PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST IS A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION & ANXIETY
“So if you are to subdue & suppress women… to think human connection frail & unreliable – you must target the vagina”
(Wolf. 2012, Pg. 114)
Anger is the unspoken dimension of Motherhood that, in my experience, society seems unwilling to acknowledge. Anger flies in the face of the attributes women are assigned in their gender role as mothers: caregiver, nurturer and calmness personified. Held up as having the virtues of a Goddess, “she is of even temperament, always in control of her emotions. She loves her children completely and unambivalently” (Viorst, 2002. Pg.214), society places guilt at our door as mothers for expressing anger towards our new roles, “So strong are societal prohibitions against female anger that the angry woman may be condemned” (Lerner, 1996 Pg. 52). We ‘should’ be happy our kids are alive and healthy, we ‘should’ be content that they’re feeding so much through the night as it means they’re growing and we ‘should’ be thankful we’ve a partner to support us where others parent alone. My internalised comparison of the ‘good mother’ society urged me to be and the ‘bad mother’ I felt when I failed at those expectations, left me feeling suffocated and invalidated. The taboo of expressing my own losses at the hands of Motherhood, led to my depression and its aftermath.
I’ve reflected on the losses I experienced as I became a Mother and my reticence at writing this blog has only served to demonstrate to myself how emotionally charged this change still is. Kübler-Ross (2014) suggests that in grief we have several stages that allow us to fully process our loss, sometimes progressing from one stage to another and repeating others. Whilst primarily the focus of Kübler-Ross theory (2014) is bereavement, it resonated with my transition into motherhood as I had experienced several of the stages (Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance). Some stages featured more prominently than others, but through acknowledging that I did lose my own sense of identity in motherhood, it’s made me feel less ashamed that I felt the way I did. That ‘mother’ is just one ‘configuration of self’ that serves a purpose to nourish and protect my children, where my own mother failed to do so for me. In the words of Judith Viorst (2002) “Parenthood can be a constructive developmental phase in which we heal some of the wounds of our own childhood” (Pg. 230) Maybe I’ve created in myself the mother I needed as a child?
Being raised without a stable, mentally healthy and loving mother figure didn’t ease my transition into being a parent which is no surprise as evidenced by Fuchs, Resch & Kaess (2015), “children who grew up without an acceptable role model of parenting might have difficulties in adopting this role themselves” (Pg. 179). The early stages of parenthood threw up all the anger and rejection I felt towards my mother at my own loss of childhood. Having watched this body physically change in pregnancy, being monitored and tested by medical professionals, my body felt invaded by them and by the baby.
“The myth of the feminine woman as devoid of anger and aggressiveness could not have so vigorously survived over the ages unless both sexes shared deep intrapsychic fears of female anger”
(Lerner, 1996 Pg. 53)
Anger was one of the primary drivers for my entry into personal counselling. I’m aware that my initial anger in motherhood was towards the medical professionals, as I felt violated and as if they’d ripped my baby from my womb whilst I was unconscious. Consequently, I’d missed my opportunity to experience the home birth I’d planned and so my expectations of birth versus the reality became my source of anger. My anger towards the medics subsided, rational Jo engaged ‘I was alive and so was my baby’. The fact that I didn’t birth ‘naturally’ cast me as an anomaly to the ‘natural parenting’ community in Brighton, which pushed me even further into my eventual depression.
The first aspect of myself I felt I lost was my identity. I’d been a relatively independent woman prior to birth, at work people knew who I was due to my reputation of being able to deliver on projects and my foresight to identify risks to the business. Now I’d failed to deliver a baby and hadn’t foreseen the risky business of birth. In the hospital, I was referred to as the lady ‘In Bay 3’ and then latterly as ‘Star’s Mum’. It was the first occasion I had been identified with my role and responsibility instead of my name (and the awareness that I feel my name as an important part of my identity). I couldn’t fathom why nobody explained to me that ‘Jo’ had died in the operating theatre so that ‘Star’s Mum’ could be given life. There was an element of confusion for me around this time as I grappled with being thrust into this new self.
Angry because my breasts were now for nourishing children rather than for sexual pleasure. And coupled within that, I was lackluster in my connection with my sexual self and the remainder due to my lack of self-confidence. My womb hadn’t done what it was supposed to so how could I trust my vagina to please my partner?! I hadn’t realized how my sense of self was tied up in my sexual pleasure. Without feeling fully ‘womanly’ in that respect, I couldn’t fathom why my partner still found me sexually attractive when I had no drive or inclination to be intimate with them, “impossible expectations, unmet needs and unmeshed needs are continuing sources of marital tension & strife” (Viorst, 2002. Pg.195). That for me, sex and intimacy went hand in hand...
This is Part One in a 3 part series of my personal experience of postnatal depression.
Fuchs, A., Resch, F. & Kaess, M. (2015) Impact of a maternal history of childhood abuse on the development of mother-infant interaction during the first year of life. Child abuse & neglect (48): pp 179-189
Kübler-Ross, E. (2014) On death & dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy & their own families. Scribner: New York
Lerner, H. (1989) Women in therapy. Harper Collins: New York
Viorst, J. (2002) Necessary Losses. The Free Press: New York
Wolf, N. (2012) Vagina. A new biography. Virago: Great Britain