Monday, May 10, 2010

Bad Mother's Day

Jessica Rove is an Australian news presenter. Now I don't particularly care for Ms Rove but I do admire her coming out in the open about her own post natal depression and I feel this is one of the genuine instances where celebrities can actually do some good. Women, being more socially minded, tend to open about their problems if other women are doing so as well. Otherwise they are quite about the issue for fear of being "judged" by other women.High profile women(alpha females) set the social agenda and the issues they raise in public give other women permission, so to speak, to talk about them. Here in Australia there seems to be a recognition of the extent and perniciousness of depression in the community. It would appear that there is more talk about the subject than in the U.S or the U.K. Still many women suffer in silence, imagining that they are the only ones suffering from this condition.

I imagine that part of the reason many women stay silent with regard to the condition is because of the social censure that has been put on "career women" by traditionalists, both male and female. Motherhood is still seen as a traditionalist domain where the traditionalists still have some authority on the subject. Opprobrium from this group of women carries particular weight. The tone of comments from this group has always been that a mother who pursues her career at the expense of spending time with her children is selfish and "unloving". The implication here being that a woman who stays at home loves her children more. The idea here is to make the woman guilty and to generate internal anxiety in the woman.

The assumption made by many traditionalists is that staying at home for a woman is of zero pscyhological consquence. In other words that staying at home will not do a woman any harm.
The problem is, that for some women, staying at home is injurous to their psychological health. The social isolation, lack of intellectual stimulation and predictable routine literally drive some women mad but it makes most women who aren't temperamentally suited to being at home depressed.

However the ideal of the the stay-at-home mum is so entrenched that many women who are not suited for it make a heroic effort at conforming to the ideal One of the interesting things I have noted in my experience of looking after the condition(PND), is just how much effort some women will put into being stay at home mums before they finally crack. Some never do however, and their children's childhood memories are filled with a mother who is constantly bitter and angry though officially conforming to the traditional mother role. Now, what was evident from Jessica Rove's story is that she had clearly planned to stay at home with the baby for a while, giving it what she thought was the best possible care. Still, despite her best efforts at motherhood, disturbing thoughts began to overwhelm her involuntarily. Her candid comments give an insight into how dangerous the condition is, frightening even its victim:

"The small silver Tiffany & Co. clock that I used to time my breastfeeds became a weapon in my mind. I wondered how easily the clock could crack my baby's delicate skull," Rowe writes in the January edition of Vogue.

"My eyes would be drawn to the sharp carving knife in the second drawer in the kitchen. I wondered if such a knife could pierce my little daughter's soft skin.

"I knew I would never hurt my baby but these bizarre thoughts . . . kept going around in my mind."


While she put on a brave face after the birth of Allegra - a longed-for IVF baby - her dark thoughts spiralled out of control.

"I wrapped up the knife in newspaper and threw it away. I did this at night so the neighbours wouldn't see me," she writes. "I hid the silver clock, too, but even when these objects were out of sight they were still in my mind.

"Deep down I knew I needed help but I felt ashamed."

After six weeks of hell Rowe confessed to her husband, 60 Minutes reporter Peter Overton, she wasn't coping. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I felt like I was letting him down too. He kept asking me if I was going to harm myself or Allegra. I told him of course I wasn't. But I knew I needed someone to pull me out of the anxious, frightening world my head was slipping into."

Here's another article that nicely illustrates what goes on these women's minds.

Now, it needs to noted that the Ms Rove did not will these thoughts, they were happening to her involuntarily and she was frightened by them. And despite the dreadful state that she was in, she still kept plugging away unassisted, because she wanted to be thought of as good mother, whatever the hell that means. Now, I think she gave a valiant enough shot at it and was smart enough to bail out before she did some harm to herself or the child, but notice what kept her back from seeking help; the perceived negative opinion of others and her own fear of admitting failure. She was trying so hard to live up to the ideal that she was putting welfare of her child and herself at risk. It needs to be noted that she approached motherhood positiviely and put effort toward the task. The problem was that the feels that arouse in her were involuntary, depsite wanting to be a good mother.

These involuntary thought processes are part and parcel of the chemical changes that happen in the brain as a result of being exposed to constant stress: The constant stress effectively bringing about depression. Negative ideation, anger, constant fatigue and obsessive thoughts are all symptoms of severe depression and it's why anti-depressants have a role in the early stages of PND; a quick fix method to restore the "chemical balance",buying time for longer acting therapies to work.

