By Sarah Leff, MPH, Program Associate at the UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health
In May of last year, I graduated from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health with my MPH in Maternal and Child Health (MCH). I have been working at the UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health, first as an intern and now as a program associate, for a little under two years now. It makes my head spin (in a good way) to think about how much I’ve learned in that short time. Being exposed to so many different aspects of MCH helped me refine what I was really interested in. One of my main interests now is preconception health – even though I had never heard of it before I started graduate school. To me, preconception health is women’s health – making sure that we are healthy and happy throughout our lives. As we say in MCH, ‘from womb to tomb.’ And, since many of us will have children one day, preconception health helps protect their health in the future as well.
Preconception health is an exciting and challenging field to work in, because it is more directly relevant to me as an individual than some of our other projects. Unlike tobacco cessation or postpartum care, preconception health is personal for me – I am a consumer, part of the target audience. I can understand some of the barriers to preconception health, because I’ve experienced them. Beyond tangible barriers like lack of health insurance, there is the mental struggle to value health and prioritize it in my life. Even as someone working in public health, this can be a challenge! It sometimes feels like between leaving our teens and when we become mothers, women drop off the map in terms of health care. We are often busy building our careers, finding time to nurture our personal relationships, figuring out how to make it as independent adults, and laying the foundation for the lives we want to have in the future. Among all of these concrete responsibilities, health can feel somewhat abstract, and healthy behaviors can feel like a luxury. It’s hard to find time to take care of yourself, visit the doctor, cook, and exercise. Unless you don’t have a choice – I’ve found that having a puppy is a great way to make exercise not optional!
So how do we get the message out – to the women we serve AND to ourselves – that our health is important? I’ve been very excited to learn about the new Show Your Love social marketing campaign. This campaign is a partnership between the CDC and the Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative, and the name pretty much says it all – Show Your Love! To yourself, and if you are planning a pregnancy, to your baby. This message resonates because it frames health not as an obligation or another stressful item on your “To Do” list, but as a way to love and care for yourself. This positive message helps remind me that ultimately, health is a prerequisite for everything else I want to enjoy in life, so I need to take care of my health and myself. Show Your Love isn’t a vague concept either – the supporting resources and materials help women with specific steps they can take to protect and promote their health. I’d like to add that preconception health shouldn’t be ‘ladies only’ – it is vitally important to include and engage men in this effort, and encourage them to Show Your Love as well – to themselves, and to the women in their lives.
Love is a word we use a lot in MCH. Maybe because even on the hardest days, we still know we’re lucky to be doing what we love. I hope Show Your Love spreads and catches on across the country – it’s a message we could all use a little more of.