Trauma after Trauma – Navigating Financial Anxiety in the Postpartum Period

New mother holding baby’s hand

As soon as I put my newborn in his bedside bassinet, I changed my mind.

I’d been up for thirty minutes breastfeeding after only getting a two-hour stretch of sleep. I kept replaying the advice given to me: “Sleep while the baby sleeps.” My husband, who would get up with me every time the baby cried to do a diaper change, was exhausted. We both were. So, I wasn’t about to wake him up to reassure me for the millionth time that we were not on the brink of financial ruin.

We spent the last nine months planning and saving more than we ever had. The year I was pregnant also happened to be the year I received the most funding for my work.

Despite this, one of the most egregious forms of “nesting” was when we spent six hours making “the binder” – the go-to place that detailed every single penny that would come in and go out over the next year.

I told myself not to be alarmed by the intensity of this exercise because it would put my mind at ease. But as I lay there with my mind not at ease – at all – I thought surely all the numbers and financial plans were wrong.

By the time I heard both the baby and my husband snoring, I was quietly running downstairs to grab the binder, my laptop and a notebook to do the six-hour process all over again. I justified my decision to do this because we had just returned home from the hospital the day before. My pregnancy brain could have led me astray in my financial planning and decision-making the first time around.

Over the course of the sleeping period for the baby and my husband, I had trouble catching my breath twice. And as I crunched the numbers again and ran through potential financial experiences and unexpected expenses – catastrophizing our lives in the most creatively dark way possible – I changed my mind again. I should go to sleep. Right now.

I didn’t always actively spend six hours doing it, but I began to do this binder exercise daily in my head. I would put myself on this financial anxiety merry-go-round multiple times a day for the next five weeks. I won’t lie and say it has stopped, even as I am four months postpartum. It hasn’t. But I can certainly say it happens less frequently.

The Cycle of Financial Shame

Becoming a new mom put me in an economic turbulence that forced me to confront my contentious relationship with money once again. I constantly question if obsessing over financial ruin was a symptom of the “baby blues,” the mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping that between 70-80% of new moms experience after the birth of their child. But I was also curious how many other new moms were experiencing the same thing I was.

I knew I was supposed to experience intense hormonal fluctuations that would likely shake my mental and emotional state, but I was not prepared for it to trigger an intense cycle of what I call “financial shame” – the psychological effect of being told that you are to blame for the socioeconomic harm you experience. I definitely was not ready to respond to what felt like a never-ending feedback loop in my head that said I would be financially ruined at any moment.

Hoping I was not alone in this – not that I would wish this on anyone – I turned to the research. To start, I reminded myself of my own work on financial trauma and financial shame. Financial trauma is our response to (chronic and/or systemic) financial abuse, or the events, actions and policies that hinder our ability to secure the funds we need to feel safe, ensure our basic needs and experience wellbeing. For the purposes of my work, I focus specifically on the responses that are simultaneously social, emotional and financial. One such response can be financial shame, which may influence everything from our spending habits to our confidence in making financial decisions.

I coined the term “financial trauma” to more adequately describe the unique struggle people – especially Black women – have against wealth inequality. What is unique about the conceptual definition is that I emphasize that impacts of our social conditions can also be a source of trauma.

So, I knew that what I was experiencing was bigger than just my personal (financial) choices. Then, I realized there were at least three sources of the trauma that were causing my financial anxiety and shame. First, childbirth. This is obvious, but experiencing this beautiful trauma was certainly the source of my intense mood fluctuations and hormone changes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 10-20% of women experience a depressive episode following childbirth. Was this what I was experiencing?

Second, I knew I was reexperiencing the effects of the (financial) trauma I have been navigating since my childhood. The early part of my story is one of expensive schools, skipping grades, caring mentors, athletic prowess, “Wall Street” opportunities, bonuses and benefits. It is also a story of childhood abuse, burnout and illness. This period in my life taught me that money can be used to communicate what is important (or not), and as a weapon to harm and violate others.

Finally, since I often felt breathless when I thought about the effort I would need to put in to secure even more funding for my work (and therefore my family), I knew I was experiencing the effects of trauma caused by the social conditions I am required to experience because I am Black and a woman. For context, Black women’s for-profit and non-profit work is the most chronically underfunded. The stress of this fact weighs on me daily. In fact, I did not even tell my funders I was pregnant until grants and deals were in closing because I was afraid they would renege on their commitments. So, I know I experience financial trauma in my professional life. Having a baby made it worse because the vast majority of what sustains my family comes from my businesses.

