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Take Note: Erin Bagwell On "Year One," Her Documentary About New Motherhood

Erin Bagwell is a stay-at-home mom, filmmaker, and blogger. Her latest documentary, Year One, offers an intimate look at the first year of motherhood through Erin's eyes. She talked with us about the film, about how becoming a mom challenged her identity, and about her experience with postpartum depression.

For more from this interview:

Additional audio from Take Note interview with Erin Bagwell.

To watch the Year One trailer, click here.

For more information about Postpartum Depression, click here.   


Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note.For WPSU, from my home studio. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Erin Bagwell is a stay-at-home mom, filmmaker and blogger. In 2016, she produced and directed the feature documentary Dream, Girl, which showcases female entrepreneurs. Funded on Kickstarter, Dream, Girlpremiered at the White House as part of the United State of Women Summit and was selected to be part of the 2017 American Film Showcase, a program run by the US State Department in which they send American filmmakers to countries around the world to screen their films and facilitate discussions. In 2018, Erin became a mom; an experience that led her to create Year One. This short documentary offers an intimate look at the first year of motherhood through Erin’s eyes. It addresses the challenges of experiencing postpartum depression, the identity shifts, and the everyday extraordinary moments of being a new mom. Erin, welcome to Take Note.

Erin Bagwell: Thank you so much for having me, Lindsey.

Fenton: Your documentary, Year One, is a raw portrait of new motherhood, it's full of guilt and grief and joy and love. And I want to delve into all that. But let's back up a step and just start with how did you come to the decision that you wanted to be a mom?

Bagwell: That's a great question.I, you know,I don't I don't think that I knew for sure that I wanted to be a mother until I found my partner, my husband, Sal, I feel like he was a huge reason that I wanted to procreate and bring children into the world. And I felt like I could see it with him. And I don't know, it's kind of hard to explain. It's this kind of very intimate, knowing in oneself and one's heart of what you want to do. It's, it's kind of a crazy decision. It's definitely a big leap. And for me, it was almost like a body decision. Like I just felt a yearning within me to, to carry a child to have a baby. And so, I actually made the decision much earlier than my partner. And then, you know, we got there and figured it out. And yeah, we had our daughter, Virginia rose about two years ago.

Fenton: I think it's important to acknowledge that, you know, it's very clear that you love your daughter and wanted to be a mom, but to also acknowledge that as you discussed in the film, you found it very difficult. And you speak very honestly about the guilt you felt because you didn't take to motherhood immediately. And you start off, Year Onesaying that basically, aside from morning sickness, you had in your words, a beautiful pregnancy. But then you go on to describe how basically unprepared you felt for what came after Ginny was born. Let's listen to a clip.

Excerpt from the Documentary Year One: The first few weeks postpartum, are unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was so focused on surviving, that it took me a really long time to bond with Ginny. Everything I read said this was normal. But when friends and family were telling me to enjoy every minute, it made me feel like I was already failing.

Fenton: There's a lot to unpack in that clip. But I want to start with the expectations and assumptions about what's, air quotes, normal in motherhood. And I guess what was the most surprising part of your experience with expectations versus the realities of being a new mom?

Bagwell: I mean, I think it's so tough. I went to a conference before the pandemic and was seated next to a woman who is pregnant, and she was asking me a bunch of questions about becoming a new mom and having a baby. And to be honest, it's kind of a hard thing to name and to vocalize. Because, you know, I think one can imagine what sleep deprivation means when you're getting up every two hours. But until you've done that for three weeks, I don't think you know how it feels in your body. So, I think for me, it was just about trying to learn this little being and learn about her and what she needs. And it was so fascinating to be in mother's groups, and to be texting my friends. And you know, every soul is so unique. And so, kind of trying to figure out and navigate, how do I best care for this being was really, really challenging. And I think also for me, I think nature does this on purpose. I think you have to surrender yourself totally to the baby. I think especially if you're breastfeeding, your body becomes what they need. There's a level of bonding that happens that's very primal, and I think for a mother particularly trying to navigate holding on to her while holding on to myself became really impossible. And so, you have to start shedding the Things that you come to know about yourself. Like, I had used to have this really beautiful morning routine. And I used to meditate for 20 minutes. And, you know, I think as a new mother, you have to learn how to like, create a new life. And that's not to say that where you're going to be the first couple of weeks postpartum is where you're going to be forever. But it is a real learning and unlearning. And for someone who's very controlling, and really loved her life before, it was really a shakeup of so many things. So, it's almost hard to articulate how much shifts and changes.

