At The Heart Of It: The Root Cause Of Perinatal Mood Disorders
This past week, I read an article about postpartum depression in our local newspaper. At first I was pleased about the growing awareness of the way new moms and babies are struggling, but as I read, I started feeling pretty upset.
The thesis of the article was that depression among new mothers negatively affects their babies’ brains, and that there is help in the form of therapy and medication. I think therapy is great (it’s been super helpful to me) and temporary use of medication can be lifesaving. However, in this context, these suggestions serve to reinforce the cultural narrative that postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, and psychosis are all the mother’s problem rather than a societal one, and that she is responsible for getting well so that her baby doesn’t suffer the consequences. What mother wants to harm her baby? What guilt, blame, and shame!
Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) is a convenient acronym and label for mothers struggling emotionally. Mothers are told they need to be fixed, when in fact these signs of emotional and mental strain are red flags showing us how misaligned our society is with our physiologic needs. Drugs are cheaper than therapy (or hiring professional in-home support), so too many mothers end up medicated—another example of the backward values we’re swimming in.
“It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti
New moms are trying their damnedest to be well-adjusted to what Jiddu Krishnamurti calls our “profoundly sick society.” They are failing because that adjustment is based upon self-abandonment (of needs, feelings, desires) in order to fit an impossible image of motherhood. Depression, rage, anxiety, and even bipolar disorder and psychosis are ways that our organisms tell us something isn’t right. When the attempts to adjust to an impossible reality don’t work, shame and desperation take hold, and doctors offer meds to lessen the urgency of the internal warning system. Turning off the warning signs allows new moms and everyone around them to be comfortable while nothing foundational changes.
Neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Mosconi studies women’s brains and has found that women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety and depression.
She offers a new perspective on “mom brain”: Following birth, a mother’s brain actually shrinks and moves into a more intuitive, primal, nurturing, and feminine sense of knowing, releasing the habitual attachment to logic and masculine relationships with time and productivity upon which our society is based. After nine to 12 months, the mother’s brain returns to its original size, which, coincidentally, is around the age a baby is able to move about independently.
For many women, this change in the brain can be a disconcerting development, as they are used to living by a schedule and accomplishing clear goals. In the fourth trimester, though, new mothers need rest, intuitive connection, and space to evolve into a new identity and reality. In contrast, our cultural environment tells them it is better to focus on getting back to life the way it was before having a baby—get your body back, get the baby to sleep through the night ASAP, stick to a schedule and be productive as well as being a good mom, look like a pro and hold it all together.
This disconnection between physiological needs and societal reality is causing dis-ease for new mothers. Our nervous systems are not adapted to independently do all the care, healing, learning, tracking, morphing of identity and priorities, etc., that are inherently part of the fourth trimester and beyond. We need a village to hold and nurture us in early parenthood! Even if we do all the yoga, meditation, tapping, acupuncture, and therapy and get good sleep and nutrition (which are all fabulous things!), we still will feel the lack of support. This is a societal problem. Nothing is wrong with mothers; their warning systems are working exactly as they should.
I recently heard this perspective articulated beautifully by Rachelle Garcia Seliga, of Innate Traditions, on the Belonging podcast: “One care provider can never provide what a mother needs…. What is missing is the village. So there’s so much grief for care providers…. Even if they did all within their capability, it’s still not enough. Then as a mom, it is completely fragmented because what we are missing is the village…of aunties, grandmothers— of course there is grief there! A lot of what gets diagnosed as Perinatal Mood Disorders is really grief…. Moms internalize it and it becomes ‘Something is wrong with me.’ [We need to] listen to the mothers because they are the barometers for…all of humanity.”
Yes. The fundamental issue is that society is failing the very people it needs to support the most in order to have a healthy global collective: mothers.
Rachelle uses this great metaphor: When we plant a flower and it isn’t thriving, we don’t get mad at the flower and tell it that it sucks or has to change; we try to figure out what it needs—water, sun, compost, a change in its environment. Once all those elements are added in, then the flower can thrive, but it can’t thrive if it doesn’t have the environment that it needs. It’s the same thing for moms. Or any living being, really.
Why don’t we all grow up with awareness of this tender time of life when community is a dire necessity? Why don’t we learn how to offer support to friends, family, and neighbors who have recently given birth? Why is professional postpartum support not covered by insurance, but psychiatric drugs are? Why don’t we connect with our common humanity and acknowledge the benefits to the collective when we lift up new mothers and babies? Why are we all in our private homes behind closed doors, ashamed to share what is really going on?
I know in my heart that big changes must be made. It is within everyone’s capacity to start making these changes. This challenge is for the collective; the grassroots level is where we must begin. Let’s stop pathologizing moms and look at the ridiculous task they have before them: filling themselves and their families from an utterly empty cup.
What can you do? Start with awareness.
Look around and observe the actual state of happiness, health, and contentment among the moms you know. How about yourself?
Become aware of where grief and anger reside and how it is expressed.
Notice how many moms you know who are on SSRI medications.
Notice how many moms are in therapy.
Depending on where you are in your own journey, ask for (or offer) concrete help—a meal, a cup of tea, house cleaning, shopping, childcare, a listening ear, a walk outside.
It is our collective responsibility to witness the state of new motherhood around us, see it clearly, shift the story we believe, and live into a new reality that honors, instead of shames, mothers when their warning systems tell them they are maladapted to a profoundly sick society.