It’s Not Your Fault: Postpartum and the Abyss
The unfolding tragedy of one family’s total disintegration has an entire city reeling. I know, because it’s my city. On Wednesday, a Winnipeg mother was seen wandering the streets in her pajamas, pushing an empty baby stroller. Within a short time of that sighting, her two children, one a newborn, one less than three years old, were found unresponsive after apparently drowning in their bathtub. They could not be revived.
Their mother has not been seen alive since, but police have now recovered a body from the river. Although they’ve yet to formally release the identity of the deceased, it seems apparent that the search is over.
It’s hard to feel anything but sadness and pity for every person involved. The children, the grieving father, and the mother, who was reported as suffering from postpartum depression and whose pain must have been overwhelming.
I once had a sociology professor whose background also extended to criminology. He once told us that there was only one offense in the Canadian criminal code that had more female perpetrators than males, and asked us to identify it. Our best guess was shoplifting, but the correct answer was infanticide. By definition, only a mother can be charged with this crime. A father is charged with homicide or manslaughter.
He didn’t go into the details of why, but I suspect it’s a recognition that only a mother is capable of experiencing the same extenuating circumstances leading to true infanticide. Clinical postpartum depression is experienced by as many as 15% of new mothers, while at least some degree of “baby blues” is experienced by closer to 80% of new mothers, according to BabyCenter.
Postpartum Support International provides a list of symptoms of PPD, which include the belief that one never should have become a mother, thoughts of suicide or leaving one’s family, and thoughts of harming the baby. A smaller number of individuals suffering from PPD will also suffer postpartum psychosis.
Like all psychoses, the postpartum variety indicates a break from reality, and may include hallucinations, manic behavior, a feeling of disconnect and extreme mood swings.
The fact that otherwise healthy, happy women can undergo the fairly extreme physiological changes associated with pregnancy and birth, and be completely robbed of their neurochemical balance, is incredibly frightening to me. Our sense of self, so fundamental to each of us, is also incredibly informed by a physical and chemical substrate beneath our skulls. Mind over matter sounds good, but when it comes to mental health, willpower alone is rarely enough.
What is? Preparation and awareness are a start. A not-small number of new mothers will experience PPD symptoms to some degree. Being on the lookout for them and understanding that they’re both normal and treatable is the first step. Women experiencing the symptoms of either PPD or postpartum psychosis are strongly encouraged to talk about it with a professional.
A family doctor is a good starting point, while any number of crisis support hotlines and mental health organizations provide another option. Contact Postpartsum Support International (in the US or elsewhere) for advice and support. Expectant fathers, uncles, aunts and grandparents can also help, by providing lots of help to the new mother, checking up on her emotional well-being regularly, and being on the lookout for signs of depression and anxiety.
The saddest part of this recent tragedy is that it was preventable. Everybody thinks that it won’t happen to them, and then when it does they feel, conversely, the only person to feel this way and completely alone in the world. In point of fact, PPD is common enough that there are proven treatment options and plenty of resources available. There’s still a stigma about mental illness, and this is one that is all the more dangerous because of it.
You’re not a bad person or a bad mother for feeling this way. You’re not alone, and it’s not hopeless. Get help.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.