Fenton: Another part of that clip that struck me was how people make these seemingly innocuous statements, you know, “enjoy every minute while you have it.” And they mean so well. And they're certainly not meant to shame you or pressure you. But that's often the effect they have. And I feel like this is something that happens so often, in discussions about fertility and motherhood, just people offering this, you know, sort of sage advice that doesn't have that intended effect. So, what kinds of things would you rather people have said to you, during those early weeks or months of motherhood?

Bagwell: I mean, to be honest, I was in such a (inaudible), I had very severe postpartum depression with a hint of anxiety. And so, I was drowning, you know, I wasn't someone who received the enjoy every minute, you know, that made me feel like a horrible Mother, you know, I would have loved to hear that it gets better. And they get smarter and like, hang in there. I think naming how hard it is, would have really saved me a lot of self-shame, and really regret of not enjoying every moment, as I said, in that clip, that it felt like, “Wow, I'm already failing at this, because I'm not soaking it all in.” So, I think that I would have liked to hear some more like real talk about how hard it is. And I feel really grateful that I was able to find that community who was able to, to see where I was at. And to honor that. And to be with me during that, you know, whether that was a therapist, or my mother's group or a group of mothers that really, I felt like took care of me throughout the last two years, I needed somebody to really be authentic about, you know, how hard it is.

Fenton: Yeah, and there's, I think all of that, you're, you're definitely giving sort of, I think that real voice that hopefully will be there for other women who get to see the film. And I think it just all speaks to so much guilt that people, that women carry in general, but that especially moms carry or caregivers carry, and not necessarily just limited to that sort of bigger existential challenge of motherhood, but even really practical challenges. On your blog, you write that after Ginny was born, a nurse said to you that if you'd fed your daughter more, her jaundice would have cleared up and she wouldn't have been placed in an incubator. And you wrote about how that made you feel like a failure just in that sense. 

Bagwell: Yeah, Imean, there's, there's so many moments, right, that really can throw us for a loop. And I think the other thing is just that place of unknowing for everything, is is kind of painful. And I think as women and as ambitious and successful women, I think it's really hard to go back to square one. And I think something that motherhood does is bring you back down to a place where you're learning all over again. And you know, even in the beginning, your brain hurts from the knowledge and the information you're getting. So yeah, it can come from, from all different places. Absolutely.

Fenton: Well, your brain and your body goes through an enormous strain, stress, trauma, you know, anytime you deliver a baby, and I know, one of the things you, you write about is your trouble breastfeeding. So, let's just talk about breastfeeding for a minute. You know, what was that experience? Like? Is it as a first time Mom, let's put some more realism out there for people.

Bagwell: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it'sso fascinating, because every baby is so different. And I think that I had this very angelic view of like the mother on the lily pad, breastfeeding and Brooklyn. And that was, that was not my experience. It was really hard. You know, in the beginning, their mouths are very small. And so, in order to stick them on your nipple, it's actually quite technical. And if you get a millimeter wrong, it feels like somebody is clamping down on your breast with like a hammer. And so, to figure out this process is painful. It's frustrating. You can't ask them to open their mouths wider. I mean, it really is a learning and it takes actually did a survey on Instagram, it takes about 13 days for you to figure out some kind of placement rhythm, and that's without technical complications. I mean, it's it's really so nuanced. It's incredible. It can be very painful, like my daughter has a very aggressive grip. And so, it's tough. And it's a lot of pressure to I think that was part of it too. I think being a stay-at-home mom, I was like, “This is part of my job, I have to do this, I have to keep giving my body.” And I will say I think my mental health improved a lot when I didn't have to feel that pressure anymore.

Fenton: Yeah. And that and that realism just is so pervasive throughout the film. And you said that the first few months after Ginny was born, were so hard that you thought maybe you'd make a mistake that you didn't have what it took to be a mother. And, I don't have kids, but that resonated with me so much, because it echoed something. I've heard from so many of the amazing women in my life who are outstanding moms, but who have shared that they've had similar moments of wondering, you know, “Did I make a mistake? Can I do this?” What have you heard so far? I know, the film hasn't been widely released, but from other women who have seen it just about your honesty. 

