The therapist and founder of Harlem Run opens up about her struggles with pregnancy and new motherhood—and what needs to change to help moms feel better now.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
April 02, 2020
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When Alison Désir—the founder of Harlem Run, a therapist, and a new mom—was pregnant, she thought she'd be the image of an expecting athlete that you see in the media. She'd run with her bump, sail through nine months excited about her baby on the way, and keep up with her fitness (she was just coming off of the heels of a New York City Marathon run).

But every time she ran during her pregnancy, Désir would experience vaginal bleeding and was even admitted to the ER a few times for this early on in her pregnancy. "The experience sort of shattered this idea that I could be that fit mom or that pregnant athlete that you see everywhere," she says.

Other challenges soon presented themselves too: She ended up delivering early (at 36 weeks pregnant) via an emergency C-section at the end of July because her son was in a breech position and she had preeclampsia. And because he spent a few days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), she didn't get those immediate bonding or skin-to-skin moments with her newborn—and felt robbed of the opportunity to connect with him.

"I had this expectation in my head that, as everyone says, pregnancy is going to be the most beautiful time in your life," she says. Instead, she says she felt lost, confused, helpless, and terrified—and like she was the only one who felt this way.

As conflicting postpartum emotions continued, Désir found herself feeling guilty by how much she disliked her pregnancy experience but how much she loved her son. Feelings of anxiety sky-rocketed. Then, one day, she left the house, and wondered: Would her baby be better off if she didn't come back? (Here are the Subtle Signs of Postpartum Depression You Shouldn't Ignore.)

It was a breaking point—and it led her to talk about the help she, even as a therapist, needed. "There's so much nuance that's missing when we talk about the experience of pregnancy," she says. While some people do have straightforward, uncomplicated pregnancies, that's not everyone's story.

What seems to be more common? "Sometimes you're going to love it, sometimes you're going to hate it, you're going to miss who you once were, and there's so much doubt and insecurity," she says. "There are not enough people out there telling more stories of what it's really like. We need to make it known that anxiety and depression are normal and that there are ways that you can cope and feel better. Otherwise, you're just feeling terrible and thinking you're the only one who's feeling this way and going down a dark path." (Related: What You Should Know About Supporting Your Mental Health During Pregnancy and Postpartum.)

Since having her son, Désir has become vocal about her experience. In May, she's also launching a tour called Meaning Through Movement, promoting fitness and mental health through events all over the country.

Here, what she wants everyone to know about what's behind the filter of pregnancy and postpartum—including how to get the help you need.

Find the healthcare providers you need.

"Going to the doctor, they just give you the basic information," says Désir. "They tell you your statistics and ask you to come back the following week." She found added emotional support through a doula who helped her understand what she was feeling and looked out for her throughout her entire pregnancy. Désir also worked with a physical therapist for pelvic floor work. "Without a physical therapist, I wouldn't have known about the ways that you really can prepare your body for what you're about to go through," she says. (Related: The Top 5 Exercises Every Mom-to-Be Should Do)

While these services can come at an added cost, ask your health insurance company what could potentially be covered. Some cities, including New York City, are expanding healthcare offerings to allow every first-time parent to be eligible to receive up to six home visits from a healthcare professional like a doula.

Ask for help.

Désir compares her postpartum emotions to a whirlwind—she felt out of control, nervous, anxious, and overwhelmed. She beat herself up about it, too, since she is a therapist herself. "I couldn't put my finger on it and step back and have my analytical side go, 'oh, this is what's going on right now'."

It can be hard to ask for help when you're used to being the one giving help, but becoming a mother requires a support system. For Désir, her mother and husband were there to talk with her about what she was going through. "My husband kept urging me to put some resources together and reach out to someone," she says. "Having somebody in your life who can be that in your ear is key." Désir found that, for her, increasing the dosage of her medication has been incredibly helpful as is meeting with a psychiatrist once a month.

Not a mom yourself? Ask your friends who just had babies how they really are—especially your 'tough' friends. "If the people around you don't know what's going on, then it can be even scarier," says Désir. (Related: 9 Women On What Not to Say to a Friend Dealing with Depression)

Educate yourself.

There are plenty of baby books out there but Désir says that she's found much relief in reading a few books about moms' experiences. Two of her faves? Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts: A Healing Guide to the Secret Fears of New Mothers and Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts: Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Motherhood by Karen Kleiman, LCSW, founder of the Postpartum Stress Center. Both discuss the normal 'scary thoughts' that can happen in new motherhood—and ways to overcome them.

Clean up your social feeds.

Social media can be tricky when it comes to pregnancy and new motherhood, but Désir says that by following particular accounts (one she likes is @momdocpsychology) you can find real, honest portrayals of pregnancy and new motherhood. Try turning on notifications for specific feeds and check back just for updated information instead of scrolling endlessly. (Related: How Celebrity Social Media Affects Your Mental Health and Body Image)

Drop 'should' from your vocab.

It's oppressive, says Désir. It locks you into these limited ideas of what motherhood is based on what you've seen. But for her? Motherhood 'is what it is.' "I don't have any beautiful way of putting it other than for me, my pregnancy and motherhood is really a day by day thing," says Désir. "That doesn't mean you're not saving money for the future or thinking about what you hope it looks like, but it really is day by day. Motherhood shouldn't look or feel any particular way."

If you think you're experiencing a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, seek help from your doctor or utilize resources from the non-profit Postpartum Support International such as the free helpline, access to local experts, and weekly online meetings.

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