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The stigma that kills...

Pic source: gameanna/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A woman named Natasha Sultan was recently spared a jail term for killing her infant daughter in an "explosion of violence", in her words (read news story). It's unfortunate that we hear these kind of stories so often - mothers causing death of their young children by neglect and abuse. Underlying almost all these stories is some form of mental illness. These are cases where either the mental illness was not diagnosed, or these women did not seek help because either they were unaware of their condition or that they did not want to admit to it. In the case of Natasha, it was the 'stigma' which prevented the mother from getting proper treatment, even though she was diagnosed with post-natal depression (PND) and was asked to take medication. I have no sympathy for this woman, but I also know that she was suffering from some kind of mental imbalance.

Here, it was not the failure of the health system to help her and protect her baby, but the society itself which makes talking about motherhood and mental illness in the same sentence, taboo. We all know what happens when you come home from the hospital with a newborn child. You're exhausted, you can't sleep, and you can barely think. Yet, a mother's foremost instinct is to protect and nurture her child. So, where does that instinct get sabotaged by temporary insanity? Somewhere along the way, our society is failing new mothers. The expectations from them are so enormous that many bundle under it's pressure. How are mothers expected to recover physically, take care of their family and house, and even keep a full-time job while looking after a baby? Even with daycare, there are hundreds of things they have to worry about, especially if they have other young kids. Single mothers have to work twice as hard, and end up under more stress than usual.

We must stop painting a rosy picture about motherhood.
Even if we set aside the extreme cases, haven't we all had some form of 'post baby blues' where all we wanted to do was scream and plead for just one hour of sleep? Of course, we didn't scream, but we also didn't ask for help - and somehow, we managed to get through those first months. But there are many mothers who cannot handle it, either because they have some underlying mental condition or a particularly demanding baby (sometimes, because of health issues). Yet, because they are not socially conditioned to ask for help, they don't, and the results are tragic. 

One of the things we must stop doing is painting a rosy picture about babies and motherhood. The reality is nowhere near that baby soap ad you see on TV- complete with a clean house, gorgeous mommy and cooing baby. Yes, babies coo, but they also cry for a hundred reasons and you have no idea why. All pregnancy books, prenatal classes and doctor visits must prepare women for what's to come. They must be warned about sleepless nights and bone-aching tiredness. And they must be informed about PND and support available. Most pregnancy books will only touch upon this subject, before resorting to more pictures of smiling babies. 

Modern society creates a barrier between those who can help, and those who need it.
Worse, we are led to believe that we must do everything ourselves. That somehow, by asking for help, we become 'lesser' mothers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Babies are not meant to be raised by a single pair of hands. It's just physically impossible, given how monumental the job is. There was a time when everyone pitched in to help with a new baby - grandparents, relatives, neighbours and friends. In fact, in many countries, this is still the case. But modern society creates barriers between those who could be of help and those who desperately need it.

I am going out on a limb here, but I think natural parenting practices were meant to support a mother and child. There is no reason to keep an infant child in another room when you have to get up to feed him every two hours at night. This is not to say that only co-sleeping is the answer (though it helped me immensely), but even having the baby in the same room can make a difference. Breastfeeding has a positive effect on a mother's health, unless she has medical reasons for being unable to do so. A mother who is in a heightened state of stress if also more likely to resort to sleep interventions for her infant, which leads to more stress for both. I am not linking prevention of mental illness to one parenting style, but my point here is that parents should focus on reducing their stress instead of following a book or 'expert' to the line. Every baby is different, and no single method can provide all the solutions.

There is no dearth of organisations and bloggers providing help and support to mothers suffering from PND and mental illnesses. The real change will come when everyone in society learns to help.

This post has been linked to Post Comment Love.


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8 comments

Kriss MacDonald said...

What a powerful post! I agree there should be much more support available for mothers with newborns and awareness of this.

Mummy Tries said...

This is a topic I've been thinking of writing myself, and I feel you've done it real justice. You're bang on when you say we need to stop painting such a rosy picture of motherhood.

It seems that untreated mental illness and unresolved issues from childhood or early adulthood can lead to PND. If you're barely able to keep your own head above water, how can you care for a child? Unfortunately some women go head first into motherhood thinking a baby will solve all their problems.

There isn't a test you have to pass or license you need to obtain before being allowed to have a baby, but wouldn't it be great if there was? #PoCoLo

Tarana Khan said...

Thank you. I know this was a sensitive topic to write about, but it had to be written. I just had to get it out of my head!

Tarana Khan said...

That's an interesting thought. There could be a preparedness/assessment test that women could take voluntarily. As I said, the most important thing is to make it very clear upfront what they're in for.

Victoria Welton said...

A really powerful post and words that are so well said. Stigmas really do need to be quashed. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo x

Tarana Khan said...

Thank you!

maryanne @ mama smiles said...

New mothers need all the support they can get! I believe it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes we forget that one of the best ways to raise a child is by making sure parents are getting the support and education (so they can make educated choices) they need!

My first child was born in the Scotland, and the government there had set up playgroups based on when your child was born. The playgroups were held at the local midwifery practice, and the midwife was available to answer questions in a casual setting. I loved having the opportunity to meet other mothers who were in the place I was, and that I didn't have to schedule an appointment just to ask the midwife about my daughter's colic! I wish the same service were available throughout the world!

Tarana Khan said...

That's such a good support system. I missed that here in Dubai, and I would have been all on my own if my mom hadn't come over to stay.

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