Flagler Beach's Haley Watson Stephens is a national surfing champ, a Miss Flagler County beauty queen, and now, as a new mom, she's sharing her story about the baby blues.
Updated 8:15 a.m. May 13
It was about 4 a.m., and Haley Watson was walking up to the emergency entrance at Halifax Health to have her first baby, when her water broke.
“It was like in the movies — whoosh!” she recalled. “It was like a waterfall.”
Her fiance was parking their car, so, with soaked shoes, she walked up to the desk by herself.
It was a humbling moment for Watson, a former Miss Flagler County beauty queen, a national surfing champion, the founder of the MayDay Memorial Surf Classic that in 2020 raised a record $10,000 to benefit the Halifax Health Foundation. According to one friend, Carla Cline, Watson has become a “pillar of the community.”
Watson didn’t feel that way on that night in 2019.
The hospital was ghostly silent. She was all alone, without any bags, and a woman at the desk asked her, "Is it time?"
Watson said, "Yeah," and she burst into tears.
Her journey to become a mom was beginning — right now.
As for many first-time mothers, the journey would be full of surprises, including a bout with the baby blues. She shared her story with the Palm Coast Observer in hopes that other new mothers would feel less alone — and get the help they need.
Delivery at Halifax
That night at Halifax, on Jan. 20, 2019, she was surprised to learn that her name was already in the hospital records — Haley Watson — because of the last time she had been there as a “patient”: for her own birth 26 years earlier.
It was surreal to walk into Halifax Health for the first time since then, because this was where her own mother, Dollie Sue Watson, had worked as a nurse until dying of heart disease in 2006. She was 48 years old; Haley was 14 at the time.
Now, Watson was about to become a mother herself — without her own mother by her side.
In the delivery room, her fiance, Nic, joined her, as did Nic’s mother and one of Haley Watson’s closest friends and mentors, Colleen Conklin, who is also a Flagler Beach resident.
Watson had packed a picture of Dollie Sue, and Conklin set it up in a kind of memorial, next to an essential oils diffuser, in the delivery room.
“My heart broke for her,” recalled Conklin, who is also a longtime Flagler County School Board member. “There are certain times in your life when you just want your mom. You just want to know everything’s going to be OK.”
Watson also found some comfort in knowing that her doctor, Pam Carbiener, had worked together with Dollie Sue in their time at Halifax Health. Carbiener was also Conklin’s doctor when Conklin’s sons were born at Halifax.
“Fate brought us together,” Watson recalled. “I feel like my mom sends little signs once in a while that everything’s going to be OK.”
"They always tell you it’ll change your life, but you don’t understand the magnitude of that statement until it actually happens.”
HALEY WATSON STEPHENS
It was mostly a “mellow” day at the hospital, she recalled, complete with ocean sounds on the TV. During the delivery, surrounded by nurses, Watson pushed until Carbiener announced that the baby boy had been born. On her chest, the new mom was introduced to Mason, who weighed 7 pounds, 2 ounces.
“He looked absolutely perfect,” Watson recalled. “He had big, chubby cheeks. … The amount of joy — they always tell you it’ll change your life, but you don’t understand the magnitude of that statement until it actually happens.”
Overwhelmed and alone
Watson was used to being busy. But back home in Flagler Beach, she had a whole new routine to figure out as a stay-at-home mom.
Her husband worked long hours as captain of a charter fishing boat, the Sea Spirit, and she was grateful that he was such a hard worker and providing for their family. But Watson was lonely.
She thought about her mother a lot.
“If they were close with their moms, any girl would want their help as they transition into becoming a new mom themselves,” Watson recalled. “My mom was my best friend.”
In addition to being a confidante, Dolly Sue was also a nurse, so Watson wished she could be around for medical advice also.
Breastfeeding seemed so simple in the hospital, but now it was a mystery. Was Mason getting too much milk? Too little? As soon as she set him down, Mason would cry, and he would often spit up. Why was he crying?
It became clear that Mason had colic. He wouldn’t sleep unless he was held upright in Watson’s arms. Mostly, he took 30-minute naps, which meant she couldn’t take naps herself.
One day she and Mason went to a park. Mason hated the car seat and wouldn’t stop crying on the drive. After unloading what felt like her whole house from her vehicle, she prepared to feed him. She had pumped milk for the occasion and kept it cold with ice packs, and she also brought a thermos of hot water to warm the milk up. When she finally poured it into his bottle at the park, she spilled the milk.
She gave up. She went home.
