||Post Natal Depression - Mental Illness or
by Robin Grille
|Post Natal Depression (PND) affects at least one in ten mothers
around the world. While this painful and debilitating condition afflicts mothers - within
four weeks of giving birth - it is also stressful for family relationships and detrimental
to mother-infant bonding.
These days it is popular to explain PND as feminine hormones gone awry - though the
evidence for this is poor. We have a variety of pharmaceuticals at our disposal - and, of
course, they can be helpful. But our over-reliance on the hormonal, "sickness"
model has a serious pitfall. If all we do is rely on allopathic approaches we risk
overlooking some of the very real situational factors that can cause depression. I believe
we may be seriously downplaying the importance of mothers' emotional needs, discounting
the things that wound them, and disregarding critical steps to restoring their well-being.
||If PND was biologically determined, you would expect it to appear in every culture. It
doesn't. Among the Kipsigis of Kenya, for instance, PND is unheard of. Why? What do they
do differently for mothers? Are we, in our culture, doing enough to recognize the
circumstances that trigger PND? Do we do enough to protect mothers from these difficulties
and help them to overcome them?
|Genetic predispositions to PND are only a small part of the
picture, and genetic vulnerability by itself is not enough to trigger this disorder. When
a mother develops PND, something very real is hurting her, though often she cannot put her
finger on what it is. Modern research, however, has shone a light on this subject.
Triggers from the present
Every mother has been biologically programmed to expect an increase in emotional
support when her baby arrives; she needs to be held, to feel secure and listened to by her
partner, friends, and her own mother or kin. During gestation, childbirth, and the months
that follow, mothers are emotionally fragile, and they require extra understanding. This
Fathers are vital protectors of their family's emotional welfare, and their lack of
emotional support can be costly. Some women who suffer from PND report that their partners
are either unsupportive or overly controlling. But even the most supportive partners may
be insufficient, and in fact, both parents need the unflagging support of extended family,
friends and community.
As at every other stage of mothering, a raft of emotional support for the mother is
extremely important during labor. The sensitive support of a companion has such profound
effects that it actually reduces medical complications quite significantly. Mothers who
are accompanied by a female supporter - as well as their male partner - have a shorter
labor, less incidence of caesarean section, and their babies are less likely to require
neonatal intensive care.
Some of the emotional volatility experienced by new mothers might in fact be normal and
healthy. Like the proverbial "mother-bear", it is natural for some mothers to
become more reactive than usual. This temporary surge of protective instincts is called
"lactation aggression". Because they are not reassured that there are valid
reasons for these feelings, mothers feel ashamed and guilty. To top it off, they feel
afraid of their own irritability, afraid of what it might do to their baby, and too
embarrassed to seek the relief that comes with talking about their feelings.
|It is not uncommon for mothers to feel burdened and resentful, or even to experience
bursts of outright hostility towards their babies. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect
all new mothers to feel nothing but radiant joy. The life changes brought about by a new
baby can come as a formidable shock that few are helped to prepare for. With a precious
new infant, we each forfeit much of our freedom, our personal space, and our time to be
alone with ourselves and with our partners. Some mothers feel that their status has gone;
they are no longer important and worthy. If they have put a career on hold, they
experience a frightening loss of identity. A kind of grieving process is called for, if
one is to manage to gracefully let go of life as it was before baby. Because she had not
anticipated any negative feelings, and she had expected to feel elated and in love with
her new baby, the mother becomes disappointed with herself. She feels like a failure, and
this compounds her depression. That is why every mother needs the ongoing empathic support
of her family, and friends who can listen intently, who have traveled this territory, and
can mentor her through it. She needs friends who can hold her, share their own experiences
with her, and reassure her that her emotional ups and downs are OK.
|When a mother feels sad and cries, this does not necessarily
indicate depression. Crying is the body's natural way to release emotional pain. When
mothers cry, instead of being told they are mentally ill, they should be listened to,
loved and held.
Triggers from the past
At times, clues to a mother's PND might be hidden in her own childhood history. Some
mothers who felt emotionally deprived in their early years find the demands of a baby
particularly nerve-racking; and this places them at risk of PND.
A new baby powerfully evokes from our unconscious memory a plethora of feelings, both
positive and negative, that we felt when we ourselves were infants. Though a mother may
not suspect it, her baby's cries could be triggering her own painful memories of infancy.
