Maternal well-being matters for the mothers' sake, not just for the children.
I Am A Mom, Thoughts On Parenting

What We’re Missing When Talking About Maternal Mental Health

Maternal well-being and maternal mental health matters for the mothers' sake, not just for the children.

There is something missing in the way we talk about raising children in general, whether it’s daycare, food, and parenting strategies or, like in this case, maternal mental health. Sadly, the example I’m going to give you is in no way unique. Rather, it’s typical of current parenting practices and its ignorance of maternal mental health. 

I just read this article in which a pediatrician says that longer parental leave can help prevent postpartum depression. Great, I thought! It’s important for parents to get enough support and to increase paternal and maternal well-being!

On the other hand, it’s unclear whether having support after birth prevents postpartum in other countries actually helps prevent PPD. Katherine Stone from Postpartum Progress did some research on this and found that the rates of postpartum depression are more or less stable around the world and that traditions such as sitting the month in China don’t do anything to improve postpartum depression rates.

Maternal well-being and maternal mental health matters for the mothers' sake, not just for the children.

The anthropologist David F Lancy (author of the book The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings)  even claims that postpartum depression has biological underpinnings. At the same time, having support right after birth, like the Dutch tradition of kraamzorg, may not prevent postpartum depression but do something just as important: help diagnose it properly although I have absolutely no proof for that.

That being said, I read that article and got livid.

“Paid family leave also fosters breastfeeding and reduces the incidence of maternal depression.”- it begins. So far, so good.

“We know that at least 12 weeks of parental leave does make a significant difference. Paid maternity leave of at least 12 weeks increases early childhood check-ups and immunizations.” Oh OK, that’s fantastic!

But then the article goes on: “There’s very strong evidence that family leave decreases maternal depression. This is key, because maternal depression prevents mother-infant bonding and has negative effects on a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.”

Then he goes to explain why paternal leave matters too (so that fathers can bond with their babies, obviously), and that it improves breastfeeding rates, and that it’s important for the early years of a child’s life.

But wait, I want to add. Aren’t you missing something?

It’s great that we want to talk about longer parental leave or improving the rates of postpartum depression. This is very important. But the problem is that we’re doing it for the children. We explain how important it is for infant development or how an intervention is beneficial, for the baby obviously.  But where is the mother in all this?

The whole article doesn’t mention maternal well-being, except for the one part where it says that longer maternal leave can help prevent postpartum depression but just because postpartum depression prevents a mother from bonding with her child.

Are you telling me that the reason we should do something about postpartum depression is so that the mother can bond better with her child? And not, for example, because she has a debilitating disease?

I’ve written before about this fear that parents won’t be able to bond with their children. As Nicholas Day explains in Baby Meets World: Suck, Smile, Touch, Toddle: A Journey Through Infancy  each generation of parents has its own fears. For our parents, it was kidnapping. For us, it’s lack of bonding. As such, the fear that parents won’t bond with their children is completely unfounded. In fact, an old study showed that most children, all over the world, were securely attached to their caregivers.

Postpartum depression, however, is a real and very tangible problem. It affects women from all over the world, from every strata of society. The inability of bonding with a child is the smallest problem to worry about. What about, for example, the very real dangers of a woman killing herself or having her PPD morph into something more sinister, like postpartum psychosis? I know it’s rare but it doesn’t make it any less scary.

What about the woman’s pain and suffering? Don’t they matter, and not just because she won’t be able to care for her baby but because she is a human being and therefore worthy of attention and high-quality medical care?

Many women don’t even want to get themselves checked because they’re afraid they will be considered bad mothers. So they smile and say everything is “fine” and they hide their aguish so that no one even notices. Many wait for years before they get treatment because they are too ashamed.

And all you care about is whether the mother will bond with her children? You want to get her checked out or give her longer maternity leave just so that she can care for her babies and not because she has just given birth and is therefore in many cases weak, overwhelmed and basically an emotional and physical mess? Maybe we really should consider pregnancy a disease, both physical and mental if that will allow new mothers will get the support that they need?

Personally, I didn’t have postpartum depression although even I see it’s clear that we should do something about postpartum depression, maternity leave or other programs supporting mothers. But we should at least do it for the right reasons.

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