Bagwell: Yeah, Imean, I, I really, I made this film, kind of accidentally, because I was so frustrated with the narrative around motherhood. And I really wanted to name certain things and certain feelings. And I felt like, really alone in my experience in a lot of ways. And I really felt like there wasn't a piece of media that really articulated not only like the challenges of having a baby and the hard stuff, and the sleep and the exhaustion and how physical it is, but also the mental health and going through postpartum depression and what that feels like, because that's a whole other crazy experience. And women who are able to, to find themselves again, and to find mental stability and to come out of that are, are heroic, and I really wanted to talk about it. And I've been so overwhelmed with how wonderful the feedback is from other mothers, especially women who have PPD, who've just expressed feeling seen. And I think when most of our media is still created by men, and we still have this male gaze about motherhood, and we have these weird, you know, tropes about women's exhaustion and the frazzled mother, but none of that is backed up by the fact that women are powerhouses. You know, we always see these like, really weird tropes of women and like bathrobes, and it's like, well, you didn't show her up online, you didn't show like the physical labor that it took to get there. So, I feel like we're missing half that story. And it's a privilege to be able to share it.

Fenton: On the flip side, there can be a tension around acknowledging the challenges of motherhood. Since we know there are many women who longed for children, but aren't able to have them. And that can make it I think, tense for those who do have kids to speak candidly about the experience. And so, I want to acknowledge that it is abundantly clear in Year One, how much you love your daughter. Even as we're able to witness that love, though, we can also witness the struggle that they live side by side. So, I've just have you gotten any feedback? Or have you had any concerns about criticism, along the lines of you're not appreciating being a mom?

Bagwell: You know, I don't think anyone has said it to me directly. And I think thankfully, because of what you said about love being like the major theme in the film, I did get a really wonderful review from a woman named Alexis who runs this incredible Instagram group called not safe for mom group. And I shared it with her and she's, I have to shout this group out. Basically, women come to her anonymously and say, I need to talk about this. And then you have like 100 other women who say either I feel the same way or there's their support there. So, it's definitely one of those great avenues for authentic conversation and, and she gave me a really beautiful review about how love is a central theme in the film, how it runs through the entire struggle, whether it's my relationship with my husband, or trying to connect with my daughter, and I do think the baseline is, you know, I'm not I'm struggling because I because of me, you know, it's not my daughter's fault that I haven't figured it out yet. And then I still feel like I'm learning. And so, I think because the responsibility and the onus is on me to not only take care of my mental health, but to figure out how to be a great mom. And that's really what the film is about. It's a journey, it's an exploration but you know, it's on me to figure that out. I think there's no question that my relationship to her and my want for us to continue to have a glorious bond is always at the forefront of why I'm doing the work.

Fenton: And I love that and I thank you for that. Because again, I, I relay things that I hear from other women. And I just think that's such a common theme with people who, again, desperately want their children and love their children. There are hard days. And I think there's there's still sort of the stigma that if you acknowledge that, yes, being a mom is amazing and wonderful, and you love your children, but yes, some days are really, really, really hard, that that somehow you're not appreciating your children. And I just think I think you do a great job of showing, you know, the both/and.

Bagwell: I, yeah, I mean, and I think it's about to what you're seeking, and, and being aware of that and what you're open to, you know, I had a friend who had a baby a couple months ago, and we were having a conversation about those first few weeks. And I was telling her how horrible it was. Because, in a way, I wanted somebody to name those things to me, but I ended up going home and feeling like, “Oh, I must stop like, she's pregnant, she's ready to have this baby.” And so, I sent her a list of, you know, the 10 things that I love about being a mother and how it's changed my life. And I think we have to give space obviously, for both ends of the equation. You know, we It is hard, but it's one of the most extraordinary things that's ever happened to me. And, you know, I said before, that women who can get through postpartum depression are heroes. And that's how I view myself, like being able to take care of another life and feed that life and get up every two hours for that life while learning how to take care of myself is invaluable is something I'm going to take into every job into every experience into every film I make. I feel like it's definitely broken me down but it has built me into this incredible woman and I'm so proud of who I am today because I got to be a mom.

Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Noteon WPSU.  I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Erin Bagwell, a stay-at-home mom, filmmaker and blogger. In her latest documentary, Year One,Erin offers an intimate look at her first year of motherhood. So, we've talked about so many of the feelings that are that are part of Year Oneand part of your experience. We've been talking about guilt and love. And there's also grief and motherhood and that comes out there's grief in any transitional moment. And that grief comes out inYear One. And a major example that you explore throughout the film is that of your identity and redefining yourself in motherhood. And you address this directly in Year One. Let's listen to a clip.

