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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Duprey

Postnatal Support Advocates | Part 3 | Jen Sellitto-Penoza (LCSW) | The Importance of Community Postpartum | Delaware Perinatal Mental Health



Jen sellitto-penoza of postnatal support advocates

Postnatal Support Advocates (PSA) serves as a crucial resource for mothers and birthing individuals in Delaware, addressing the often-overlooked aspect of postpartum: perinatal mental health and emotional wellness. Comprising a dedicated team of mother providers, PSA offers support and advocacy in this essential area.


Today, I share a conversation with Jen Sellitto-Penoza, a licensed clinical social worker, who serves as the executive director of this nonprofit organization. With a strong commitment to social justice values, Jen has dedicated herself to creating secure, inclusive, and supportive environments for clients and to fostering meaningful connections.


Our conversation covers Jen's work with Postnatal Support Advocates, the impact of family dynamics on the postpartum experience, parent-child bonding, the significance of connecting with others throughout our parenting journey, and the importance of ongoing postpartum support.


Could you start by telling me a little about yourself and what you do here at Postnatal Support Advocates? 



Yes, I am Jen Sellitto-Penoza and I am executive director of Postnatal Support Advocates. PSA co-founder, Jen Ewald, and I went to graduate school together so we have worked with each other in different ways on-and-off over the years. Through some post-Covid burnout, a friend of ours who was having a baby, and by looking into doing some other things professionally, we started talking about “What if we started providing services to people who just had babies?"


In a way that would be revolutionary because people don’t usually have that support, right? Initially, it is all about pregnancy, then it is all about the birth, and then it is all about the baby, and we are missing the matrescence and there is patrescence too-- which is the time when families are becoming parents (or parents of a second child, or a third child..) We are revolutionizing what that time looks like for the families we work with. The support they get during that really important transition is crucial because when it is not there, we are finding that is when comorbidity happens-- a lot of depression and anxiety, there are issues with attachment with mom and baby, and issues with families meshing.


Part of what we also try to to do is work around and revolutionize the idea of what our nuclear families look like and we are purposeful in using inclusive language like “Parent”, “Birthing parent”, “Birthing families” because we really want to take away the idea that people already have in their heads about what it means to be a mother or what it means father, because we don’t want these preconceived notions of who is supposed to do what. This puts everybody on an equal playing field and you can get people to think "What do I want parenthood to look like for me?" and what do they want their roles to be and how do they want to interact with their babies and their children, and with their partner. And they are able to grow that in a way that is much more helpful and productive because some of the gender disparities that we have creates a lot of family dissatifacation and desettlement.


Instead of seeing people years later-- when their kids are 12 and 8 and they are worried about their connection with them and they felt like they had this hard time at birth, or they are not seeing parenting eye-to-eye with their partner-- we try to get in on the ground floor with that when it is actually starting to give people the tools that they might need or the ideas to think of. Without having a village, without having other people to show you-- a lot of times our parents are still working, our aunts and uncles, or friends-- people who could step in to help. When we don’t have access to community and we don’t even know what it is that we could/would/should want or how to plan for that. So we come in and be that for people.


We are that missing link. The missing piece of aftercare as people are just going into parenthood, because the stronger the bonds that we can help to create between parents and their children, the safer people are-- the more autonomized, the less traumatized and the more resilient they can be. By and large that would be helpful for everyone.


I love that you support all kinds of family dynamics. As a family photographer, I am witness to many different kinds of families and parenting styles and it is always so fascinating to me-- especially when the family constellation looks very different from my own. 


There is a family that I have photographed several times over the course of the past year and I was always so impressed with how they made it work-- the dynamics were so well thought-out but they were also so adaptable as their baby grew. In this particular family, there were two moms and the birthing parent was also breastfeeding, but she didn’t consider herself to be the primary parent. That was such an interesting dynamic for me to observe-- they both had such a beautiful, connected bond with their baby, but the birthing parent was so protective of her wife’s primary parent status. Even though she was the gestating parent and the breastfeeding parent-- her wife was their baby’s primary caregiver/comfort-giver.


So I think we have a lot that we can learn, right? There are all kinds of families! And we can learn from them as they are trying to figure it out. That has been missing in our nuclear families-- has always been missing. The patriarchy makes males and fathers the head of the household and their role is to make the money.


And that can create a lot of stress. Since I had my last baby and chose to leave my job to stay home with home with him, my husband being the sole provider has created a lot of stress in my household! My partner works at least 50 hours a week every week-- that overtime day is written in on our calendar. OT every Tuesday, all year long. I realize that there are financial goals we are trying to meet, and that we are missing the income I was bringing in pre-baby, but it also feels to me like he puts undue pressure on himself and that that pressure has to do with his manhood. He is working hard and providing for our family-- but that responsibility is weightier because he is a man.


