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.


Mark Richardson said...

Social Pathologist,

I don't think postnatal depression gets to the heart of the issue.

We have a liberal state which believes the moral thing is for women to be autonomous of men and for sex distinctions to play no role in the organisation of society.

And so we are shifting to a pattern in which there is no distinct paternal role; in which career is the centre of a person's life; in which men and women are supported by the state to spend a small and equal amount of time at home with their children before returning to more important career matters; and in which women's earnings will be made equivalent to men's by any means necessary.

I doubt there are too many traditionalists who would mind a woman suffering from PND having some alternative arrangement that would benefit her mental health.

But at the same time we are going to continue to support the basic pattern of family life in which there are distinct roles for fathers and mothers; in which the value of motherlove for a child continues to be appreciated; in which men retain the provider role (which does not exclude some role for women in the paid workforce); in which family life is seen as central (for both men and women); and in which the state is not allowed to displace the necessary role of men in supporting the family aspirations of women.

That is the traditionalist cause.

knightblaster said...

The problem, I think, is pointed out in your post -- namely that women *will* seek to form cabals of conformity. Today the leading cabal -- at least in the US, not sure if it is less "advanced" along this path in Oz -- is the supermom cabal, whereby women are made to feel inadequate (by other women) if they are not tremendously good/perfect at (1) career, (2) children, (3) relationship and (4) appearance/sexiness (well into the late 40s). This cabal now beats women around the head when they "fail" to live up to *this* standard, or choose another path, such as staying at home, or home-schooling or what have you. The problem isn't in the staying at home or the working, but rather in the herd mentality and "pressure to conform" which is, as you say, generated inside women themselves. Feminism blames this on various things, most typically the persistence of "patriarchal structures" which permeate the culture and thought processes and which guarantee a kind of neurosis in women. This, however, seems doubtful, because today it is precisely the "empowered" super-moms who are creating the newfangled post-feminist, post-patriarchal "pressure to conform" -- same problem, really, with new substance.

At the end of the day, the issue is what is the best arrangement for children. I firmly believe that in the younger years (especially the first 2, even the first 3) the child(ren) are better off in the full-time care of a parent, rather than in the care of a third party care-giver. Most of the time this will mean the mother, because most of the time the mother actually wants to do it. While undoubtedly there are women who are *not* suited to this, I think these women need to realize that either their husbands should provide this care (a rarity, both by temperament and disposition, really), or that they are not the best candidates for motherhood. The latter realization seems harsh, but in my opinion it is far better for people -- men and women alike -- who are not cut out for the demands of parenting (including the demands of a very young infant) to recognize and accept this and reconsider whether becoming a parent is the proper life path for them. There is nothing wrong, even from a traditional perspective, with someone realizing that they are not cut out to be a parent. I would say that for women who are really not cut out to provide the kind of constant child care for their own very young children, this is a red flag that they are not really cut out to be parents, or that there is a significant risk that they are not.

knightblaster said...

Why is this? Because that's precisely the age when mothering is paramount. It's the age when children are nursing. It's the age when women and their children are most closely bonded, and much more so than the children are, at that stage of parenting, to the fathers. As children age, this changes, things become more equal for a time, and then, as the children enter the teen years, the father's role often becomes more pronounced and important in terms of parenting. I would say similarly for men that men who are not in a position to (1) maintain and cultivate a bond with their young children despite their mother's "primacy" at that age such that (2) they will be able to build upon this and grow into the full-blown fathering relationship as the children age (when his parenting becomes more "primatial") is similarly ill-suited constitutionally to be a parent.

Parenting is not a right, it's a privilege. People who are not cut out to play their roles as mothers and fathers should think twice about whether they ought to have children -- both for their own health as well as for the lives of the children they may beget. A man who is not capable of seeing himself having a prominent, close fatherhood role with older children is a problem sign, just as is a mother who is not capable of engaging in the intense motherhood phase of parenting in the very early years. There's no "crime" or "inadequacy" in realizing this -- everyone is different. The problem comes, however, when people try to "force" things, one way or the other -- as in women, for example, forcing themselves into motherhood when they are ambivalent about actual mothering (at least in its most intensive phase, when most women are quite naturally highly engaged with their mothering role). The solution isn't normalizing sticking infants in day care for mom's mental health. The solution is for women to realize that they may not be cut out to be mothers, and accept that.

The Social Pathologist said...

I don't think postnatal depression gets to the heart of the issue.

To a certain degree it does illustrate the point that that not everyone fits the traditionalist role model and that actually trying to make them fit that role model may be destructive to the individual.

I'm not saying that there aren't paternal roles, but perhaps traditional conceptions of these roles are wrong.

Which is not to say that liberalism is right. I think that traditionalists are way closer to the mark than liberals but traditionalists need to put more thinking into the matter of what constitute appropriate male/female roles in the family.

in which men and women are supported by the state to spend a small and equal amount of time at home with their children before returning to more important career matters

You've got no problem with me here, children come with obligations, obligations that can't be abrogated, the important thing is to recognise what those obligations realistically are before laying them out. The traditionalist view was too restrictive, the liberal view insane.

I doubt there are too many traditionalists who would mind a woman suffering from PND having some alternative arrangement that would benefit her mental health.

It's not an issue of minding, it's an issue of recognising that some women simply don't naturally fit the traditional conception of male/ female roles. That's not to say that a liberal solution to the problem is right, rather extending our conceptions of womanhood may not be incompatible with what you consider traditional role models. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that traditionalism defined woman too narrowly, which is not say that the solution is not to provide a definition at all. i.e liberalism.

The Social Pathologist said...


The problem with many of those "unsuitable mothers" is that many of them don't know that they are unsuitable till after they have the baby. Jessica Rove, was a morning show host who was quite obviously excited by the birth of her baby: She continually referred to her pregnancy positively on-air.

The flip side of this is the slowly accumulating amount of anecdotal evidence from career women who accidentally got pregnant and found out that they enjoyed the experience of motherhood and pregnancy. My own profession is full of women who weren't keen to have children but who, after child birth, found the whole motherhood experience deliriously enjoyable.

The reality for a lot of children bought up in small towns and villages is that they were bought up by an extended family of aunts, sisters, uncles etc.

Secondly children are more resilient than you think and there is growing evidence to show that children from bad families who are cared for in child care do better than children left in the care of such parent. The child care studies are usually poorly done but the evidence seems to suggest whilst mother-child care is the best, child care is better and dysfunctional mother-care the worst.

As for the superwoman ideal, I think this represents the ideal for the Middle group in Catherine Hakim preference theory, the group who want family and work, women who want it all. I don't think there is as much pressure to conform here as a wish to have it all. Of course it never really works out that way.

grerp said...

It sounds to me like Rove had some stress aggravated OCD mixed in there with the post-natal depression. The obsessive, frightening thoughts about harming others combined with eliminating objects that might do that harm - that's one manifestation of OCD.

The Social Pathologist said...

Hi Grerp.

I imagine that you're correct. The habits which are conducive to success are also habits which tend to be found in people with OCD and Anxiety. Indeed OCD, Anxiety and Depression can be considered different manifestations of similar underlying biochemical changes in the brain.

I imagine that even before Rove had the baby she was pretty hard on herself, that and the combination of politically correct parenting (high stress inducing parenting) probably pushed her over the edge.