Black Motherhood and Women’s Financial Trauma

Unsurprisingly, little has been done to critically synthesize women’s financial trauma (or their responses to the trauma) in the early postpartum period. Even more unsurprisingly, there is virtually no research on this topic that incorporates the framework of intersectionality. So, I set out to answer the following question on my own in between breastfeeding: what can we learn about financial trauma when we study the financial responses of women in their early postpartum period?

It is important to note that when I use the term ‘women,’ I am doing so in a gender-expansive way. Equally, I could broaden this question to include all parents, however, the way I explored this question was by turning to the What To Expect app - a pregnancy and motherhood app and web-based platform. So, I was limited to a population that identified as women and mothers. But more should certainly be done to answer this question among fathers, men and those who simply identify as parents.

I chose to wade through the thousands of threads on the app for two reasons. First, the platform (and book) has long been a trusted place for informed advice and community during pregnancy and after. Second, I figured if I overlayed my research with another relevant study I found, I would know what to look for to begin answering this question.

According to a study conducted by Therese Werner-Bierwish, et. al, how mothers and fathers express and interpret their senses of security largely affects how they adapt to their new parental role in the early postnatal period. Since many derive their senses of security, at least to some extent, from their financial situations, I knew this would be relevant. What struck me the most was that a predictor of anxiety (and other emotional responses) was based on the subjective interpretation of the mother’s sense of security, not the “objective reality”.

In some ways this was validating because, though my objective financial position suggested I was secure, I felt like I was on the brink of financial ruin and was operating with intense scarcity mindset.

So, I knew this would connect well with my theory on material safety. I define material safety as an understanding or inner knowing that you are protected from being financially traumatized, abused, or shamed. Equally, material safety can be described as a sense of confidence that you can successfully navigate your financial and socioeconomic experiences despite the vortex of feelings and emotions stemming from your financial trauma and shame.

Especially in the early days of my postpartum period, I felt unsafe materially, emotionally and even physically. This experience caused me to respond financially in many, often contradictory, ways. I avoided spending. I would have to rationalize with myself to spend money, even on things for my basic needs. I would end up spending, but that caused me to save a much larger portion of my paychecks than before – and I already saved a significant amount per paycheck. Then, without any explanation, my financial responses were the exact opposite. I was purchasing items as if to stockpile things for the baby that may not even be needed for months. I figured if I purchased them now, I could metabolize the financial shame while I was already experiencing such intense emotions and if I had the things ahead of time, I would feel safer.

I knew I needed help. So, I engaged with a financial planner and an estate planner, as some of my anxiety felt like it would not end until I could set up my family’s financial future. Even seeking financial help was a several-day financial shame spiral. But I knew because I was feeling so materially unsafe, I could no longer trust myself to make financial decisions that would reduce (or hopefully end) my financial anxiety. I knew it was time to do this because I thought about going back to work sooner – the place where I could theoretically close more deals to earn more money.

The Prevalence of Financial Trauma for New Mothers

Surely, my financial responses could not just be unique to me. So, I thought I would engage with the What To Expect community to look for stories and experiences from other new moms who may be trying to navigate their own financial trauma – even if they did not know what that was.

I decided to limit my search to the threads in the “November 2021 babies” community – so I would be interacting with moms in the same postpartum period as me – and the African American Mothers community. It is hard to say the exact demographics of those who come to the platform, but my sense was that users leaned more white because the original thread for the African American Mothers community mentioned that Black moms felt their experiences were largely rendered invisible or unrelatable on the platform more broadly. Equally, platform users appeared to mostly be in households where their basic needs were often (if not always) met. That was the best I could do to interpret the socioeconomic statuses of those I engaged with unless they explicitly identified as something else.

Each of these communities have over 40,000 members and over 30,0000 discussion threads. To narrow my search, I looked for threads that specifically talk about money. I understand the limitation of using this as the only way to set the parameters of this mini-investigation, but I knew I would not be submitting this to a peer-reviewed journal. This was really for me to feel like I was not experiencing this alone.

With my parameters set, I identified hundreds of threads that discuss money. I noticed that 137 women between the two communities (by tracking their unique usernames) continuously participated in those threads, so I decided to focus on them.

I was not alone. I knew I was not.