What if he had a different narrative? What if your partner being home and being able to spend time with his family was just as important as how much money he was able to provide to run the household? I think that all of these things are important! All of these things have to be done-- mortgages have to be paid, homes have to be unkempt. Women have been told to lean in, and we did, but we are stuck with doing all of it. We are having the kids, raising the kids, and taking care of the household... There is this disconnect with men too-- we see it in them-- they are 35 and they are missing something, and they are not even sure what it is. They are hardly a character in their own story because all they see themselves as is a person who goes to work to make money and pay bills. And there is so much more to everyone than just that. Just like being a birthing parent is such a monumental role--  but there is more to us than that. We all need to be fulfilled.


As we are in the 21st Century here, it would be ideal if people could be more connected. Because as a species we rely on connectability. We do not exist unless it is in relation to another member of our species. That is how we still work, but there is a dissatisfaction in it, because we are so disconnected, and there is not enough community and there have been a lot of ideologies that have not worked out really well that we need to reframe and rethink in our society for people to feel happy and content.


My whole journey into what I am doing right now with these interviews and with my portrait work is really just me trying to form connections with people, especially other parents. 


I found it so hard as a young mom to relate to other moms because a lot of the time those other moms were older than me. It was so much effort to go to the library and sit with all the moms who (in my mind) had probably finished college and left their successful careers to have children-- I always felt like I had nothing to contribute to the conversation and that I was less than. Instead of talking to these older women, I would just end up talking to the nanny’s-- that always happens to me-- I am always bonding with the nanny at the library. I think the age difference (which in hindsight meant NOTHING) really made me feel less confident in those social situations. I really wish I Ould have moved past those hang-up to try and forge connections with other women who shared the experience of motherhood with me.


So I’m trying to make up for that feeling of disconnection now. Through my work, I am very interested in forming genuine connections with other people and getting to understand their unique experiences. I am so interested in how everyone is doing parenthood differently.  I have come to realize that everyone is finding their own way through it and that there is no right way. Parenthood isn’t easier because you waited to have kids until you developed all your coping skills or because you have a college degree. I realize how self-limiting I was!


We have no sense of community. This has been highlighted, especially in the last decade, as we have looked at how different families live and survive and thrive. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to look more into the impact of different cultures, what people of different races do and how they operate.


We should all stop stop being (Jen starts using a robot voice and moving robot arms) "There is a mom and a dad and 2.3 kids with a dog and/or cat." Right? There is so much more to it, but we were sold this idea of “This is what it is supposed to look like” but it doesn’t look like that. It doesn't look that way for a lot of people! There are cultures where they are way more connected, that have way more community, way more interactions that feel valuable. And we are over here doing it all ourselves, on our own, because that is what we are supposed to do. But it’s not. It’s against our biology. And a lot of people are asking “Why am I not happy?” As a therapist, I can see that it’s because they are doing everything that somebody else told them to do. And that doesn’t mean that it is fulfilling. And it might mean that some of the systems that we have set up are holding them back from enjoying their life. 


A lot of times with parents not bonding as well as they would want with their kids, or parents that don’t know how. So at Postnatal Support Advocates, we are trying to not just treat that 12 years, 8 years after the kids are born but we can support families through their pregnancy and postpartum.


I am curious, do you think that parents might struggle with bonding with their children because they don’t have examples of what that looks like in their life. For example, I didn’t have people who are having babies in my family growing up or friends that were having children around the same time as me.


Yes, that’s part of it, because we don’t have that learned behavior. There are biological components to it, but then we are just supposed to "know". We have this idea that everyone is just supposed to "know" how to bond with their children and that they are just supposed to rely on themselves to figure out how to do it.


As a therapist, I always tell people: "My job is to just mirror what I am hearing from you so that you can hear what you are telling me". Because even as a therapist, things can roll around in my own head and I can’t sort them out until I can relate them to someone else and then that exchange changes that energy and is helpful. Sometimes, we just need to be seen, and heard, and validated and--if we don’t have that-- it can be problematic. 


And then our maternity leave is abysmal. Maternity leave is barely even helpful unless you arrange for whatever you need to do to stay home longer. But sometimes people are going back to work before 6 weeks and that is not even supposed to be medically OK for a birthing person.


So all those interruption is what inhibits bonding. It’s not like they aren’t bonded, but they don’t have the opportunity to spend the time, to have the role models, to have the energy. The answer is always "all of the above". You can’t point at one thing and say that “oh it’s definitely that. That’s what impacts it the most”. It’s a little bit of everything.


Bonding seems to be something that you feel strongly about. What other kinds of things do you really enjoy helping people through? What do you find most satisfying about working with clients as a therapist?


As a social worker, one of the things that I learned is that often what helps people most is the relationship that I can create with them and that they can create with me. So that bond that we can have is usually just as transformative as any modality I could use, any homework I could have them do. So I think of moms, and babies, and me. Me being able to bond with a mom and through that bond be able to help a mom bond with a baby. There are just more of us in the equation and that excites me. I could even help to prevent things from happening-- like bonds from not forming between mother and child, or moms developing too much anxiety (or whatever!) afterwards that is not necessary.


