Sunday, December 17, 2006

The mother of all fears

It's official. According to a Danish study, motherhood can make you crazy.

The study, based on medical records of 2.3 million people over a 30-year period in Denmark, found that the first three months after women have their first baby is riskiest, especially the first few weeks when the tremendous responsibility of caring for a newborn hits home.

In addition to postpartum depression, the analysis also found first-time mothers were more likely to experience bipolar disorder, with altering periods of depression and mania; schizophrenia and similar disorders; and adjustment disorders, which can include debilitating anxiety.

The study further notes that fathers are largely unaffected by mental illness as a result of the birth of a child, primarily because they are not likely to experience debilitating sleep depravation, tsunami-like hormone surges, isolation and a complete shift in identity.

Whew. I'm glad someone finally blew the lid off of that one.

Seriously, though, what surprises me is that it's taken this long for a "landmark" study to be conducted.

There's enough anecdotal information about mothers struggling with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness to fuel lively debates among friends, but few scientific studies that can help put the issues in perspective. Lo and behold, the stigma of mental illness persists.

From Andrea Yates and Christine Wilhelm to Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields, we participate so fervently in the dialogue about the consequences of maternal depression that I think we forget that not much is really known about the condition itself. We take sides. We bring forth our own experiences to prove our points, but we don't really know anything about what makes these women different ... if they are at all.

Many women, luckily, will never understand the astonishing depths of mental illness. They will never understand how a woman could hurt an innocent child or herself, because such abhorrent acts are so alien to their way of thinking, feeling and reacting. There will always be those who will say their "mother raised eight children and never complained, so grow up already."

Yet there will always be people, like me, who say "finally, some answers."

You see, I have on occasion suffered from bouts of prolonged sadness. And though manageable, I fully expected to descend into a full-fledged depression once Ittybit made her entrance.

But, I didn't suffer from postpartum depression. I had what I like to think was the opposite: I had an overall feeling of well being. It wasn't mania, or euphoria, it wasn't even worrisome. It was just a soothing little voice inside that made me believe everything was going to be just fine.

It wasn't until 15 months into my new life as a mother that the real adjustments took place.

Ittybit got sick and had to be hospitalized.

We didn't know at the time that her ailment wasn't going to be life altering. We were just petrified, as any parent would be. I handled the stress in stride. Aside from the few hours of internal turmoil between the car ride to the hospital and the assigning of a room, I was calm, collected and hopeful. The hardest part of the four-day stay – I recall now – was seeing other people's children who weren't as "lucky," and feeling the full weight of my helplessness as a parent.

After we got home and our lives returned to normal I noticed that that "good feeling" I'd once had was gone. And it wasn't coming back. Worry had taken its place and eventually overtook my place as a mother. It wasn't just run-of-the-mill anxiety. It was more of a not-wanting-to-leave-the-house fear. Only the darkest thoughts were permitted to take residence in my head. I was losing the struggle to keep them at bay.

I eventually sought help and was lucky enough to get it. I know others who did not (or could not), and I mourn them and the people they left behind, people who will always wonder: ‘What should I have done?"

Being a mother isn't easy, but just because it's a choice we make doesn't mean we are beholden to endure pain with grace and stoicism. It doesn't mean you're weak or defective; it just means sometimes you need a little help and support. The medical community is getting that message, it's time the rest of us do, too.


crazymumma said...

first off i am so glad itty bit is ok. Second, a brave post. Post partum can hit months, even a couple of years after birth.
I thought I was one of the euphoric ones. Years later I now realize I was nuts. Really anxious and over the top mothersmother.
There is nothing like a baby to shift every paradigm you once knew.
I am so glad you got the help you needed.

Mrs. Harridan said...

Wow. This is something I haven't even thought about yet, aside from a vague fear of going a bit crazy sometime during the first year.

Thanks for sharing; it never occurred to me that postpartum depression could take root that late in the game.