If a mother has unresolved pain about loss or abandonment, this pain may re-emerge when
she enters motherhood - though she may have no idea why she is crying. Women who had
difficulties with attachment to their own mothers, who feel their mothers were not caring
enough, or that their fathers were overprotective, are more likely to suffer from PND.
If our own childhood emotional needs weren't met, we might find our children's
dependency hard to tolerate. It is hard to give what has not been given us, and our
babies' cries assail our ears - unbearably. Researchers have found that women who are more
bothered by the sound of a baby crying are more likely to develop PND once their own baby
A group of American psychologists who were working with mothers who were having trouble
bonding with their babies, invited them to talk about their own childhoods. They helped
these mothers to connect with their own childhood pain, and to weep. Immediately after
this emotional release, these mothers spontaneously cuddled their babies. Their nurturing
energies had been walled up behind a layer of frozen, unexpressed grief. For many PND
sufferers, unresolved grief is the key.
An ongoing emotionally supportive and empathic relationship with her own mother can be
a most potent vaccine against PND. If this is not possible, then it can be helpful -
indeed, necessary - for a woman to talk openly and grieve her past, in the presence of
Is it depression or trauma?
For some mothers, PND may be a mistaken diagnosis: they might in fact be suffering from
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For many women, the experience of labor can be
highly traumatic. Around 20 per cent of mothers lose at least some memory of the labor
experience: they report being in a "fog". This partial amnesia is a kind of
dissociation, and a classic symptom of PTSD. British psychologists have found that 2 to 5
per cent of mothers develop PTSD after a difficult childbirth. A much larger proportion
suffer symptoms of PTSD, such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, problems with
breastfeeding, feelings of failure, feelings of estrangement and difficulty bonding to
The cold, clinical atmosphere of labor wards and the intrusiveness of defensive
obstetrics are, for many women, thoroughly violating. More than any other time, childbirth
is a scary passage when mothers need a profound and ongoing empathic connection; they need
their fears validated. Mothers usually feel extremely vulnerable at this time, and modern
obstetric wards place little emphasis on their emotional needs. Many women feel that their
control is taken away from them, that procedures are carried out without their
understanding or consent, and that their fears are dismissed by hospital staff. Moreover,
in hospitals that separate new mothers from their infants, their powerful, instinctual
need to remain close is brushed aside. Many mothers feel devastated by this separation;
they feel strangely empty or bereft, perhaps without knowing why.
In my private practice, over the years, I have heard so many mothers complain bitterly
that when they express such feelings to hospital staff, they feel dismissed, and are told
they are being "irrational". Some hospital staff trivialize and minimize
mothers' emotional ups and downs through this delicate process - their terror, pain, and
feelings of helplessness, as if the only thing that matters is that mother and child have
survived the process physically unscathed. Depression begins when women's attempts to
voice their feelings are met with the message: "You have nothing to complain
about". This is completely crushing. We close our eyes to these traumas and their
consequences at a grave cost to mothers, their babies and their partners.
Jean Robinson, research officer at the UK Association for Improvements in the Maternity
Services, says that the incidence of PTSD among new mothers has risen along with an
increase in interventions such as induced labor and caesarian section. But even after
normal births, symptoms of PTSD can arise when mothers are made to feel helpless and
disempowered, and their right to make birthing decisions is taken away from them.
Often, what knocks mothers into a depression is that some fundamental emotional needs
surrounding pregnancy, the birth of her child, and the day-to-day life of mothering are
not being met. She may not even know how to validate these needs herself. The moment her
baby comes, when her need for support is most acute, she finds herself alone for hours at
a time, faced with a baby who wails for her attention. For many mothers, when they are
alone, the day can drag on interminably. The task of mothering, along with her baby's
natural, healthy but unceasing calls for attention, ends up feeling like a terrible
burden. It was all supposed to feel wonderful, instead it feels like tedium. She expected
to be bathed in joy, instead she finds herself struggling. She feels shocked; her
illusions about mothering are dashed, and she blames herself. No one told her it was going
to feel like this.
|To make matters worse, her friends and family keep telling her how lucky she is, and how
happy she should be. This makes her feel even more isolated, more ashamed, as if there
must be something wrong with her. The worst aggravator for a mother is to be told she is
being irrational. Such a non-empathic comment, at a time of emotional vulnerability, can
|It needn't be this way. Our culture fails mothers. In modern
Western cultures, few parents belong to a supportive family or tribe-like group. Mothers
are supposed to be surrounded by help and assistance, offered enduring empathy and
validation, as well as given a little of their own space from time to time. Few enjoy
these conditions. Furthermore, a mother's social status is ranked lowest in our culture.