One thread opened with a mom describing what she called an “anxiety attack” that caused her to think about “cutting up all of my [credit and debit] cards.” Another mom responded with appreciation. She said, “I feel seen.” This is often a response I see on this platform. Many of the other moms participating in the thread began to discuss their concerns about money and whether their feeling “financially insecure” was because it was real or because it was imagined. Many discussed getting into arguments with their partners, who often tried to reassure them, because they felt their partners were omitting the truth about household financial realities to keep them from spiraling.

I felt seen.

In several threads I saw moms talking about starting “spending challenges” at the beginning of the new year. Spending challenges ask participants to stop spending entirely for a certain period of time. Many women discussed doing this to see if they could do this “for the long term so I can quit my job.” I never considered doing a spending challenge, but as I mentioned, I did put myself on a “spending freeze.” As I saw the popularity of this choice, I began to consider it a trauma response.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Dissociate or Appease

According to Staci K. Haines book, The Politics of Trauma, the five most common trauma responses are fight, flight, freeze, dissociate and appease. Since I choose to study financial responses to prove that financial trauma is present, I began to feel like I was answering my broader question. Many moms were responding by freezing. Doing nothing. Either because we were paralyzed by the intensity of our feeling materially unsafe or because there were too many financial decisions coming up that we did not anticipate.

Thinking about these common trauma responses, I saw in the vast majority of these threads the “fight” financial response. This namely showed up as spending hypervigilance. In some ways, spending freezes could be considered hypervigilance, but what seems most common was that moms were tracking every penny going in and out of their households. To the point of obsession. This is something I was certainly doing. One mom put it well: “if I’m going to freak out about money, I might as well know as much as I can about where it’s going.” Those of us in the “fight club” as I called it, thought we could fight our financial trauma with hyperawareness.

A few weeks after the “fight club” threads died down, another one popped up that was equally interesting. Moms began discussing how they found accountants and financial planners. Many admitted that they no longer wanted to “stay out of” the money conversations – a form of dissociation – so they felt it was time to seek the help of a financial professional. Remember, I did the same thing. I responded in this thread asking everyone to celebrate our ability to recognize when we needed help and asking for it. I was proud of us all.

It was fun (and difficult) splitting my identity between a researcher and a user looking for community. But there was a growing trend in some of the threads, especially in the African American moms threads, that concerned me so much that my researcher hat stayed on until I completed my mini-investigation.

Parental Leave and Material Safety

As many of us neared the ten- to twelve-week mark, we all began to dread the idea of leaving our little ones to go back to work. Many began to think about quitting and “making it work financially.” Unpaid family leave was unsurprisingly a huge topic of discussion. I often read versions of this statement: “I have to go back to work because I’m not getting paid right now and we need the money. I have loved being home with my little one and wish I could just keep staying at home, but I have unpaid leave and have to get back.”

There are two things here. First, we all were feeling like ten or twelve weeks was way too short. I felt guilty often because I could take more time, though. I’m so glad that I did. In fact, I learned in Lauren Smith Brody’s book, The Fifth Trimester, that there is evidence that the shorter a mom’s leave, the more likely she is to leave the workforce. This should be a concern for those who care about the overall functioning of our macroeconomy.

Second, the prevalence of unpaid parental leave likely shaped many of the financial responses I was reading about. There is no greater financial abuse than refusing to pay new parents to take care of their newborns. It made me wonder to what extent unpaid parental leave influences moms’ senses of material safety. This brought up major concerns for me because among the moms who shared they were contemplating leaving the workforce was a subset of who talked about “getting into cryptocurrencies.”

I have many thoughts about cryptocurrencies, so I will admit that I began investigating this more rigorously than the other financial responses. Turns out, there were a number of threads in the African American moms community that talked about cryptocurrencies. However, something about the ways the moms were discussing their experiences getting into cryptocurrencies felt like they were being exploited. Many discussed seeing “ads for it on my [social media] feed.” They figured this was happening because they were using search engines to find ways to supplement their income if they left the workforce.

I was left with more questions than answers. Why did I see this more in the African American moms community? Was I imagining it, or did it seem like the moms sharing their “positive” experiences were in some ways recruiting more moms? Can susceptibility to participating in “money schemes” – in this case, being drawn into speculative, volatile investments instead of to secure income – be a proxy for experiencing financial trauma?

Since I was wrapping up my investigation to write this, I decided to just note these threads and come back to them since the responses slowed down.

