|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
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 is normal.
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
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 trusted others.
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 their baby.
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
|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 be shattering.
|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 post-natally.
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
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
- Make pregnancy sacred: meditate, dance, talk to your baby, have a Blessingway ceremony.
- 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
- 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
- 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
Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, IV
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.
Boyce P., Hickie I. and Parker, G.
(1991) "Parents, Partners or Personality? Risk Factors for Post-Natal Depression" Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 21,
Robert B. (1992) Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, New York: The Free Press.
Gonda B. (1998) "Postnatal
Depression or Childbirth Trauma?" Psychotherapy in Australia Vol.
4(4) pp 36-41.
Hrdy, Sarah B. (2000) Mother
Karen, Robert (1994) Becoming
Attached, Oxford University Press.
Klaus, M.H. et al (1986)
"Effects of Social Support During Parturition on Maternal and Infant Morbidity", British Medical Journal, Vol. 293, pp 585-587.
Little, B.C., Hayworth, J., Benson,
P., Bridge, L.R., Dewhurst, J. and Priest, R.G.
Ante-Natal Predictors of Post-Natal Depressive Mood", Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol 26(4), pp 419-428.
Treloar, 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