Excerpt from the Documentary Year One: Even though I knew I was enormously privileged to be able to stay at home with Ginny when people asked me what I did for work, I told them I was a freelancer. I grieve the loss of my work identity.

Fenton: I think the work identity is interesting because so much of it, particularly in our society, how we define ourselves is through our jobs. What has that shift been like? 

Bagwell: Well, Ifeel like I'm still figuring it out. It's, it's still something that I find to be very tricky to navigate, because I am still a stay-at-home mom, but this was not my plan. And in fact, before the pandemic hit, I was pretty seriously interviewing for some positions. So, my path and my journey with my work has been very complicated. And I think one of the things that I've been able to really hold on to is my creative outlets, is writing, is blogging, you know, making this film on the side. And, and really being able to explore my creative endeavors. But it's, it's been strange, I don't think I woke up, you know, when Ginny was born, it was like, I want to be a stay-at-home mom, this is like who I meant to be. This is like my forever experience, I just happened to be in a position where I had such debilitating postpartum depression, that I could do nothing else, but focus on taking care of her and taking care of me and then I didn't really come out of it for an entire year. And so that was a whole year of my life that I was taken out of the workforce. But you know, on the side, still working on creative endeavors filming this film, you know, having things kind of come to fruition and move along. But yeah, I think I have a very complicated relationship to identity and career and, and work and things like that, because it's still, it's still feel so hard to navigate. Now, even still,

Fenton: As you've acknowledged a few times, an added layer to your motherhood journey is that you discovered you were experiencing postpartum depression. When did you realize that you suffered from PPD? 

Bagwell: This is kind of an embarrassing story, but I kind of had an inkling that I wasn't doing great just kind of through talking to my mother and, and really the level of drama, I think I was not bringing to the conversation but that I was feeling. And I could kind of tell by her tone that she was like this isn't really normal behavior postpartum-wise. And so, I actually had my six-week checkup with my doctor. And I was mentally prepared to answer like, the big questions about it. And I was ready to be honest about how I was feeling. And she never asked me. And I went home. And I kind of felt like this burden, this responsibility to now have to seek it out and navigate it. And it was actually an Instagram friend of mine who had been reading my posts, which were like very moody. And I kind of thought I was sharing this vulnerable side of motherhood. But I think, looking back on it, I didn't really know what I was experiencing wasn't normal. I think that's the hardest part. I've had depression on and off my whole life. But I think when you're sleep deprived, and then you're also depressed, it's a weird cocktail of the mental health experience. And so, she reached out to me, and she was like, “I think you have PPD.” And I was like, “No, I don't think so I've had depression before. I know what it feels like, I just have a new baby.” And she was another mom. And she was like, “No, I think you should talk to somebody.” And it was really through having to seek out my own therapists and things like that, to really figure it out, and to really name it, and to really talk about it. And then there was the moment in the film where I talked about really having that one Pinnacle day where I just was like, I cannot carry on anymore. You know, I'm a burden to myself, and everybody around me and those kind of thoughts and feelings are really classic ideas of postpartum depression. So that was another huge signal that I needed help and I needed to get it and I need to figure out how to invest in it in every way possible.

Fenton: And it's interesting that that wasn't brought up in your doctor's appointment, because PPD or postpartum depression is not uncommon. Estimates are that as many as 50 to 80% of new mothers experience, some form of they call it the baby blues after delivery, and up to 20% will develop PPD or the more severe condition. Yet, despite that prevalence, there still seems to be the stigma or this shame attached to it.

Bagwell: Yeah. And I will add on to that, that you can experience PPD for two years. So, this isn't something that like is like a wave that'll just come and it'll go away without help. Like, if women are feeling not great, they should get help, because it could last a really long time. I will also say from talking to some of my friends who've also had it, there is this huge shame around naming it because we don't want someone to take our babies away. And I think for women who are listening and are might have an inkling of not feeling quite right. Know that unless you have like serious psychosis, the chances of you hurting your baby are super low, it's actually chances of you hurting yourself that are higher. And so, when you ask for help, no one is looking to you to separate you from your child. And I know that was definitely a thought that crossed my mind that crossed friends of mine, it's we you hold on to these secrets almost because you feel like I can't even imagine being separated from my baby. And so, I think naming that when you're asking for help, people are there to help you to support you to figure out the best way for your family to continue and that, you know reaching out to really get help, whether that's in a group setting or a one-on-one therapist has to be done. This isn't a journey that you can slug through on your own. You need help.

