SOMA ENVY: WHERE'S MY POST-PARTUM DEPRESSION?
“She had a little, well, post-partum,” my son’s art teacher said, talking about another mom who’d been in class when both the mom-to-be and I were pregnant at the same time last year. Post-partum what? I thought at first, thinking that every mom has post-partum; it’s the part after giving birth! Then my brain began to go back to graduate school, to the days when I was still under the programming of the mental health industry. And I realized that she was talking about post-partum depression. I couldn’t help but wonder if the teacher, so far without children herself, would have said the same thing if there had been a physical disease involved: She had a little, well, brain tumor, for instance.
Doubtful, isn’t it? I noticed the disparity with which we diagnose and treat supposed mental illnesses when I taught first-year English at the university level. I began teaching in the mid-1990s; students then were somewhat responsible for their actions. By the time I left teaching, in 1999, two or three students in a class of 20 were coming up to me with documentation for special treatment. Their excuses, fully approved by the school’s education department, filled a wide range of alphabetical illnesses. It was clear that I, their caring counselor, ah, teacher, was supposed to look at the piece of paper and have no qualms about granting the extra privileges regarding tests, papers, or other assignments. I followed the instructions because, well, I liked having a job.
But even then, I was so skeptical of these new diseases that any time a student came up with a form, I extended the special privileges to everyone else in the class. I was amazed at how few of the special students actually used their privilege. Would anyone really want to spend six hours on my exam, for instance, rather than three? And how was I supposed to monitor a student’s test if that student required separation from other students because of his or her supposed disability. And seeing this flock of student maladies led to the inevitable question: How many alphabetical diagnoses would I have received if I had been born two decades later? I found out that adulthood is not too late to have a diagnosis when an acquaintance, a few years older than I, proudly announced to me one night how wonderful her life had become now that someone had diagnosed her with ADD.
I am still slow to join in the fun. Yes, I’m sure that someone would easily diagnose me with something, if I tried hard enough. As a matter of fact, in graduate school, I found out that it wasn’t so hard at all. One visit to a school psychiatrist’s office one day gave me, without medical examination, a whole bottle of pills. When those pills jarred me awake each morning at 2 a.m., the prescription was changed. I was told that if I stayed on the new pills for a year, I was less likely to have that vague thing called depression crop up again; no blood test or physical required. A good little lemming at the time, I kept popping the legally-prescribed pills.
In hindsight, I wonder what Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign had taught me. Was saying no to legal drugs just as important as saying no to illegal drugs? If not, then was I relying on the FDA to approve what I should and should not ingest? How could a governmental body know more about what I should have in my body than my doctor or I? It was easier just to take my pills than to think about these questions.
I did manage to wake up. Finally. I started making money and got rid of a boyfriend who cared more about himself than he did about me or our future. I got out of the oppressive graduate school atmosphere. But now, as a mom of three sons under five, the media are telling me that my supposed mental health may be in jeopardy once again. This time, I’m told that because I’m a mom, perhaps I am suffering from postpartum depression. With a quick google search any new mom can find the common yet vague symptoms that she can identify with: exhaustion, insomnia, difficulty making decisions, remembering, concentrating—Hello new mommies, anybody not feel this way?!? And what are the cures? Well, there is talk therapy. And now, there’s the help of the pharmaceutical industry: Just say yes!
I was already jealous of Brooke Shields. And now, what can I say? Brooke is making even more money off her supposed postpartum depression and its supposed cure. And what am I doing? Sitting around not complaining. Am I not financially savvy or what?
Actually, I must admit, that after giving birth three times in the past five years, homeschooling, and generally loving to be around my children, I don’t have a lot of time for depression, as Brooke evidently does. And I certainly don’t have time to go around whining and writing about it. Maybe I’m really just jealous because my writing doesn’t advertise pharmaceuticals or formula companies, as Brooke’s does, and I am therefore not making as much money at my writing as Brooke. On the other hand, my expenses are fewer. I got pregnant the old-fashioned way—just like breastfeeding, it’s cheaper and easier. But, unlike Brooke, my face isn’t in all the women’s magazines talking about my numerous in-vitro attempts or extolling the massive amount of money I spent trying to get pregnant so that I could have postpartum depression.