They just needed somebody to see them, and hear them, and validate them, and to help them prioritize themselves and their relationship with their baby. It is impossible to do it all! They want the sink to be clean, and the rest of their house clean... and we can be like “your job is to be with baby-- that is all. And some days you aren’t even going to want to do that because it is a lot.” Just trying to help people let go of the things that aren’t as important. We’ve been told- fed-- that these things are SO important, but they are really not. Because if it isn’t about connecting with another person, it should never be first on somebodies to-do list.


Ooo, I love that: If is isn't about connecting with another person, it shouldn't be first on your to-do list.


And then to have somebody know that and feel that and let go. A lot of that is because I am a reformed “I’ve got to do all the things” person. I used ot be like “I’ve got to do all the things, and I've got to look really good, and I've got to feel really good about myself and... my anxiety is through the roof!” I literally made myself ill with aches and pains and exhaustion trying to do all that. To help people work through that too is pretty cool.


How do you help people who either do not recognize that they need help, they don’t know how to ask for help, or are in a place that they don’t want help?


I think a lot of the times we are not giving them “help”-- we are just there. At their house, or on-screen-- you can assess where people are at. And most people want to talk about their experience with their birth or with their baby. They won’t necessarily give you some of their concerns but we can just offer them up and see how they respond. I have had to tell people that “It’s alright that we don’t always like our baby right away” or that "It's alright that you are really grieving the fact that it is not just you and your spouse and your dog anymore"-- those are normal things. And as soon as you hit on something that somebody feels, they are like “oh, ok”. It doesn’t have to be that they spill all these deep, dark secrets or the troubling thoughts that they have been having. A lot of the work that I do is really just normalizing the thoughts and feelings and experiences that happen around pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.


Helping people to feel connected that is often most helpful in the long run. There is always going to be people who push stuff away, but I think people are most receptive-- again-- when it is not very clinical-- i never talk that way to clients-- or say anything like “this is in your best interest’ or anything like that.


I have definitely lied through the emotional wellness questions at my 6 week postpartum visit.


 As a therapist, I can tell when somebody is lying. I just know-- really not even just as a therapist, but as as person who has been there. You have an idea that people are not going to be OK in some instances. And if they are, it almost creates this question of “Why are they so high on their oxytocin right now?” These people are like: “Everything is just great! Everything is just fine!”-- that is a whole other concern. 


I think that is what gets missed. They are like "deliver this standard list of questions and we will rank you on a scale from 1 to 10". The girl who came in to give that to me at the hospital-- I knew her! So you know I wasn’t going to be sharing how hard it all was. We are trying to do it differently. We are using that medical model, but inserting ourselves as normal people with some extra information and education. But we are not there to fully assess you to see where you fall on a scale because that is not real! I hate those too. Postpartum, I would be like “I don’t know from 1 to 5. I have no idea on a regular day let alone right now!” When we spend time with people, we get a sense of what's going on and then we offer things and see what lands. 


Sometimes even if it doesn’t that gives you a clue. If you say something like “Sometimes people don’t always like their babies right away” they will respond “Oh My Gawd, I can’t believe that. I can’t my eyes off this thing! I am so tired, I want to sleep but I can’t look away!” And then we will go another direction.


So it is being those connections, those supports, and that village, those role models that we don’t have now adways. And if we do have those things, it is usually  an overbearing grandparent that goes “Well that is not how I did it” and that is not helpful. We always say that psychotherapy  is a science-- there are a lot of chemical interactions that go on, a lot of nervous system stuff that happens, and synapses that are created and all that-- but then there is an art to it where your own sense of self and your sense of the other person and your experiences as somebody who has given birth before or been present during childbirth or has helped raise kids. Any of that could be enough. It is really just relation and connection. 


We’ve covered so much ground here, Jen. Is there anything else you would like to add?


Sure. I don’t like that society tells us that we should be able to figure out how to do this all ourselves. And that we have all these issues and nobody is offering up an solutions when it is really pretty easy obvious. If you just offer emotional support then it will change many of the outcomes for sure. Maybe not all, there are always the outlines, but in general, I think that is what is always missed it is simple human connection.


The connection piece is huge. As someone who has personally soldiered through postpartum depression alone, I would like to stress that you don't have to go through this alone-- programs like Postnatal Support Advocates are here to help.


Thanks so much, Jen for sharing! If you, or someone you know, may be interested in Postpartum Support follow the links below!



postnatal support advocates


If you need help adjusting to motherhood, bonding with your baby, or just need connection-- don't hesitate to reach out to Postnatal Support Advocates.


Pre and Postnatal Emotional Support:


Instagram:


Facebook:


Interested learning more about Perinatal Mental health? Read an interview with two Postpartum Support Advocates Councilors HERE.


Read Jenn Ewald's email HERE.


Would you like to support the Postpartum Support Advocates mission? You can donate HERE.

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