This Is My Brave

“I wanted share a bit of my story with you and say thank you for sharing yours.”

The best emails I get start this way.

I’m always honoured when someone shares her story with me, and when I get a note of thanks for sharing my experience with postpartum depression it reinforces that the hard parts of sharing a tough story are worth it.

Today I’ve shared a guest post on This Is My Brave about why I think it’s important to speak out about mental health. And it is important – the emails I get tell me so, and I know it firsthand from those I’m thankful to.

I’d love for you to come and read, and while you’re there take some time to read about This Is My Brave the show. Jennifer and Anne Marie are doing a really good, really important, and really brave thing.

PPD: Wandering Wombs & Hysteria

Postpartum depression has been misunderstood for centuries. Today I’m happy to share a guest post from Lissa Cowan, whose novel “Milk Fever” shares a perspective on postpartum depression from the 18th century. 


Milk Fever is set in the eighteenth century at a time when women were viewed as inferior to men both intellectually and physically. The familiar historical expression “the weaker sex” helps us to understand how men and society in general viewed women during the Enlightenment. Medical textbooks portrayed women as emotionally sensitive, high strung and morally inferior. Armande, my main character, is a wet nurse who, after she has her baby, is struck with postpartum depression.

The next day, a feeling of foreboding drifted over me. Margot said this sometimes happens to new mothers. As an antidote to my melancholia, she instructed me to walk in the garden and meditate on God. These quiet times only caused me to be prey to my own distressing chatter.

At the time, women with postpartum depression had no language to describe their feelings and no support network to help them deal with their emotional difficulties. Today, we know that support is a key factor to recovery, yet back then not only did women not have any support, they were also shamed by others for their inability to mother as they should after giving birth. In my novel, Armande, an educated woman with a strong sense of self, is still swayed by the culture and society she lives in.milkfever_frontcover_small

That woman is naturally committed to her offspring, that motherhood is a gift from the gods who bestow upon the fairer sex the most delightful experiences, is a philosopher’s flight of fancy. The fact is, though I would not admit it to a living soul, a part of me longed to be relieved of my shrieking and odorous destiny. I washed the child and no sooner did I replace the napkin with ties at the side than she soiled herself again. I held as truths Rousseau’s ideas about motherhood being the equivalent to bliss, yet I now felt that my existence was an illustration of despair. I know I am not the only mother who feels this way.

Let the truth be known: sometimes we mothers are sad, worse even. Sometimes we are nothing at all and are told we have no earthly reason to be thus. You’re a woman. And woman must bear fruit and be glad for it. How could I express sentiments of sadness at being a mother? I’ve nobody to turn to but the extension of myself that I rock back and forth, this bit of breath that clings to me for survival.

Armande has the support of her midwife who encourages her to take care of herself, allows her to rest and doesn’t make her feel that she is a bad mother. Yet in the real world of the 18th century, depression in women was seriously misunderstood and misdiagnosed. As an example, in “D’Alembert’s Dream,” written by 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot, a fictional Dr. Bordeu presents a woman’s symptoms as he sees them following the birth of her child.

There was a woman who had just given birth to a child; as a result, she suffered a most alarming attack of the vapors—compulsive tears and laughter, a sense of suffocation, convulsions, swelling of the breasts, melancholy silence, piercing shrieks—all the most serious symptoms—and this went on for several years.

The doctor goes on to describe how she supposedly cured herself because she was afraid her lover would tire of her moods. For her consciousness to maintain the upper hand, she took on a conquer-or-die attitude, engaging in several forms of physical exercise until she was cured.

Whenever the rebellion began in her fibers she was able to feel it coming on. She would stand up, run about, busy herself with the most vigorous forms of physical exercise, climb up and down stairs, saw wood or shovel dirt.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that medical science first recognized postpartum depression as a disorder. Before that, abstract terms such as “wandering womb,” which dates back to Hippocrates, made it seem as though a woman’s body was betraying her and leading her emotions astray. This term referred to when the uterus was displaced and would lead to certain pathologies in women. A century later we would hear about women who experienced depression as being neurotic, and the familiar term “wandering womb” was re-coined as “hysteria.” Women who divulged their feelings of depression were often susceptible to strange experimental treatments and widespread ridicule. During the 1950s, electroshock therapy became a popular way for the medical establishment to treat depression in women and keep their so-called neuroses in check.

Today, we know there is no one trigger for postpartum depression, that it is very serious and that early detection is key to women eventually overcoming the disorder. Yet, even in the early 21st century the disorder continues to be under-diagnosed and some of the age-old archetypes, such as women being emotionally unstable or unfit mothers, still persist. Hopefully with increased awareness, education and outreach, women will no longer feel shame and alone in their emotional struggles. Like the midwife Margot who provided love and support to Armande at her time of greatest need, women need to support each other, to hear each others’ stories of pregnancy, birth, depression, and to be there—as sister, mother, therapist, doctor, social worker, psychologist, friend—no matter what it takes.


Lissa M. Cowan is the author of works of non-fiction, and her writing has appeared in Canadian and U.S. magazines and newspapers. She speaks and writes about storytelling, creativity, work-life balance and creative spirituality. She has received awards for her writing and “Milk Fever” is her first novel. Visit her novel page or find her on Twitter or Facebook.

How to Pimp Your Blog

A heads up (for bloggers mostly) that I’ve got a post up on the Sverve blog called Pimp My Blog. Come visit!

How to Create a Sharing Community for Your Blog

Getting Committed

Do you remember when you bought your first home? I do. I remember seeing it (or the place it would be, anyway), and I remember watching it being built. I remember the day we got our keys. I remember bringing Connor home there. Our first home was the setting for many important milestones in my life, but it was the instigator of an especially important one. The story essentially goes like this:

In 2003 we bought a house. And then we got engaged.

There’s more to it, of course, and I’m sharing that story today on Mommy Miracles as part of Laura’s Writing Home series (which she’s running while she gets ready to move into her own first home – congrats, Laura!).

So bring your coffee or your tea or whatever and visit me over there.

Writing Home button

Moving with Kids

We went back to Victoria recently for a few days. It was a great trip, filled with visits with friends and family and some time by the ocean. I think I needed that.

Connor did too. I know he misses his friends, and he gets SO excited when we’re going back and he knows he gets to see them. We get inundated with questions about when we’re going to see them and are we going there now and if not now when and is it time yet and are we going there NOW?

I understand his excitement and sometimes I wonder if he’ll be forever changed because of having been moved away from his since-birth friends. I mean, I know he will be changed, but will he be scarred? I hope not. As long as we visit often enough I really hope he’ll continue to have a relationship with these kids as he grows up. And this time he wasn’t too sad to leave. He did mention missing his friends and wanting to stay, but as soon as we got home he said he was glad to be back in Calgary, so that eases my mama-guilt somewhat.

No matter what, though, moving with kids is tough. Rich moved a lot as a kid and I moved once when I was almost five and then stayed in the same city until I went to university. Does moving as a kid affect your friendships? Your ability to make friends? I’ve been thinking about that.

Today I’m guest posting for Gigi at Kludgy Mom about our move with Connor and how the transition has been. I’ll also be on a panel of moms talking about moving (or not moving) kids and what our experiences have been. That’s happening at 1 pm Eastern today (May 22) on Google+ (and the video will be available afterwards in case you want to watch it).

So if you have thoughts about moving with kids or questions about moving with kids (or just want to hear my Canadian accent) come and read my guest post and then check out our Bonfire Chat on G+!

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