I am sometimes jealous of Brooke’s artificial life—her soap commercials, her blue jean ads, her life on that island with Christopher what’s-his-name; her jaunt at Princeton, or was it Yale, or does it even matter. After all that artificiality, though, it’s easy to see how one can think that the naturalness of becoming a mother wasn’t so attractive. The in-vitro, the bottle-feeding, the postpartum depression, it’s a natural progression of artificiality. And it makes us love her even more, doesn’t it? To see the artificially mighty so vulnerable.
When I found myself on a baby-oriented Internet message board the other day, I felt all alone because I wasn’t recommending Brooke’s new book on PPD, as the message board folks cutely abbreviate postpartum depression. I was bombarded when I questioned the existence of such a malady and its pharmaceutical cures and I certainly didn’t go into how this postpartum depression thing is used every day against us moms to make us believe that there’s something not quite normal about us if we don’t feel bad about bringing life into the world. The remedy for our supposed mental illness? Take some pills; oh, and take lots of time away from the baby; go back to work and get back to being the selfish brats we were before we conceived.
On the message boards, I didn’t dare go into how Brooke’s new campaign, knowingly or unknowingly, will assist the President’s New Freedom Commission to help the psychological community, a.k.a. B. F. Skinner’s disciples, judge which moms-to-be and new moms are fit and which are unfit to raise our own children. Being that my questioning of PPD had been so blissfully demeaned, I didn’t want to bother the lemming moms further by telling them that the President’s New Freedom Commission will soon be coming to a state, city, or home near them, and screening their pregnant selves and their children. Meanwhile, Brooke is weaning herself off medication because she is thinking about having another child and she is more than willing to take on another battle with postpartum depression, except this time she promises to use postpartum medication more quickly. I only wish I were making up that last sentence.
With celebrities such as Brooke Shields promoting postpartum depression and its pharmaceutical cures, it becomes easy to doubt ourselves as parents, to believe that experts and professionals know more about our children and ourselves than we do. What woman of childbearing age did not grow up idolizing Brooke Shields, wishing we were making her movies and shooting her advertisements? Now, as she bravely makes her whiny television appearances, we still want to be like her. How many women who, as teenagers, were wooed by Brooke’s seeming success will be wooed by her seeming vulnerability as a mom? If Brooke Shields is vulnerable, how could we not be as well? If we feel a bit moody for a few days, maybe we can ask our own doctor about some little pill that may help. And a few television commercials will tell us our doctors are right: we need a pill.
Brooke, from the comfort of her fourth-floor Manhattan apartment, claims that she looked down and thought about jumping out the window. What about those of us who pale in comparison, who are not able to afford a fourth floor apartment in Manhattan? Here’s what the proletariat do for free, Brooke: We get out of our less expensive homes and we take a walk! Breastfeed that baby, Brooke, and you’ll be shocked at how many hormones return themselves to semi-normal. Tom Cruise has set you straight on exercise and vitamins and I’m no scientologist, but maybe you should listen to him. Then again, it’s so easy to take a pill.
At this point, I can ‘t help but think of poor Lenina, the female alpha character of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, “A gramme is better than a damn,” she said, referring to her own Big Pharma score. “I wish I had my soma!” Ah yes, the little pill that keeps people in check in the brave new world. And here we have the truth of it, of Brooke’s pills and her book, and of the mental health commission, and really, of all that is about telling us how sick we ought to be: The mentally healthy take their pills. It’s much better, in fact, to take pills than to deal with reality, even when that reality is a beautiful healthy baby.
Perhaps, according to the mental health industry, I am one of the mentally ill: Sans pills, I can’t help but look at my three beautiful babies and think how lucky I am. I am thankful for each and every bone, all of which their father and I helped to create. Somehow even a good dose of soma can’t mess that up. Yet.
© 2005 Tricia S. Vaughan
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Tricia Smith Vaughan has a Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication, a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, and a Master of Arts in English. Before she became a mom, she taught first-year English Composition and Literature for five years at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
She has written for the Los Angeles Times, Durham, N.C.’s Independent Weekly, Raleigh, N.C.’s News and Observer, and other newspapers. She performs stand-up comedy and writes about homeschooling and other momly stuff.
Web Site: www.comicmom.com.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the teacher, so far without children herself, would have said the same thing if there had been a physical disease involved: She had a little, well, brain tumor, for instance.