Picture this scene…soft music…a symphony of gentle chords dance around you. As the tempo increases your heart fills with love. All of the empty pieces within you are suddenly sated and warm and complete. You have given birth and are comfortably lounging in the bed in your private room with your beautiful newborn nestled in your arms. She has already latched on to your breast as if guided by the scent of your desire to nourish her; as she peacefully nurses, both you and your baby have warm glows and she is in that blissful state between stillness and sleep. A loving and impenetrable shield encircles you both and you’ve yet to become two, for you are one.
Here’s another scene…. In the process of giving birth you felt anywhere from modest discomfort to excruciating pain, you screamed every possible curse word, unwittingly exposed your body to multiple hospital staff as well as random people walking the halls, you vomited, you have a hunch you’ve lost control of your bowels, pushed incredibly hard with no certainty you did so in the right area. Just as swiftly you find yourself lying in bed with a dry mouth, head pain, and aching pressure in your vaginal area. You feel exposed and different and off, not really sure what just happened or why. You want a do-over. In 24 hours, you will be handed your baby and your discharge papers despite the fact you are lost and there is no manual. You may never have even held a newborn and right now you may not want to. You’ve entered this building as one but you are leaving it as two. You tell yourself you are damaged, you are the only one who has ever experienced this, you cannot tell a soul. The cycle begins….
Why is it so shameful to speak our truths? Where were these roots first planted?
Now let’s be real. And let’s be real about why it’s so hard to be real. Our society and specifically the medical model of both physical and mental illness tends to pathologize negative experiences instead of recognizing that they are normal and inevitable. And the social construction of motherhood in contemporary culture is clearly idealized. There is pressure to conform to a social standard of the ideal mother. From ancient times through contemporary society it has been dictated that a woman’s primary role is child bearing. If motherhood is what we were born to do, then must we not be perfect at it? In a gendered, patriarchal society we are told not only that we should have babies, but that we should want to have babies and we should be damn happy about it. If we fall short of this ideal, depression can result and challenge our femininity and our maternity; after all then, who are we? If this is inherently what we do, then shouldn’t we “bounce back after a few days”?
Women are expected to conform by “being happy” and the lack of understanding can even result in harsh consequences, including child welfare intervention, or psychiatric admission.
A woman who experiences a perinatal mood disorder in this society is likely to receive very confusing messages from the media. TV news omits the ordinary and in its place makes the sensational the norm. Many Americans confuse perinatal depression with sensationalized stories of post-partum psychosis. The misrepresentation of the much more common perinatal illnesses such as OCD, depression, or anxiety creates a culture of silent suffering.
We have been indoctrinated not just by sensational TV news media but by the fictionalized image of the “mother” presented in most TV series. She’s the glowing golden ideal; she “has it all” and is usually eternally optimistic. A TV birth may be loud and painful but it’s also usually funny and blissfully happy. Mom recovers quickly and acclimates with ease. If she happens to be overwhelmed, it’s charming; sarcasm and humor abound. Many parenting magazines gloss over the nitty gritty of mothering, particularly mood disorders.
I want to celebrate all women’s stories, from the positive and joyful to the painful and difficult and everything in between. It is important that women understand that their experience, whatever it is, is normal too. We are wonderful mothers who want the best for our babies. If we work as a team, we will enable those who are struggling to more quickly find their way. The silence of those before us can be damaging…don’t hide your war stories…they need to be shared; beauty emerges from healing. We look up to you; you are wiser than we are and you hold the key to our recovery.
I’m reminded of a poem by John Welwood as it strikes a chord about being where you are, not hiding or aspiring to be anyplace else. By facing our struggles we help ease the struggles of others yet to come.
Pregnancy and new parenthood are life changing events which, even in the best of circumstances, can be challenging. When accompanied by significant mood changes, it can feel insurmountable. New moms often feel societal pressure to conform to the “fairy tale” image of motherhood. Psychotherapist Lauren Safran doesn’t want these pressures to keep women from speaking up about their difficulties. Lauren specializes in the treatment of reproductive mood disorders with practices in both Harrison and Chappaqua, NY. She received her master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University and has since been providing support to women on their journeys through motherhood. She has made it her mission to support women during this difficult time, and wants them to know that they are not alone, they didn’t cause this, and with good treatment they will recover. For the past 9 years Lauren has been a New York State Coordinator for PSI. She is a consultant for Pre-Conceive, a company that provides classes and information about maternal health. She is also a member of Hudson Valley Birth Network and speaks to both community and professional groups. Lauren provides women with the tools to realize their own strengths and capabilities and emphasizes that caring for oneself is vital to caring for a child.
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