Becoming a parent made me a better advocate

By Brittany Noble Charek

Four-and-a-half years ago, I welcomed my second child into the world. Although my pregnancy was tough, the delivery was much easier than the first, and my world was full of joy and possibility. I expected the messy diapers, runny noses, the drooling, the exhaustion that comes with feedings every three hours — this was not my first rodeo — but as time crept on, E still would not sleep through the night. He would wake up screaming, and we could never make that transfer from our arms to his crib delicately enough for him to ever sleep there.

I was tired. 

Then I had to go back to work, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel: I’m a high school teacher, so I just had five weeks of work until summer break. Then we finally found a home in our price range that was worthy of purchasing in a competitive real estate market, which put our finances in escrow purgatory. 

And then my mom, the strongest person I know, began treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer. 

My older son was having some issues at school and with his dad, and I found myself breaking down sobbing to his therapist after an appointment. I needed help.

I went to my primary care doctor and decided to start taking anti-anxiety medication. I’ve been on and off these medications at times throughout my late teens and 20s, but now that it’s four years later and we’re living through a global pandemic, I don’t see myself giving up my Zoloft anytime soon.

Nine months after E was born, he had mastered crawling and was taking steps. Mom and Dad were putting the champagne on ice to welcome the first woman president. 

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We all know how that night ended… The next morning, I was no longer overwhelmed with depression and anxiety and the isolation that comes with a baby at your hip. Instead, I was angry. 

And I wasn’t alone.

I decided that I wanted to talk about my experience with PPD, or — more accurately for me — postpartum anxiety. I gave this talk at PechaKucha Akron back in February of 2017.

In case you haven’t heard, PechaKucha (aka PK Akron) is a rapid-fire speaker series where people tell stories along with a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation that auto-advances every 20 seconds. Akron has such a diverse range of dynamic storytellers, so I highly recommend getting on their email address or following them on the socials so that you can check it out when it’s safe to be in crowds of people again.

At the end of the night, I was approached by a dozen women who shared similar stories. I started going out of my way to talk to women in my life who were trying to have a baby or were dealing with postpartum life, and even my friends starting to deal with empty nesting. I just wanted to be there. The more I shared about my experiences, the more I heard similar ones. I know that I will never be alone despite my experience being unique to my family, and I am forever grateful for my tribe.

Reflecting back on all those words I had to say then (Great job, former self! Present self really needs your energy right now!), I appreciate the optimism I had and I still hang on to. I clearly see that more women are speaking out about their experiences with postpartum mental health issues — not just in my personal circles, considering the 1 in 8 women statistic I quoted is now 1 in 5, just three-and-half years later. I’m proud of these women for speaking out, and I expect the medical community to address this crisis for the next generation of moms.

I’m also happy to see women speaking up about fertility issues and miscarriages, another thing I brought up in my talk, which I know are common. At a time when women’s reproductive rights are at stake, we need options, and we need lawmakers to hear the heart-wrenching stories of the choices moms need to make for their health and that of their child. Since more women are planning when to have children while balancing work and family life (How cool is that?!), they’re more likely to notice when they have a miscarriage. When I miscarried at just six weeks, I didn’t need to get a D&C, but my heart was broken. Had I not been watching my ovulation calculator, I might have just thought that my period was late. (Believe me — she never is…) With all the technology and information available around fertility, modern women can be more in tune with their body than ever, which has immense benefits, but comes with an underlying layer of stress, and, at times, grief. 

I love seeing celebrities use their platforms to talk about these issues: whether they’re showing off their “tiger stripes,” posting their swollen postpartum belly while having to wear a diaper (I packed jeans in my bag when I had my first kid! I really thought I’d be able to get back into jeans the next day!), or sharing their grief.

Shortly after I gave that talk, I was lucky enough to win the Knight Foundation Art Prize and poured my energy into a new project: Bechdel Fest, a film festival that highlighted stories of women. All the films accepted had to pass the Bechdel Test, which seems like such an astonishingly low bar, but I still felt like something was missing.

I wanted to tell the stories of all underrepresented groups: BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, differently-abled persons — seriously, everyone. As a mother and an educator, I know that young people are not just tolerant, but accepting by nature, and that empathy can be learned. As a witness of an increasingly polarized county, I know that empathy is necessary.

Years passed. Another innocent black young man was killed by the people that were supposed to protect him. 

And another, and another.

Now I’m really angry. 

But instead of giving in to that anger, I’ve found more productive places to put that energy. I work hard to create a more inclusive curriculum in my classroom; I use whatever platform I have to promote the voices of the underrepresented; and I work hard to speak up to microaggressions — even when it’s uncomfortable. I’m certainly not perfect (I find myself thinking days later: “I really should have said this” when in reality I roll my eyes and say nothing), but I work to be prepared the next time it happens. It’s possible that my reactions make people think twice before they say things, but that is kind of the point. 

I spent the first half of my life being a people pleaser, and now I refuse to apologize for the discomfort a person might feel for their own bigotry. 

On the bright side, with discomfort can come progress. I’ve seen people change over time, and admittedly it’s harder for adults to put their pride aside, but it happens. 

In the meantime, vote. 

Brittany Noble Charek is a writer, educator and mama bear with a lot of feelings. She no longer gets embarrassed when caught talking (or singing!) to her dogs and/or houseplants.

Photo:  Brittany Nobel Charek emceeing PechaKucha, by Svetla Morrison fotografy