“My postpartum burnout nearly broke me. Now, I’ve opened a postnatal retreat for new parents”

“My postpartum burnout nearly broke me. Now, I’ve opened a postnatal retreat for new parents”

After Melissa Gallagher gave birth, she was shocked by how little support new parents receive. So she co-founded Alma Care, the country’s first postnatal retreat, to fill the gap

Melissa with her daughter, playing in her daughters room on the floor

I met my partner, Jeff Ross, in 2016, when I was 31. After we’d been seeing each other for about a year and a half, we had our first conversation about kids. We were on our way to a Leafs game, and the idea of freezing embryos came up. By then, we knew we wanted to spend our lives together and build a family—but we didn’t know exactly what the timeline would look like, since we’re both very career focused. Jeff works in city building, and I work in retail strategy and operations. I wanted us to have the flexibility of knowing that we had IVF as a backup, an insurance policy for our family.

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After a ton of research, we froze our first round of embryos in 2020. Then, right afterward, we got pregnant on our own. We were ready to bring a child into our lives, so it was an exciting time—until I miscarried in the first trimester. Even though I was disappointed, I knew that this was exactly why we’d started the IVF process. No matter how healthy you are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get pregnant easily. So we moved forward with in vitro, and it worked. By mid-2021, I was pregnant again.

Of course, I knew then how quickly things could change. For the first three months of my pregnancy, I was really worried. I breathed a sigh of relief when I entered my second trimester, when the odds of miscarrying go down significantly. My water broke in March 2022, and we headed straight to Mount Sinai.

It was a long birth. There was a Friends marathon on TV that I watched in its entirety—twice. I was at the hospital for 36 hours, but in the end, the birth went smoothly. The doctors and nurses were incredible, and holding my daughter for the first time was the most amazing natural high.

After she was born, they wheeled us onto another floor, where doctors and nurses came through frequently to check on the baby. They made sure she was eating and sleeping properly and checked her hearing. She got amazing care. Meanwhile, though, I had bled through the cute pyjamas everyone had told me to wear; after 24 hours, the team basically asked me if I had peed. They also made us go through an old PowerPoint presentation. I don’t remember what was in it—I was not in a place where I could take in a lot of new information. After that, we were discharged.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized how unprepared I felt. I’d done all this research ahead of time, including prenatal courses, and I had every baby gadget—but suddenly there were so many questions I didn’t have answers to. I started googling everything: How often do I feed the baby? Every two hours on the dot, all day? What temperature should her room be? What kind of clothes should she sleep in?

Luckily, I was still running on adrenalin and the all-consuming love I felt for my daughter. It really seemed like my partner and I could overcome any challenge through sheer willpower. At that point, I thought that I could start being a mom without changing the rest of my routine. I stayed on top of updating our friends and family even though I wasn’t getting any rest. My daughter was actually a good sleeper, but I had to wake up to feed her every couple of hours. The idea that my days wouldn’t have definitive beginnings or ends was overwhelming to me. I tried to keep waking up at 7 a.m. to shower, have a matcha latte and start my day. After about a week, the relentless 24/7 demands caught up to me, and I started to slow down.

In those first few weeks, we went to a ton of check-in appointments for my daughter. Meanwhile, my body was struggling to recover. I’d experienced a lot more bleeding than was normal during the birth and in the weeks after. Breastfeeding was wildly painful—I bled during that too, and even just pumping milk really hurt. As the adrenalin wore off, the exhaustion started to hit me. Still, I told myself everything was fine. Postpartum is supposed to be hard. I’ve got this. I can do hard things. When I had my first check-up, around the six-week mark, the doctor essentially touched my belly, asked if I was taking my postnatal vitamins and sent me on my way.

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Around the same time, one of my daughter’s vision tests was inconclusive. This can be normal early on, but she was six weeks old. The nurse at our family clinic was concerned. She sent us to SickKids. Forty-eight hours later, a doctor at the ophthalmology department took one look at our daughter and diagnosed her with infant cataracts. I couldn’t believe it—he’d only been with her for 30 seconds. But he was sure. We soon found out that, if she wasn’t operated on by the time she was eight weeks old, she could be blind for life.

I was in shock: we’d thought we had a perfectly healthy baby. They took her for bloodwork right away—she’d never been pricked by a needle before. From there, everything moved quickly, and in the following days, I started to spiral. Was there anything I’d done during my pregnancy that could have caused this?

