Spotlighting Perigee Fund: The importance of infant and maternal mental health

An early pioneer of infant and maternal mental health work, Perigee Fund focuses on community-driven solutions to dismantle systemic barriers that contribute to infants experiencing early adversity.

Written by: Perigee Fund, Edited by Seattle Foundation

A mother of a new baby looks off, brow furrowed and mouth cast into a somber frown as she holds her child. The baby fusses and cannot be consoled. She seems distant. She is suffering from severe postpartum depression. Flash forward. The same mother, whose depression has been treated, looks her baby in the eyes. She smiles with delight and talks to her child. Her baby smiles back and mimics her expression. The mother later tells her therapist, “I don’t want my baby to see my depressed face.”

Perigee Fund, a supporting organization housed at Seattle Foundation, is regarded as an early pioneer in the emerging fields of infant and early childhood mental health and maternal mental health. While infant mental health is not a term widely discussed, at its essence, it refers to an infant or toddler’s ability to develop trust, manage emotions, and engage in learning. A hallmark of the practice is that it prioritizes parents’ mental health and well-being.

“When we think about what infants’ brains need, they need to stay attuned to positive and safe early relationships in order for brain development to unfold in the best possible way with the outcome of positive social-emotional development, positive cognitive development, positive health outcomes,” said Lisa Mennet, Ph.D., founder of Perigee Fund.

When families are affected by trauma, racism, or poverty, the impacts can contribute to what Perigee Fund describes as “early adversity,” which can interfere with infants’ social-emotional development. If early adversity continues over time, it not only affects infants as children—it can have persistent effects throughout adulthood and implications for their own children.

“We help families find a way through challenges to find more joyful connection with their babies. We hold in mind the baby and the mother, and their need to be wrapped in healthy families, robust communities and systems and policies that protect rather than threaten their unfolding relationship,” said Mennet.

Established in 2018 in Washington state, Perigee Fund seeks to make changes at the family, community, and systems levels. In many ways, their work ripples outward like that of concentric circles. For example, Perigee Fund is working on a guaranteed basic income pilot in Seattle, spanning pregnancy through the child’s third birthday at the family level, an Indigenous Birth Justice network at the community level, and policy advocacy for affordable child care at the systems level. Perigee Fund is focused on getting money, time, and care to families to reduce parents’ cumulative stress. A parent who feels untaxed by the lack of necessities, such as diapers, can focus on and bond with their baby.

Another priority of Perigee Fund is providing grant funding and other essential resources for organizations serving Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) birthing people and their infants. For example, Perigee Fund has forged a relationship with WA Doulas4All coalition, which engages BIPOC doulas, who serve expectant BIPOC families, as experts in co-creating doula policies and payment systems with the state.

Orchestrating support for organizations, such as the WA Doulas4All coalition, is incredibly important. BIPOC communities have historically experienced generational trauma and under-investment instead of support and safety. Living in a certain zip code should not impact the wellbeing of an infant or parent, but it can, unfortunately, play a role in a caregiver’s experiences and access to resources. Philanthropy and nonprofit sectors are learning that it is imperative that leaders in communities closest to these issues lead the work because meaningful change at the grassroots level paves the way for systemic change to happen. Perigee Fund is aligned with that mindset and believes it will play a vital role in helping address infant and parent mental health in Washington state, and beyond.

If you would like to learn more about Perigee Fund, you can view a recent conversation we had with them about addressing infant and maternal mental health through their innovative projects. Exploring potential partnership opportunities is another way to dive into Perigee Fund’s work. Please feel free to reach out to [email protected] to schedule a time to connect.