Meet: Liisa Ogburn

Liisa Ogburn of Raleigh with her kids, from left, Sarah, Livia and Aidan Colvin.
Liisa Ogburn of Raleigh with her kids, from left, Sarah, Livia and Aidan Colvin. COURTESY OF LIISA OGBURN

Liisa Ogburn of Raleigh assumed becoming a mom would be relatively easy. And for some women, it is. But soon after her first child was born, Liisa had a breakdown that landed her in the emergency room with a diagnosis of severe postpartum depression.

It took a long year for the fog in my brain to finally lift," she tells us. One thing that helped her was reading stories about other mothers who had struggled with the transition into parenthood. Since then, she has used her skills in documentary to help tell other mothers' stories with a project called "How Motherhood Changes Us." Through tales of challenges including illness, same-sex parenting, culture shock, abuse and much more, Liisa sheds light on the amazing strength of mothers in North Carolina and beyond.

For this month's "Meet," talks with Liisa to find out more about her story and the stories she discovers all around us.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself, and about your family.

A. I was actually born in Raleigh -- to a Johnston County farmer’s son and a Finnish PK, or preacher’s kid—which inspired my move to teach in a Finnish folk school after college for two years. My husband and I met waiting tables in Chapel Hill while trying to get into graduate school over two decades ago. We got hitched in 1997, duct-taped our few belongings to an old Volvo station wagon and headed west, where I began working in multimedia while my husband was completing his studies. It was out in San Francisco that I started collecting first-person stories. My first project, “Women in Limbo,” featured stories from a range of women at a crossroad in their lives. While in San Francisco, we had a son and daughter. We added a third child, two dachshunds, a cat and some goldfish once back here in Raleigh. I now teach documentary part-time at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, produce projects on the side (see and write.

Q. Tell us about "How Motherhood Changes Us," and why you started the project.

A. When I had my first child, my husband and I were both heavily work-focused, trying to forge our professional paths. We didn’t have any friends with kids or family close by to look to for guidance. We assumed we could fold Aidan into our busy lives somewhat seamlessly. What happened instead was I had a major postpartum breakdown and landed in the psych ward, which I wrote about last fall in the New York Times. It took a long year for the fog in my brain to finally lift. What helped, in addition to good medical care, was reading first-person stories written by mothers who were honest, reflective, relatable and unafraid. They didn’t necessarily have to be struggling with postpartum depression, but they did have to be on some kind of brave quest.

Documentary, for me, is a way to explore and understand some of the big questions I am struggling with. I produced my first project, “Women in Limbo,” when I myself was at a crossroads. The motherhood project is no different. Getting out and talking deeply with a wide range of mothers has provided me with such wisdom and insight into the many complicated and remarkable ways we change and grow, that we are conscious of or not, as we shepherd children into and through life. I’m so grateful to the women who have opened the curtains to their lives for this project. I have read many of the stories many times. I feel braver, wiser and less afraid for having read them. Hopefully other mothers will feel the same.

Q. So many of the stories you've collected are just heartbreaking – is it hard to conduct the interviews sometimes?

A. Funny that you should bring that up. Right now I’m in the process of trying to find a mainstream publisher and am having a hard time because difficult stories don’t sell well.

While it’s true that many of the stories on my website do involve challenge, there are also a fair number, some which aren’t online, that do not. The thread, I believe, that holds all these stories together is wisdom. Each of these mothers is wise, and for some, that wisdom has been hard-earned.

Why is there a seeming bias towards challenge? First off, I wanted to make sure I was representing the whole spectrum of experiences related to motherhood. Many challenges are far more common than people think. For example, did you know that 40 percent of the babies born last year in the U.S. were born to single moms? Eleven percent of couples struggle with infertility? At any given time, 26 percent of Americans struggle with mental illness? When you think you are the only one struggling with a significant challenge—especially if that challenge is stigmatized—while simultaneously caring for an infant or child, it can be pretty darn isolating and lonely. The collection is an antidote against isolation and loneliness. Hopefully, it provides a bit of a comforting balm, too.

Q. Was it difficult to conduct some of these interviews?

A. In the beginning, it was sometimes awkward to be asking a stranger such personal questions, but over time many women told me how cathartic it was to simply be deeply listened to, and also to have a record of an important part of their life story. It was a privilege to hear all the stories. While I did sometimes find myself crying with the mother I was interviewing, what ultimately happened was my heart was opened over and over and over again. And very importantly, my perspective was widened. I came to understand that motherhood is both wonderful and challenging for us all. Many mothers suffer significant challenges. Look at all the ways they cope and rise to the occasion. Be grateful for your blessings.

Q. You had your own difficult journey as a new mother. Has this project helped you heal in some way?

A. Yes. When I shared my own story in the NYT, I received hundreds of emails within 24 hours from around the world from women with similar stories, many too ashamed to tell anyone, thanking me for doing so. This spoke to just how important it is to acknowledge, share and claim our stories. I also found that with each telling of my postpartum story, it lost a little of its emotional charge. Now it’s simply one small part of the complicated picture of who I am.

Q. What have you learned from all the stories you've collected? Is there a common thread or message?

A. While eighty percent of American women choose to have children, few really understand what they’re getting into. Becoming a mother affects everything—our friendships, our relationships, our professional and personal aspirations, our priorities. I wanted a map for the vast territories as I moved through being a first-time mother to the stage I am in now (with an 8-, 10- and 13-year-old) and on into the next stages. These women have given me that, as well as—importantly—the confidence to know that whatever challenges lie ahead, I can and will be able to manage. You’ll have to pick up the book for more details.

Q. What do you hope mothers (or expectant mothers or women who hope to become mothers, etc.) take away from reading the stories that this project shares?

A. I hope mothers will connect with and be moved by many of the stories and comforted if they feel isolated by their own story. I hope they, like me, will pull out bits of wisdom in situations where needed. I also hope this will expand our collective awareness of the many vulnerabilities and challenges motherhood poses at this point in time in the United States and tap into our compassion for the wider world of mothers and for ourselves.

Q. Is there an end point to this project, or do you plan to continue indefinitely?

A. I’ve interviewed close to 150 women now. I intend to publish a collection of the most compelling stories. I have also edited a subset of these stories into short audio documentaries that I share in talks with women’s groups.

Q. What's your favorite thing to do with the whole family in the Triangle?

A. We love going to the museums and art galleries on First Friday downtown and on special occasions, taking a rickshaw home. We also love lacing up our sneakers and heading out on some of the many 5Ks that run through downtown.

Q. What's your favorite thing to do around here when you get a few hours to yourself?

A. Blue Lotus Yoga or a long run with girlfriends. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed during these busy years. These two activities always, always bring me back to living in and relishing the moment.

Q. What's the best parenting trick you've picked up?

A. Fitting in spending a little one-on-one time with each kid. Nothing radical or expensive. Basically, it consists of taking one out with me to walk the dogs around the neighborhood most nights. No rush. No agenda. This is often when I hear what’s really going on in their hearts and lives.

What's the best advice someone has given you about being a mom?


Know a local mom with a story to tell? Or are you that mom? Drop us a line at for consideration for a future “Meet” Q&A.