Sleep deprivation worked on her. Watson yearned for an extra set of hands. She felt overwhelmed. The hours were like weeks, with no break and no hope for relief — and she didn’t want to ask anyone for help.
She felt herself grieving for her mother in a raw way. Sometimes, she felt angry and deprived.
Why aren’t you here? she thought. Why does everyone else have their moms, and I don’t?
When she finally decided to cry for help, in June 2019, she turned to the woman who had hired her as a babysitter at age 15, who had traveled to surfing competitions with her, who had been the first person she called when she found out she was pregnant: Colleen Conklin.
“To this day, I look at her as an extension of our family, like an adopted daughter,” Conklin told the Palm Coast Observer.
Watson tried to describe how she felt. Her heart and her mind seemed to be at odds. On one hand, she knew she had everything to make her happy in life: a healthy baby boy, a loving and hard-working husband, food on the table. On the other hand, she felt that she was giving every ounce of energy and attention to Mason, and nothing seemed to be enough.
Conklin gave her some advice that has helped her ever since: “It takes strength to be vulnerable. I know you want to be out there saving the world, but you can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself first.”
According to the American Pregnancy Association, 70%-80% of new moms feel sadness and mood swings — baby blues — for a couple of weeks after giving birth. If the symptoms extend past 14 days, the APA recommends talking with a physician.
For Watson, the feelings had lasted for five months.
Conklin made an appointment and picked up Watson and Mason, and they all went to visit Dr. Carbiener.
While Conklin held Mason in the hallway, Carbiener and Watson talked about possible medication options, and Watson didn’t feel that was right for her. They also talked about keeping a journal, and Watson decided to write about her thoughts and emotions frequently, to give herself an outlet.
“That helped me a lot,” Watson recalled. “I learned how to, instead of fight the chaos, embrace it.”
Embracing the chaos
She started looking at Mason differently. He seemed to be able to go with the flow. He wasn’t bothered by the chaotic things that bothered Watson as a mother, of course.
“Your baby’s going to cry,” she remembers realizing at the time. “He can’t tell you, ‘I had way too much milk, so my tummy hurts.’"
She began to develop a new set of expectations.
"There’s dirty dishes in the sink," she said. "They’re not going to go anywhere. It’s OK if don’t do them for a day. Your house is never going to be clean again. That’s OK, too. Mason doesn’t like the car seat now, but he’s going to grow out of that phase. … As soon as I quit fighting it, I saw a night-and-day difference in my outlook.”
Watson felt comfort in knowing that it wasn’t unusual to have baby blues. She also knew that some women have it much worse and are diagnosed with postpartum depression — she never was.
“It goes so much deeper than just the dishes in the sink or the crying baby,” she said. “Your body is flooded with hormones that have never been there, and your body has gone through all of these changes, and my doctor explained to me that your hormones have a lot to do with your thoughts and your feelings. I had read about baby blues prior to giving birth, and I thought, ‘That’s really sad. That sounds really hard and it’s really terrible.’ And I never thought that would happen to me.”
She decided to open up about her experience, in the hope that other new mothers will realize they aren’t alone, either. It’s OK to ask for help.
“It was really humbling, and I would like to see it talked about more — to normalize the conversation about baby blues,” Watson said.
Back on a wave
As Mason got a little older, the colic went away. He learned to crawl. Meanwhile, the charter fishing season slowed down, so Nic was home more. Haley Watson became Haley Stephens on April 2, when the two got married in a small ceremony (most of their plans had to be canceled due to the pandemic).
Haley Stephens now makes time to surf on a weekly basis.
When she only had herself to worry about, she would plan out her surfing so that she made the most of the tides, the waves, the winds. Now she surfs whenever Nic’s parents can watch Mason for an hour.
“I used to feel guilty for leaving Mason,” she said in a May 2020 interview with the Palm Coast Observer. “Now I know I have to take a break. I’m going to make myself take a break.”
Just as surfing saved her life after her mother died, it is now the way she reminds herself who she is, beyond being Mason’s mother.
“Surfing has saved my life multiple times now,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I used surfing as a way to leave my problems on land. In my opinion, Mother Nature is the best cure for anything.”
She feels the warm sand between her toes, the sun on her face. She paddles out, feeling the saltwater passing through her fingers.
“And then the sound of the waves, and when you’re paddling out and you’re still dry, and you duck dive under that first wave, that feeling of being refreshed,” she said. “That feeling when you do a turn or a maneuver on the wave.”
She twists on the board, spraying the sky.