She feels unimportant, secondary, unwanted. Are these kinds of circumstances not reason
enough to feel depressed? That's exactly what they do differently in cultures where PND
does not exist. Kipsigi mothers receive abundant social support throughout pregnancy and
There are many more causes beyond those listed here - as many as there are sufferers. A
one-size-fits-all diagnosis can shut the door on empathy and understanding. We have
dangerously underestimated women's emotional needs surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and
mothering - so much so that much of what we consider "normal" and unremarkable
is in fact traumatic. We undervalue maternal needs for support, empathy and practical help
at a great cost to families. If we are to reduce, even eliminate, the incidence of PND,
then there is much more to be done to ensure that mothers' psychological needs are taken
care of, throughout the parenting journey.
Heading PND off at the Pass
Dealing with PND means being proactive against its onset. Here are some things to think
about while you are pregnant:
- Make pregnancy sacred: meditate, dance, talk to your baby, have a Blessingway
- Choose natural birthing wherever possible. Drugs used in labor interfere with the
natural release of ecstatic and loving hormones.
- Examine your own birth and early childhood. Have counseling if necessary.
- Make sure there is plenty of emotional support - from partner, friends, doula.
Mother or other elder women are particularly important.
- Involve the father as much as possible in the pregnancy and birth process so that he
can be there to support you.
- Don't fight the depression: instead, welcome it and its invitation to introspect, to
slow down, to feel and to heal. Keep a journal, draw.
- Don't stay alone at home longer than is pleasurable. Spend time with other mothers
in cooperative parenting groups.
- Don't bottle up feelings. Cry, express, talk about how you feel - a lot.
- Surround yourself with good listeners.
- Breastfeed. This releases oxytocin, the hormone of love and joy.
- Don't push yourself to engage in work or responsibilities before you are ready. Plan
for a "baby moon" - the month following birth - as a retreat into your
process of birth, of becoming a new family and of transition. Arrange before the birth
for domestic support during this month - meals made, housework and laundry done.
Friends and family can make up a roster - a real birth gift.
LIST OF REFERENCES
American Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical
Bailham D., and Joseph S. (2003) "Post-Traumatic Stress
Following Childbirth: A Review of Emerging Literature and Directions for Research and
Practice". Psychology, Health and Medicine, Vol.
8 (2) pp 159-168.
Hickie I. and Parker, G. (1991) "Parents, Partners or Personality? Risk Factors for
Post-Natal Depression" Journal of Affective
Disorders, Vol. 21, pp 245-255.
Edgerton, Robert B. (1992) Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of
Primitive Harmony, New York: The Free Press.
(1998) "Postnatal Depression or Childbirth Trauma?" Psychotherapy
in Australia Vol. 4(4) pp 36-41.
B. (2000) Mother Nature, Vintage.
Robert (1994) Becoming Attached, Oxford University Press.
et al (1986) "Effects of Social Support During Parturition on Maternal and Infant
Morbidity", British Medical Journal, Vol.
293, pp 585-587.
B.C., Hayworth, J., Benson, P., Bridge, L.R., Dewhurst, J. and Priest, R.G.
"Psychophysiological Ante-Natal Predictors of Post-Natal Depressive Mood", Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol 26(4), pp 419-428.
S.A., Martin, N.G., Bucholz, K.K., Maden, P.A.F. and Heath, A.C. (1999)
"Genetic Influences on Post-Natal Depressive
Symptoms: Findings from an Australian Twin Sample", Psychological Medicine, Vol. 29, pp 645-654.
Beyond Blue: The National Depression Initiative
The Unspeakable Trauma of Childbirth
Originally published in Kindred, issue 21, March 2007. Reprinted with permission of
Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist and author of Parenting
for a Peaceful World. He has a private practice in individual psychotherapy and
relationship counseling. For further information and articles, visit
Robin's website our-emotional-health.com
and blog hearttoheartparenting.org.
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