The point here that I'm trying to bring about is that for some women, motherhood is a constantly stressful experience and that people subject to constant stress become depressed. The assumption that all women find motherhood congruent with their natures is wrong. However, the other thing that is apparent is that not all women find motherhood a stressful experience, and it's these women that seem to thrive in it. So it would appear that at the extremes there are two groups of women; those who are stressed by caring for a child and those who are not.

Now the thing about a baby is that it can't communicate, it's unpredictable and demanding. It does not respect your right to sleep, eat or even go to the bathroom. Women whose personalities that tend toward an ordered, predictable and perfectionist existence have a hard time dealing with such a being. Their interactions with it are frequently stressful because of the conflict with their personalities and the reality of the baby. Their relationship becomes a disaster. As this woman points out:

My unrecognized descent into antenatal depression began with this loss of control. Postnatal depression gathered momentum as I found myself unable to cope with society's expectations and my own idealised views of me as a mother. Here I was, the typical high achiever, completely diminished by my experiences. I "failed" all aspects of my first pregnancy: contraception, pregnancy, natural childbirth, and then breastfeeding. I was to be the perfect herbal birth mother.

Now, it's these same personality factors which incidentally make for excellent employees. Particularly in the "white collar" type of jobs. Perhaps what underlies Catherine Hakim's Preference Theory, is that when given a genuine choice, women will choose life pathways that correspond best with their personality.

One of the blog commentators (and I'm sorry I can't remember who they were) gave an opinion that with increasing wealth in a society, women will assume greater roles in that society. Perhaps great push for female liberation beginning at the end of the 19th Century came about because women who were "stressed" in their domestic existence saw opportunities arise which allowed them to escape their depressing home lives. Now I need to stress, that many of these women were probably not motivated by malice towards men or hatred of the West, rather they simply and slowly were going mad at home and wanted to preserve their sanity. Their personalities weren't suited to domesticity and keeping them domestic made them miserable.

Or course women who were quite happy in their domesticity or motherhood were perplexed by the response of these women to their circumstances. How could a woman be unhappy with a good husband, material wealth and good children? Clearly there was something wrong with her, she must be a bad and selfish mother went their reasoning. She was bad because she was not toeing the line. The traditionalists and many of the religious agreed. The only group that offered them a sympathetic ear were the radical. Guess who became their friends?

Indeed, after a hundred or so years of mainstream feminism it's interesting to see how the shoe's on the other foot. Now its women who don't work who are deemed as having something wrong with them by the large cohort of feminist women in the work place. Women who choose to stay at home are called brain dead, chained to the sink, breeders etc. The sting is felt by lots of stay-at-home mums who feel that they haven't accomplished much by staying at home and raising the kids.

From a male's perspective, what's apparent is that both groups of women don't like each other, each side sniping at each other. Women it appears, don't like other women who don't make the same choices they make. Why?

It's my opinion that all women are to some degree naturally insecure and self-critical, and it's this insecurity that is the basis of the above behaviour. Women tend to group with other like women because there is safety in numbers, each tends to validate the other. Women on the other hand who step outside the group norms tend to invalidate the group, posing a challenge to the group and magnifying their anxiety. Getting other women to conform is a way of making women feel better about themselves. This is why women are always complaining about the "pressure to conform" something a lot of men look at and go "huh, what pressure.". Men are naturally less affected by self-criticism and insecurity are oblivious to this pressure. Men are much more confortable going alone. The pressure to coform is internally generated in the woman.

This need to be part of a group is also one of the complicating factors of PND. Every woman wants to be thought of as a good mother and being validated by other good mothers is one way of acheiving this goal. Therefore in the company of other women, a woman with PND will make a gigantic effort to appear that she is coping in order to gain group approval, since being outside the group generates further anxiety. In the end you have a woman who is not coping but making a despreate effort to appear that she is. Frequently in front of other women who are putting up the same appearance. In fact, I've had several instances where I have been treating women from the same mothers group, each think the other coping when in reality all were having a hard time.

A lot of the stress that comes about in early motherhood is a result of the mother's own expectations of the early child hood experience. Expectations that are formed both culturally and from the opinions of others. The ideal of a stay-at- home mother presumes that all women are capable of such an ideal. It also ignores evidence that suggests that the best care a child can recieve is from a happy mother, not from a full time miserable mother. The fact that many women are miserable staying at home looking after the kids would seem to suggest that it would be better that they more time out of the house and away from the children. Better a happy part-time mother than a miserable full-time one.

Still, while the myth persists that the best care a child can recieve is from a full time stay at home mum, many women will criticise themselves that they are bad mothers for finding the whole stay-at-home with the baby experience miserable. The reality is that nearly of these women are good mothers, its just that some of them aren't cut out to be stay-at-home mums.

For the record, I think Jessica Rove will make a fine mother.