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This evening I happened upon a guest post over at KevinMD by Dr. Srini Pillay, MD, an author and an Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School. KevinMD has been a site I read more and more these days. I enjoy the insight offered by his knowledgeable guests. Today’s post, however, has me shaking in anger.
Dr. Sirini Pillay’s post is entitled “What a psychiatrist learned in therapy sessions with mothers.” It’s also posted at Pillay’s other blog, Debunking Myths of the Mind under the title “I love my children but hate my life: Solutions to Dilemmas Mothers Face” with the subtitle of “A balm for all guilty mothers.”
(Please note: All text below in italics and bold is directly from Dr. Pillay’s article)
Dr. Pillay pontificates a few reasons for the psychological issues/stress mothers experience during their lives. With every one of them, his explanation (in my opinion) places even more guilt upon the already exhausted and stressed out mother rather than offer true solutions for her success as a mother. Perhaps most glaring in his examination of the trials and tribulations of motherhood is the omission of any mention of a Postpartum Mood Disorder as the source for the points upon which he offers his expert insight. I find it impossible to believe, given the statistics of Postpartum Mood Disorders (1 in 8 new mothers), Dr. Pillay has never seen a mother with a Postpartum Mood Disorder or is unaware of the additional issues a Postpartum Mood Disorder brings to the dynamic of Motherhood, especially if said Postpartum Mood Disorder goes untreated. It is both appalling and irresponsible to me for a Psychiatrist to fail to mention such a glaring issue in the face of addressing issues faced by Mothers.
First up, Dr. Pillay mentions Perfectionism. “New mothers often expect to be perfect rather than the best that they can be,” Why does the mother expect to be perfect, Dr. Pillay? Is it because SHE has placed those ideals in her head? No. It is because society has placed these ideals in her head. We are absolutely expected to be pristinely Stepford in our execution in the assigned task of Motherhood while Fathers are expected (also unfairly) to be aloof idiots. What Dr. Pillay fails to mention is that those of us who are obsessive perfectionists are at a higher risk for developing a Postpartum Mood & Anxiety Disorder. What he fails to mention is that, in order to overcome this “Peril of Perfection” society must also change their view of Motherhood. Instead, Dr. Pillay perpetuates the stigma and tells Mothers “you can always strive to be better by making small changes. Holding yourself to a standard of perfection can lead to burnout in all areas of life, because you are constantly striving for something that does not exist.” I agree, Dr. Pillay. But the same society fails us when they perpetually hold us to a standard of perfection, for which when not reached, we are then automatically judged and crucified.
Next up, burnout. Burnout is a direct result of perfectionism. It’s also the direct relation of attempting to care for an infant while struggling with the depths of a Mood Disorder. Study after study has proven the adverse effect of Postpartum Mood Disorders on sleep. Have a Postpartum Mood Disorder? You won’t sleep as well when you do sleep. Sleeping less and lower quality of sleep are both symptoms of a Postpartum Mood Disorder. Yes, everyone knows new mothers don’t sleep much. But moms with a Postpartum Mood Disorder sleep even less and achieve a lower quality of sleep when we DO sleep. Another kicker? Our children sleep less and at a lower quality as well. So now you have an exhausted dyad attempting to live up to an impossibly high societal standard which is now even further out of our grasp. Need more ammunition here? We’re also told to snap out of it if we seek help. Stigmatized. Made to feel guilty. Not allowed to have the “time” to be depressed because by God we have an infant to raise which is what we were bred to do. Failure is not an option. So we stay silent, we suffer, we weep, we wail, we dry our eyes in the face of the public realm because we’re not allowed to have emotions other than those seen in Johnson & Johnson or Pamper’s commercials. Everything is to be picture perfect. If it’s not, we’ve failed. Dr. Pillay’s suggestion here? “So rather than force themselves to think and feel differently, addressing the burnout can help many problems all at once.” I would have loved to have addressed the issue of burnout. I attempted to address the issue of burnout with each one of my children. I asked for help. I begged for a night nurse from the pediatrician once our second daughter came home after nearly a month in the NICU after being born with a cleft palate. His response? “Why do you need a night nurse?” I had a toddler. Two dogs. A husband who worked 70+ hours a week. I was exclusively pumping every three hours and running a Kangaroo pump on the same schedule. I had to clean my daughter’s PEG site and jaw distraction sites a total of 4-6 times a day on TOP of everything else. Sleeping would have been a gift from the Gods. Yet I was denied and landed in a Psych Ward less than two months after my daughter’s birth through no fault of my own. No amount of forcing myself to think and feel differently would have helped. But I tried to address the burnout. That too, failed.