Melissa holding her daughter, standing in front of the window at her home

We weren’t able to schedule her surgery until just after she was eight weeks old, but it was still early enough to do the procedure without too much risk. Once we were in the waiting room, though, it kept getting delayed. Covid was wreaking havoc on the health care system. After a while, they came out to tell us that they’d have to reschedule—but we didn’t know how long it would be until they could fit her in. We just couldn’t accept it. We pulled the doctors and nurses aside and pleaded with them to reconsider. Finally, they agreed to perform the surgery that day. We were immensely grateful.

The operation went perfectly, and after that we focused on her recovery. She had stitches and had to wear goggles. They also gave her tiny contacts, which we had to learn to get in and out of her eyes. She was doing well, but I couldn’t stop worrying. I was anxious about protecting and taking care of her. Every little decision felt like life or death. Even with the stress mounting, I told myself over and over again that I was fine. The idea that maybe I wasn’t coping—I couldn’t even let it enter my mind.

In November of 2022, my mom and I took my daughter to visit family for American Thanksgiving. My mom ended up being sick, though, so I was taking care of the baby solo for the very first time. All my regular stressors felt even more intense, and when I got back, my partner told me how much he had enjoyed his five days home alone. I knew he needed the recovery time too, but in that moment, I started to realize that I hadn’t had a minute to myself. The thought emerged for the first time: Maybe I’m not okay.

Soon after that, I hit a breaking point. I don’t remember what prompted it, but I found myself kneeling on the floor, baby in hand, sobbing and pleading with my partner to get me help. I told him over and over again that I was not okay, that I was broken and that something needed to change.

It was only then that I started to acknowledge the burnout and postpartum anxiety I’d been feeling since my daughter was born. Finally, I’d said it out loud, and now we could get proper supports in place. We were able to formalize arrangements with family members for extra child care, and I could use that time to look after my own mental health.

As all of this was happening, I’d started talking more and more with friends who were also newly postpartum. Even though the details of everyone’s journey were different, I realized that my experience was common—many had received stitches after giving birth that had never healed because they were pushing themselves too hard. Others had also experienced painful lactation and just assumed it was normal. Almost everyone was unbelievably exhausted.

I started jotting down business ideas in my notes app, thinking through the most important parts of the postpartum journey and the places where new parents often need extra support. I ran my thoughts past friends and heard that someone I knew, Hana McConville, was working on an idea for a postnatal retreat. I’d been the VP of marketing at Freshii when she co-founded Greenhouse Juice, so we’d met many times. Our mutual friends were telling us both that we needed to connect, so we did.

Hana’s experience of giving birth was very different from mine. Her family is from Singapore, and she had the chance to do what they call “sitting the month.” For 40 days after the birth, she didn’t leave her house at all. She had a confinement nurse who provided 24/7 live-in care, and she was able to focus on her own recovery as well as her baby. She told me how, in Singapore, they have centres where mothers can go to sit the month if it isn’t feasible for them to do so at home.

With support from a venture fund, we opened Alma Care in Yorkville in November 2023. It’s the first postnatal retreat in Canada. Birth parents—and their partners, if they wish—stay in private suites that are stocked with baby supplies, and we provide a full menu of meals designed to aid their recovery. During the retreat, they get 24/7 access to a network of experienced professionals led by advising doctors, nurses, midwives, postpartum doulas and lactation consultants, all of whom provide individualized care as well as communal workshops. They help new parents get comfortable, tell them what’s normal and what’s not, and walk them through all the little moments they might otherwise have to navigate alone. Parents also have access to wellness services like mental health support and massages, and we check up on everyone once they’ve gone home. For people who aren’t financially or geographically able to stay at the centre, we also offer home care, virtual consultations and free educational resources on our website.

Co-founding Alma Care has been wildly fulfilling for me. No matter what state parents arrive in, by the time they leave, they often tell us that the experience was life changing. A lot of parents come straight from the hospital, but we had a couple recently whose child was almost four months old when they arrived. Their baby just would not sleep, and the parents had hit a wall. It was amazing watching them get the help they needed. It’s not uncommon for people to shed tears of joy in the parents’ lounge. Watching it all has made me so excited to try for another baby—this time, I know I’ll have everything I need right from the start.