History of the Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression

So I’ve started doing some research beyond interviews about postpartum depression and anxiety, and I hit the jackpot in terms of research sources: “Can’t A Mother Sing the Blues?” by Lisa Held and Alexandra Rutherford. Held and Rutherford detail every major magazine and news article about postpartum from the 1950s to early 2000s, and they correlate psychological theories and feminist movements along with the media’s portrayal. FASCINATING.

Here are some shocking, interesting, nerdy facts for you:

In 1953 a psychoanalyst-pediatrician, Donald W. Winnicott defined the “ordinary devoted mother” as someone who must demonstrate “an almost complete adaptation to the needs of the child” and “meet the needs of the child to the exclusion of any other interest,” including her mental well-being. Basically, when women became mothers, they were no longer people.

Um, my first thought when I read this section on Winnicott was DR. SEARS. Attachment above all else.

The article goes on to state pediatricians preached that “even minor separations from the mother or mother-substitute (um, dad?) could have dire lifelong consequences.” No pressure, y’all, just don’t leave your baby, EVER.

At this point in time, postpartum depression doesn’t even exist. There is only a mild mood disorder labeled the “third-day blues,” which was equated to the struggle of adjusting to getting domestic chores done once baby arrives. Basicallly, women were told a few hours of reading or relaxation would cure it. Women were blamed for this moodiness due to their inability to adjust to sacrificing themselves, completely.

The term postpartum depression was first used in 1960 in Good Housekeeping, and it was described as “causeless.”

The 1960s and 70s ushered in the use of tranquilizers for women suffering from mood disorders. If a woman didn’t bounce back within a week or so, she was given medication and expected to quickly return to normal.

This quote made my blood boil: “Immature young women may resent their lost status as the ‘baby doll.’ This type of mother, whose every whim was indulged before the real baby arrived, may never be mature enough to adjust to happy, normal parenthood.” This was from the New York Times Magazine in 1960 and written by a woman, Dr. Margaret Benz. Yes, I am just throwing a fit over not being doted on anymore. That’s exactly what postpartum depression looks like. Negative, Dr. Benz.

Then we have Rene Spitz in his book The First Year (1965) telling women that specific mood disorders link to specific physical disorders in children: anxiety in mothers equals eczema in babies. WTF?

The 1970s and 80s strengthened the women’s movement and support groups started to form. Women also started having less children due to the availability of contraception.

So postpartum depression began to be recognized as a mental illness, one out of the mother’s control. However, it was sensationalized in the media, which mainly portrayed postpartum psychosis, like the Time article in 1988 titled “Why Mothers Kill Their Babies.” Remember, only 1% of mothers suffer from postpartum psychosis. It’s rare.

And the thing is, while many of these quotes and facts shocked me, they also felt so familiar. The media still portrays postpartum depression as postpartum psychosis. Women are still put into the categories of “good” and “bad” mother all too often. Doctors, pediatricians, and lactation consultants often put breastfeeding before a mother’s mental health. There are still too many male, and female, physicians giving women bogus advice on parenting that’s not based on any science.

I’m still processing all of this information, and I just needed to share it with you. It’s made me think a lot about my mother and her mother, and the women of those generations who really had to suffer alone. There weren’t options. Postpartum support groups have only been around for thirty years, y’all. That’s a flea on the dog of time. I don’t think I would have survived without my support group. We’ve made some progress, but so much of what I read hasn’t changed very much at all.

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2 thoughts on “History of the Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression

  1. Love love loooove this post! History and PPD, what’s not to love? (Kidding, I just mean that those are the two themes that obsess me.) Thank you so much for sharing! It’s so true that all this rings a bell; as I was reading on, I kept repeating “But it’s still like that, in a way!”!!!

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