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When the Joy is Missing: An Organic Perspective on Postpartum Depression

Written by Marcy Axness, PhD   
Tuesday, 01 December 2009 00:00
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Postpartum depression is one of those everyday terms we use, though few of us understand what it means. We know it is important and serious, but it remains abstract. How does one recognize postpartum depression? What does it feel like?

A simple web search provides these symptoms: extreme fatigue, loss of interest in activities, sleeplessness, sadness, tearfulness, anxiety, hopelessness, irritability, appetite change, poor concentration and feelings of worthlessness and guilt.

As vague and complex as this may seem, postpartum depression can almost always be detected by a single screening question: Does the mother feel joy? If she suffers from any form of postpartum depression, it’s possible she’ll say “no” outright. But she’ll also be likely to hedge, with words like, “I know I’m supposed to feel joy… and sometimes, occasionally… there are brief hints of joy...”

Many new mothers experience what I call Chronic Covert Postpartum Depression (CCPD). They suffer behind a façade of frantic perfectionism that effectively obscures the possibility of even considering whether something could be wrong.

Years ago I wrote about my own struggles with a CCPD. This is how I described it.

[I had] vague but persistent fears of incompetence, an intangible but relentless drive running deep inside me to always be trying to do it better, or at least do it right. Do what right, I couldn’t define. I just knew that I rarely felt a respite from this steady pressure that seemed to define my life after becoming a mother. And it seemed that I was angry, silently resentful, most of the time.

When there were no specific tasks to accomplish, like diapering or feeding or driving us somewhere, I felt deep discomfort at simply being with my baby. I had learned from my RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) parent/ infant class that babies and children thrive on this “wantsnothing time”—that it’s as nourishing to their psyches as food is to their bodies. But as soon as I would sit down on the family room carpet with my baby, to just be there while he explored and played, the resistance would rise up and I would quell it by suddenly thinking Oh, I’ve got to jump up right now and call about those slipcovers, or Maybe I should plan tomorrow’s dinner, or I’d better go wipe the water spots off that table. The refuge of life’s droning busywork.

We had planned for Ian to sleep in a cradle in our room during the early weeks, but on our first night home his snuffling baby noises kept me so on edge, his closeness so chafed at me, that he was alone in his own room beginning the following night. Then I could feel tense and guilty from safely down the hall.

My first years of mothering were thus: my need to escape Ian’s crushing dependency on me; and the guilt, anger and ever-present gnashing conflict of my two deepest impulses—to attach, and to pull away (not necessarily in that order). When Ian was about four months old, I said to my husband, “I feel like he’s sucking all the me out of me.” But actually he was sucking the real me, terrified and enraged, out of hiding.

And there it was: I was hiding.