every mom in BMWIL and reading this post, never forget you are incredible. Always Embrace You. We discussed surviving & overcoming trauma in the lab. Please know every part of you-the negative and positive-the past has helped you become the mother your child needs.
To every reader, blessings on your journey 💜Dr. Sylvia
Embrace You Weight & Wellness Resources
Check out the Embrace You Clarity Quiz if you need clarity on your weight and wellness journey. It's designed to help you break through the confusion on your weight & wellness journey.
Already taken the quiz? Start your transformative body-mind-spirit journey by reading, Embrace You: Your Guide to Transforming Weight Loss Misconceptions Into Lifelong Wellness.
Postpartum Mood Disorders Resources
Adverse Childhood Events Quiz (Impact of Childhood Trauma on Stress)
Addressing the Increased Risk of Postpartum Depression for Black Women, NAMI
American Psychiatric Association: Postpartum Depression
Is It Baby Blues or Postpartum Depression? Psychology Today
Postpartum Anxiety| Harvard Health
Black Maternal Wellness Innovation Lab Facilitators
Sabrina Kelley, MPH- Community Relations Consultant | Founder
Coaching|Yoga|Mindfulness for Individuals & Groups with Strong By Nature-Larisa Harrington
Trauma and Resilience for Groups| Sustainable Life Solutions-Naketta Lowery
Kristin Carraway, MPH, PhD Candidate, BMWIL Research Fellow, Facilitator
"Vision Boards as a Tool for Building Self-Concept".
Find A Therapist
Related articles by/ featuring Dr. Sylvia (aka Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD, DABOM)
"Black Maternal Health Week" Embrace You Blog Post
"Are You a Workaholic or Do You Just Have A Lot to Do?" on Medscape
"You're Not Gaining Weight Because of Your Diet. It's Stress." Yahoo News
"A Food Binge How to Recover" Obesity Help
"What Are The Healthiest Ways to Prevent Stress Eating?" SheFinds