When Postpartum Depression is more.
How CAN we support mothers who express symptoms of post-partum depression and or mental illness without shaming them or punishing them? This is a conundrum as when one is overwhelmed with such feelings, one is unlikely to seek help due to shame and/or fear that one’s child will be taken away, one will be monitored and one might need medication.
Cindy Wachenheim, may her memory be for a blessing needed MORE. In an article published in the New York Times on June 17th, it is reported that she, a 44 year old first time mother, “strapped her 10-month old son to her chest in a baby carrier and leapt to her death”. She is described as “someone people didn’t think they had to worry about”. This is in itself a red flag. The assumption that strong women who have been strong in situation X, will automatically be strong in situation Y. Cindy Wachenheim convinced herself that 1. her son had brain damage (which her MDs and pediatricians consistently showed her was not true), and 2. That she was responsible for it.
Ms. Wachenheim was seeing a therapist, and had herself diagnosed her sister-in-law as having symptoms consistent with post-partum depression. Her sister-in-law received care and recovered. Ms. Wachenheim has symptoms beyond the scope of post-partum depression, into post-partum mood disorders and post-partum psychosis. She was getting therapy and she was being medicated and she killed herself and attempted to kill her precious boy who was shielded by her in the ultimage irony in this case. Ms. Wachenheim thought she was the cause of her boy’s imagined brain damage and saved his life by her body cushioning her fall. He is alive and well, and without a mother.
A point raised by the NY Times is that post-partum mood disorders do not appear at the same time or in the same timeframe for every woman. The strongest people we know are vulnerable, sensitive, imperfect and damaged. What can we do to ease pain, to notice what others do not and to step forward when it is the unpopular thing to do.
News flash for us all, our bodies and minds do not read the text books that dictate how we are supposed to respond. To certain medications, to marriage, to childbirth, to issues that arise postpartum. Each of us is unique and can expect a range of responses. The fact that Cindy Wachenheim WAS able to see and recognize signs beyond the “baby blues” in her sister-in-law Karen, and encouraged her to get therapy and medication as needed reminds us that we cannot always recognize in ourselves what we can in others. Yes, we are our sisters keepers and our communties’ keepers and that is what it takes to prevent deaths such as Cindy Wachenheim’s.
Things can seem very normal and not be. Strong women, as noted Cindy Wachenheim was “long interested in women’s issues and social justice” may be less likely to seek help and support when they need it. When any of us fixates on something, it’s up to those around us to help us identify if it is passion or unhealthy fixation. Having six children I can tell you that more than one bonked his/her head while pushing up. Mort than one fell learning to walk. When that happens and the response is bigger than a kiss and the child is behaving and developing normally, hopefully our “mamaometers” go off. You know, that barometer in a mama that says “something is not kosher, even though I can’t name it yet”. When someone, anyone, a child, a teen, a pregnant or post-partum mom fixates, we need to step in and be unpopular. It is unpopular to say, “I love you, and we need to get you further evaluation”.
When an MD, and she saw several, evaluated her precious boy and explained in detail that he was fine and why and that was not enough, the red flag was waving. Something is askew and further evaluation is necessary. Post-partum depression where counselling and support are enough to help someone heal are one thing. Knowing when to refer out for further care medically is another. Being aware that post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis are different AND the safety of mother and baby is at stake is yet another. When someone talks about suicide, we need to take them seriously. When someone has recently talked about suicide and cancels an appointment with a psychiatrist, we want to know more and be able to take action.
Another scenario, is someone I saw. Suzy (name and particulars changed for privacy), had two older children and really thought she was done having babies. Finances were tight, life was a challenge, and she and her partner Fred managed. Then, she had a surprise pregnancy, a little girl. Suzy was unprepared for how overwhelmed she felt. In Suzy’s case, she had a postpartum doula. Her postpartum doula recognized that something was not right. She called me and I encouraged Suzy to be evaluated by her midwives for care and further exploration of whether her symptoms were postpartum depression or something more, postpartum mood disorder /postpartum psychosis. Not being trained or licensed to evaluate that, and KNOWING something was wrong and beyond what I have seen in cases of postpartum depression, having attended several MotherWoman trainings, I took on the responsibility of making sure Suzy was receiving care that was appropriate to her situation. Suzy’s postpartum doula is the hero here for asking for help when she saw something she couldn’t name that was outside the bounds of normal and asked for appropriate help to start the process of Suzy’s healing. Suzy was diagnosed with postpartum mood disorder and is still taking medication, going to therapy, attending support groups and struggling. She is home with her family and monitored and healing. When someone is suffering in an obvious way, it can be easer to step in. When a mother we have known for years to behave in one way begins behaving in others, something is wrong. We do not have to be the person with the skill set to diagnose. We do need to each be the piece of the village who says, “help needed here” and know where to go to get it.
We attach so much shame to mothers who do not just “suck it up” and soldier on. We attach shame in this country to those who need extra help, “I did it alone, why can’t she”. Everyone is different. Everyone needs something. When we all realize that it is through our imperfections and receiving as well as giving help, support, kindness and compassion we will begin to live and see the change we wish to in the world.
Reading this story brings me to tears, wishing I could have done something and wanting to make sure that awareness is raised so mothers experiencing postpartum psychosis can get care, medical and complementary. My hope is that no other child will have to grow up without his mother.
For more information and to find out about postpartum depression, how to receive trainings in your area to train providers and facilitators to recognize symptoms and lead support groups please contact MotherWoman at MotherWoman.