Now we move into “The best balance.” This paragraph’s opening sentence really captures judgment of mothers across the world: “When women feel overwhelmed, they essentially need to ask themselves why they expect something impossible from themselves.” Again, he’s absolutely right. Yet again, it’s society which has trained us to expect the impossible from ourselves. Dr. Pillay goes on to suggest “The reality is that if a woman has a need to work and have a baby, she needs to find a best balance that is right for her and her family.” Again, I agree. But if a woman has a Postpartum Mood & Anxiety disorder, she is already wracked with guilt. Attempting to find balance in her life is not achievable until she has begun to heal from her fragile mental state. A woman with a Postpartum Mood & Anxiety disorder can barely survive her day let alone find balance in her life until her mental health issues are addressed. Any health professional or anyone I knew mentioning to me all I needed to do to improve was to “find a best balance” in my life when I was in my darkest days would have heard an earful. We’re barely able to keep our own heads above the fray – how are we expected to balance too?
“There is no one-size-fits-all type of mother, and different types of mothering produce different positive and negative outcomes.” Amen. And yet, society expects Sally to parent like Suzie and Suzie to parent like Bethany and Bethany to parent like Rebecca and Rebecca to parent like Jody and Jody to parent like.. well.. you get my drift. It’s the whole Stepford thing. Again, society does not allow for this sort of flexibility. Mothers with Postpartum Mood Disorders parent far differently than any other mother on the planet. We realize the value of self-care because it’s necessary for our survival. For some of us, it’s necessary for our children’s survival. We are judged for how we parent. How we HAVE to parent. We are judged for expressing our frustrations, for choosing to formula feed, for choosing not to go the attachment parenting route, for letting our little ones watch TV because we’ve had a tough day. Yes, we heal from a Postpartum Mood Disorder but when you’re in the thick of it and family members or random people in public are judging us, we have a harder time letting it go and then BAM. Hello guilt. Hello Xanax. I love the idea, I love the theory of “no one -size-fits-all type of mother,” I do. But it doesn’t work in the real world and certainly doesn’t work when the public thinks of mothers with Postpartum Mood Disorders. A mother with a Postpartum Mood Disorder is a horrible mother to most – we’re stigmatized and in addition to overcoming the every day normal judgmental issues which accompany motherhood – we must also overcome the additional perception of our “bad mother” rep.
The final paragraph recognizes that “It’s not all you.” It’s not. It’s genes. It’s how our child is wired to react. But guess what? Kids of depressed parents are more at risk for issues like ADHD. They sleep less. Their quality of sleep is less. Dr. Pillay says, “Parents who take on all the responsibility of this often distort this, feeling as though they are fully responsible for how a child turns out.” Wait a second. Aren’t we? What about Parents who are arrested for the behavior of their children? Parents who are judged because their child isn’t yet sleeping through the night or wets the bed or isn’t getting good grades in school? Or Parents who have infants who are not yet eating solid foods even though they keep trying? Yet, Dr. Pillay’s solution is for PARENTS not to blame themselves when their child doesn’t “lean on their own sense of responsibility.” He also goes on to add this gem: “Also, mothers who are alarmed by their own mistakes set a challenging standard for their children who may grow up to learn that mistakes are “bad” rather than inevitable but not a reason to give up.” Let’s say a mother has a doctor for her Postpartum Mood Disorder who keeps telling her she’ll get better with every therapy they try. Instead, she continues to worsen. Eventually she’s convinced the fault lies within her. That SHE is the problem. Some of these mothers may even give up and just live out the rest of their lives without trying any more therapy because they are the issue, not the therapy. So of course she will raise a child to believe mistakes are bad as opposed to inevitable. Of course she will raise her child to believe once a mistake is made more than once that giving up is the proper course of action. Or even worse yet, let’s say mom doesn’t get treatment at all (which is the case with most mothers struggling with a Postpartum Mood Disorder, by the way), this issue will spill over into how she raises her child and no amount of pulling herself up by the boot straps will change her thinking. She’s leaned on her own distorted sense of responsibility and it didn’t work for her. Why should she then expect it to work for her child? Why would she not consider herself fully responsible for her child’s behavior when society does just that on a daily basis?
My absolute favorite part of Dr. Pillay’s piece is the closing paragraph:
“Thus, when mothers find their relationships thrown into disarray, they may want to re-examine their own standards and relax their judgments toward themselves as they allow themselves to be more human and the very best that they can be without needing to be perfect.”
If only society would let us, Dr. Pillay. If only society would let us.
I’d like to add though should a mother finds her relationships thrown into disarray, she should not immediately blame herself for the fault of the disarray. Yes, she may truly be at fault but the other party may be at fault. She may be struggling with a Perinatal Mood Disorder or another type of mental illness. There are many additional reasons for the fault of relationships to be at fault other than the internal (yet societal driven) standards imposed on Mothers today. Perfectionism is imposed, not perceived. Failure to achieve perfection is perceived yes, but the standards we fail to reach were, at some point, imposed upon us by society. If we truly want to help mothers overcome the perception of succeeding by not being perfect, we need to first change society’s view of mothers, not mother’s view of themselves. The standards we try to reach our not our own… they are the fences between which we are forced to live. Until these barriers are removed, we will never succeed.
Through research, the Mainland Chinese version of the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale has been validated.
What does this mean?
It means the EPDS is now a valid tool practitioners available for use in the Chengdu region of China to identify pregnant mothers struggling with depression.