Interestingly enough, when I returned to them recently, they were deleted. I wondered if this was associated with What To Expect’s crackdown on misinformation. Their effort to delete misinformation on the platform intensified after swaths of threads were created to discredit the coronavirus vaccines.

Implications for the Field

This seemed like the right time to stop investigating and start unpacking the implications of all I learned. First and foremost, this mini-investigation makes clear that further research is crucial to actually study financial trauma in the early postpartum period. Further research could even be done to study the relationship between financial trauma and postpartum mood disorders. What was evident is that women are responding financially to the overwhelming transition into parenthood, and many of these financial responses do indicate that financial trauma is present.

While more research is needed, it is evident that new parents need more adequate language to capture the multi-layered texture of their financial and socioeconomic experiences in the postnatal period. This is why I created the lexicon of wealth justice to include conceptual terms like financial trauma, financial shame and material safety. As my therapist has reminded me, when we have the language to describe what we are experiencing, we can more effectively move through the healing process.

Ultimately, the most important implications of this work surround paid family leave and the country’s ongoing struggle against misinformation.

Personal Reflections and Systemic Questions

Prior to diving into the platform, I hypothesized that unpaid family leave had a significant influence on the severity of a person’s financial trauma, but I also thought about my situation. I had the opportunity to take as long as I wanted for leave and was paid at 100% of my salary.

My situation does not suggest that paid family leave has little to no relationship to financial trauma; it is evident it does. Rather, it demonstrates that there are social conditions beyond the abuse of unpaid family leave that impact women and structurally position us to experience financial trauma. For example, more companies are offering paid family leave, but it may be only a few weeks long. Or, women may have paid family leave, but their workplaces may have cultures that condone oppressive tactics like stealing clients while a mom is on leave. I will never forget seeing a new mom come back to the trading floor four days after giving birth via caesarean section because she was “afraid how many clients I would lose.” Many companies still have wage inequities, so when women are offered leave at 60% of their regular pay, the impact of the inequity is more severe.

Given the impact of the social conditions women are required to experience to participate in our economic system, it does not seem so far-fetched to say that some women would turn to other financial opportunities that seem more promising than the financially abusive one we are used to. At least, this is how I understood the prevalence of these cryptocurrency money schemes popping up on the platform. When we experience trauma, our bodies automatically respond in an effort to restore our sense of safety. From a financial perspective, if financial trauma is severe and pervasive among new moms, it would make sense for industries skilled in financial abuse and traumatization to capitalize on those desperate to restore their material safety.

For new moms, my message to you is this: you are doing the best you can. I am proud of you. Whether our struggle to secure material safety is because of circumstances that are real or imagined, I urge you to remind yourself that we are in an intense transition that will affect us physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. When we have the language to describe what we are feeling, we can be more aware of how to bring ourselves back to the ground.

For those supporting new moms – partners, HR departments, financial professionals – there is much more you can do. First and foremost, remind new moms that the financial experiences they have is more than likely not their fault. It is a combination of things largely influenced by the macroeconomic systems that create the conditions for our lives. Help them put the shame they carry back on to the systems that deserve to feel the shame.

Second, be supportive by bearing witness. Finally, for financial and workplace professionals, be more intentional about incorporating research on financial trauma and postpartum mood disorders into your work. For financial professionals, consider what meetings (e.g. the frequency, the tone, etc.) will look like with new moms. For workplace professionals, be brave enough to rhetorically interrogate existing policies and ask whether they could cause new moms to experience financial trauma and/or shame.

Writing this has been both taxing and healing. Each day I feel stronger, and I attribute that largely to the community that I have built. They know how to support me better because of this work. My hope is that this piece will make other new moms (and parents) feel seen. It is important to note that I was not diagnosed with a postpartum mood disorder, so this can happen to any of us. I honor your strength and hope we all experience more joy than anxiety and shame from here on.

Chloe B. McKenzie is a celebrated researcher, wealth justice activist, and Founder of BlackFem, a leading nonprofit consulting organization that partners with the nation’s most forward-thinking governmental bodies to make opportunities to build wealth more fair and equal for Black women. Chloe’s groundbreaking research on financial trauma reimagines wealth-building opportunities for Black women and addresses key areas of influence – cultural institutions, education systems, policymaking, and families. Her research, work, and impact have been featured in Forbes, British Vogue, Black Enterprise, and on MSNBC. Her work has also been used by major academic and financial institutions like Georgetown University’s Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, The Hope Center at Temple University, Ashoka, and Goldman Sachs’ One Million Black Women Initiative.

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