It’s always the mother’s fault. And now, if new federal guidelines are adopted, before we even become mothers, pregnancy itself will be redefined as a possible mental illness: Maternal mental illness. Pulleese.
On the one hand, one might note that you’d have to be certifiably crazy to bring a new child into today’s world; such radical hope for the future, such outrageous love of life and family clearly defies logic in the face of our violent society and its myriad uncertainties — economic, environmental, socio-political, health. Further, women who ascribe to anything akin to you-can’t-be-too-rich-or-too-thin, could be considered crazy as well for allowing pregnancy to shape and stress their bodies and for committing to another mouth to feed, another person to shelter and clothe and educate. And when, indeed, our culture is “all about me,” pregnancy is a clear and present indicator that, no, actually, it is not, so you would have to be crazy to contemplate it.
On the other hand, women have been having babies, perpetuating the human race fairly successfully, for centuries. And only now, in 2016, only here in the United States of America are we considering classifying pregnancy, childbirth and first-year parenting as a mental disorder. This is, as my daughters would say, “sexist bullshit.” And it exists because of pre-existing sexist bullshit that blames women without supporting them at any point along the way from pregnancy through early childhood.
(It exists as well because too many male obstetricians have for too long paid too little attention to the powerful role hormones play in women’s bodies and minds throughout their lives and especially during pregnancy and childbirth. Hormonal symptoms at any age have been treated as some kind of distasteful hysteria, (Think Donald Trump-Megyn Kelly, or jokes about hot-flashes), but now are to be stigmatized as a disease in one out of eight, or even one out of five women, quite possibly because the male medical establishment just doesn’t know how to handle them. I was appalled, 32 years ago, by my (male) obstetrician’s egregious ineffectiveness and lack of empathy or compassion after my fourth child was born in distress, given an Apgar score of 0/1 and placed in the NICU. He had missed the delivery, among other things, and when I encountered him in the hospital and burst into tears about my baby (hormones, stress, fatigue), he had absolutely nothing to say. It was likely defensive on his part; he didn’t want a lawsuit. But you would think a physician in the business of caring for women, particularly when they are vulnerable to the normal physical and mental effects of pregnancy and childbirth compounded by unexpected trauma, would have something to say. And I would hope it wouldn’t simply be a matter of whipping out the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale.)
But back to the sexist bullshit. It’s truly no wonder women of child-bearing age are depressed; who wouldn’t be? Men in government seem to want to make all the decisions about their access to birth control, health care and, yes, abortions. Men in business, chiefly insurers, have made birth control and women’s hormone medications excessively costly. Men in the professions see women of child-bearing age as a corporate liability (Will she get pregnant? Will she leave to have a baby? Is she using the company insurance plan to finance her several pregnancies? How many doctors’ appointments does she have? What if we invest heavily in her training and she doesn’t come back to work? Can we get away with putting her on a Mommy Track?) No one — NO ONE — has developed workable, sustainable plans for family leave, or parental leave, all the while giving lip service to the importance of infant-mother (and infant-father, to be fair) bonding (and blaming the mother’s mental health when it fails). Hardly anyone has provided the high quality child care that would let parents return to work with the peace of mind that enhances productivity, much less provided
quality child care. How depressing is this: We still pay child care workers and pre-school teachers and all teachers (most of them women) as if they have little or no value in our society; and stay-at-home mothers come in well behind them in terms of status, much less accruing benefits, like health insurance and Social Security. So we ask young mothers to patch together some kind of manageable child care even as they feel compelled to go back to work because today’s economy requires two salaries, and we give them no help at all. We ask them to find child care by word of mouth and neighborhood sleuthing; we ask them to figure out how to work from 9 to 5 when the day care center operates from 8:15 to 5:15; we ask them to put in a full day at the office, when the public school does carpool at 2:45 or 3:15; we make no accommodation for sick kids. Seriously? This is crazy-making.
But it’s not the woman who has a mental illness; it is our society and our culture, our corporations and our government that deserve that diagnosis. I have no objection to therapy and medication for depression; I know first-hand that they are life savers. But I do object to blaming women for the fact that pregnancy and childbirth constitute a mental health risk, labeling them, and suggesting they take a pill and call the doctor in the morning, as if that will fix everything.
Our first priority should be the security and nurturing and education of our children, all of our children. So we should as a nation be doing everything we can to support the young mothers who feel this responsibility most acutely. With access to family planning and health care, quality childcare, excellent schools, equal pay, flexible work schedules, accommodating school and daycare schedules, work/home balance, and a profound appreciation for what it takes, what it really takes, to be a mother.