Fenton: How did you being diagnosed with postpartum depression impact how you perceive yourself and how you were judging sort of your experiences knowing that there were biological things at work? 

Bagwell: You know, Ithink you still feel pretty awful about it, even though it felt kind of like a relief to like name that this wasn't normal. But I think something else that it brought off, that I didn't really experience or think to experience was I felt I felt a lot of resentment towards other mothers, you know, I will be in these mother's circles and these women wouldn't have postpartum depression. And I'm like, “What do you mean, you don't think about like harming yourself or you're not up all night with anxiety, you can leave your house and I did.” There's just this pit in my stomach that I felt like I really missed something. When I still sometimes feel like that, that there's this parallel universe experience where I had the baby and it was just this glorious honeymoon phase, which some women do experience but that was not my journey. And that's not my story, and I've been able to learn So much more about myself and my mental health because of this. And the other thing I will say is, we're so hard on ourselves, when we're in it, especially when we're in some kind of bout, and we don't know how we're navigating it. And I can say, having come out of it, “Oh my God, how incredible I did, how wonderful a mother I was that I am, that I was able to get out of the house and take her to things and, and to carry on and to get through it to survive.” And I think we don't really ever appreciate it when we're in it when we're feeling those things. And I think my main goal with the film and was sharing my story is that when you can get out of it. And when you can get through the clouds to the sunshine, there is a sunshine. And I think that's really the message that I want new mothers to feel if they're if they're in it. And if they're not feeling themselves, it's like, all bets are off. You can't don't hold yourself accountable for these crazy Instagram influencer mothers, like, your goal is survival. Your goal is taking care of yourself. Your goal is being gentle. I mean, even to this day, I enact like what's easiest for you all, if I'm feeling overwhelmed, and I'm exhausted and the baby's been up all night. It's like, “OK, we're ordering pizza. Like how do we make this really easy for ourselves?” And I think women in general, we just need to be much more gentle with ourselves.

Fenton: When will Year One be released? I know it's screened at some festivals so far. But is there a wide release date in place? 

Bagwell: So yes and no. So, we haven't done any kind of large-scale digital screening. Also, I haven't had any fest festivals screen at either, even though we've been featured at some festivals, and we've won some festival awards. We're going to do a big digital premiere later this spring. I'm thinking probably like a March-April situation, if not May. So, it's definitely going to be coming where people can watch a conversation with me and my writing partner, Diana Matthews and kind of the nuances of the film, as we've discussed here and kind of celebrate the launch of it. And then it'll be available probably like on Vimeo. So, if people want to check it out, sign up for my newsletter. It's probably the best way that people can stay in touch or follow me on Instagram. I'm always over sharing some stuff on there as well.

Fenton: Erin Bagwell, thank you for talking with us.

Bagwell: Thank you so much for having me.

Fenton: Erin Bagwell is a stay-at-home mom, filmmaker and blogger. Her latest film, Year One, is a short documentary that offers an intimate look at her first year of motherhood. It addresses the challenges of experiencing postpartum depression, the identity shifts and the everyday extraordinary moments of being a new mom. To watch the Year Onetrailer and for more information on postpartum depression, visit wpsu-dot-or-slash-take-note. From my home studio. I'm Lindsey Whissel. Fenton, WPSU.


Lindsey Whissel Fenton is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, international speaker, outreach strategist, learning designer, and grief educator. In her current role as a senior producer and director at PBS/NPR affiliate WPSU, Fenton focuses on projects related to grief, trauma, and mental health. She is the creator of Speaking Grief and the producer and host of The Apologies Podcast. An international speaker on grief awareness and digital outreach and education, Fenton delivered a keynote at the 44th ADEC Conference and has presented to a variety of organizations, including the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), American Public Television (APT), the PBS Annual Meeting, and Comic Con San Diego, among others. Fenton earned her bachelor’s degree in Cinema and Digital Arts from Point Park University and her master’s degree in Learning, Design, and Technology from Penn State. She is a dog-mom, an avid consumer of books and podcasts, and a rock climber.
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