More research is needed to validate it for postnatal women. The overall prevalence of antenatal depression was at about 4.7%. Two studies were conducted: One to measure stability, the other to measure sensitivity. Both passed with flying colours.
This site was started to help me re-frame an unexpected pregnancy after two rather nasty experiences with Postpartum OCD. Turns out that by doing so I not only helped myself but managed to help a lot of other women along the way.
There was a point during my suffering when I dreaded having to retell my story. Looking back I should have just typed the whole thing up and kept copies on hand – kind of like a resume. (Hey – not a bad idea if you end up having to hunt for a decent doctor!) But there came a turning point where my story began to foster a sense of strength and self. Finally I began to bloom.
We’re all at different points on our journey. Some of us are right in the thick of it, some of us a bit further out, others are fully recovered, some have relapsed and are struggling right back out thanks to the path we carved out the last time we fell down. But we are all in it together.
Rather than retype my entire story here (cuz that would take some time!), you can click here to read about “The Day” I was admitted to psych ward. And if you’re brave enough (ie, preferably not in the thick of it or relapsed) you can read another piece I’ve written here about some of the thoughts I had when things were so dark I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.
For me and for many others, telling our story or even venting has become a powerful source of personal therapy. It’s a way to just get some of the stress out of our body, our mind, and even possibly work through issues.
So let’s get to just talkin’ here. I want to hear your stories. I want to know what you’ve gone through/are going through. Speak up. We’re here to be supportive, compassionate, and lend our hearts.
I can’t wait to read what you have to share!
While the title itself raises eyebrows, the researchers themselves state that they were unable to conclude if the results were because of medication or the underlying depression. Also important to keep in mind is that this research is based on women who had prescriptions filled for SSRIs but does not appear to have checked to see if these women actually took the medication. Instead, they rely on data from a national registry.
“Pedersen and colleagues analyzed national registry data on more than 493,000 births in Denmark from 1996 to 2003. The data included prescriptions filled by mothers-to-be as well as the medical status of their babies at birth.”
And directly from the study:
Our results, however, depend on a correlation between redemptions of prescriptions and drug use. Non-compliance might be a problem for this type of exposure definition and could mask true associations if some of the “exposed” were in fact unexposed.
The most interesting piece to come out of this research is that of the studied SSRI’s, Paxil appeared to have the least risk of septal heart defects. I find this very interesting considering that Paxil is the only SSRI to currently carry a heart defect specific warning.
As with all studies and research, you should always examine all sides and aspects and educate yourself rather than relying on the word of others when making your final decision. Ask yourself if the person presenting the information has your best interest at heart or is merely trying to frighten you with inflated facts and figures. (Click here to read a previous post full of tips on how to find solid medical advice on the web.)
Dr. Shoshana Bennett, author of “Pregnant on Prozac” released this statement regarding this research:
Finally, treatment for the serious and potentially life-threatening illness of prenatal depression (for both mom and therefore baby) is being formally discussed. Fifteen percent of clinically depressed pregnant women try to take their lives – a bit more risky for the baby than mom taking an antidepressant, wouldn’t you say? If the pregnant woman can be non-depressed without a medication, that’s optimal. Some form(s) of treatment, however is essential. If natural and alternative approaches to wellness are not enough, it is regarded by those in the know to be safer for her (and her developing baby) to take an antidepressant than to remain depressed. Depression itself – it is quite clear from the research – crosses the placenta and alters the uterine environment causing negative consequences to the baby. In the latest research there appears to be low (0.9%) chance of a septal heart defect in babies whose mothers had taken certain antidepressants. However, what fear-mongers do not report, is that the researchers themselves could not be sure whether it’s the antidepressant or the underlying depression itself that caused the defect. Women need all relevant information and education about options for treatment during pregnancy so they can make the best decision for themselves and their family. Watch out for alarmists who are not interested in actual data – they are simply invested in promoting fear in women who are at their most vulnerable.
Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D.
Increased risk was determined by “redemption” of more than one SSRI prescription. Those who redeemed more than one prescription had infants with a higher percentage of septal heart defects. But again this begets the question of whether or not this result lay with the SSRI or the underlying depression/mental illness/stress the mother may have been experiencing in order to receive said prescription.
Bottom line here: Don’t think for a second that becoming a Mom starts at birth. It starts at conception. And we owe ourselves AND our infants the best start possible. This means researching by asking questions and seeking out solid answers. It means finding physicians who will be your co-pilot instead of an uncooperative Auto-Pilot unaware of the pot-holes facing them. It means putting together the best support you can with what you have access to at the time. I happen to agree that a SSRI free pregnancy is absolutely optimal. I also think you should run (not walk) out of any doctor’s office if said doctor is quicker with the script pad than the warm shoulder. But we have to remember that every situation is different. Every person is different and every pregnancy is different. And sometimes we may just have to take medication. It doesn’t make you weaker, it doesn’t make you stupid, and it doesn’t make you a bad mom. And above all, remember that the decision to take or not to take a SSRI during pregnancy is your decision. Make it with an empowered spirit, stick to it, and don’t look back.