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.

Talking About PPD (and All Its Friends)

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, so it seems appropriate to share this with you today: Yesterday I did an interview for a news outlet about why it’s important to talk about postpartum depression in the context of maternal suicide. You can see that interview and the rest of their reporting on the Global News website.


The interview was prompted by a Canadian Medical Association Journal article about why it’s time to put maternal suicide under the microscope, which, in turn, was prompted by the case of Winnipeg mother Lisa Gibson who, it appears, killed her two small children and then herself and was said to have been suffering from postpartum depression. There are a few things I want to say about this issue and my interview with Global News.

I’ll start with this: Women like Lisa Gibson who kill their children are not monsters. That’s a bold statement, but I really believe that to be true. In fact, let’s make it a bolder statement:

Women suffering from postpartum mood disorders who kill their children are not monsters. 

Some of you are already in fits of rage, but hear me out. I don’t want to change your mind about this, because it’s such an emotional topic and I totally get that, but I do want to be able to have a conversation about it. I’ll share my thoughts and I welcome yours in the comments.


First, women who do this are not suffering from your typical depression. Generally they are suffering from postpartum psychosis, which is as scary as it sounds. Some very brave women have shared their stories of postpartum psychosis and the completely unreal, not-based-in-real-life things they believed. Women like Jenni, who shared that she saw:

“…a figure, a dwarfish figure – a dark, person-shaped creature that scurried toward the bassinet, saw me, and darted away.”

Jenni thought it was this figure—instead of colic—that was responsible for her newborn’s crying.

And then there’s Heather, whose story I’ve shared before. Heather described finding herself naked on the side of a DC highway:

“When helicopters flew overhead, I was convinced the world was going to end and that presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain were headed to DC to join forces and save the world. I thought of a few ways I could help save the world: My husband and I could kill each other. Or we could kill our children. Or my parents…”


So: Women like Heather do not have murderous motives. Often they truly believe killing their children is necessary for reasons that don’t make any sense in the real world. For others it’s less like a plot from a dramatic Hollywood blockbuster and more that they believe their children would be better without them as a mother. Don’t try to make sense of it. It’s psychosis. And until we make it okay to say, “I’m not okay,” and to make it better, easier, not-terrifying for mothers to ask for help, this is going to keep happening.

We need to make it okay to ask for help.


And that’s why I did the interview. The news clip, of course, includes mere seconds of what was a much longer conversation and if you’re familiar with my story then you haven’t missed much. But the clip also focused on medication – partly because it’s a visual associated with the topic and partly, I suspect, because it’s sort of shocking. (Serious? Clearly associated with mental illness, in any case.) And while medication is one of the things I credit with helping me finally recover, it’s not the only option and it’s not what works for everyone.

The point I wanted to make, essentially, was this: Ask for help. You’re not alone. Postpartum depression is shockingly common and you’re not the only one and it doesn’t make you a bad mother. There are options, and whether you’re hiding in the bathroom crying or formulating a plan to take your own life, you can get help. There is another way.

Please, ask for help.

It’s going to be okay.


If you (or someone you know) is thinking about hurting yourself or your children, get help. 

Canada: Crisis centres in Canada: http://www.suicideprevention.ca/in-crisis-now/find-a-crisis-centre-now/

US – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255


And remember, you don’t have to be suicidal to call a hotline. If you need to talk to someone, call. You can also go to the nearest emergency room to ask for help.

Breaking Radio Silence

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while (or have spent any time browsing the archives) you’ll be well aware that I used to bare my soul on here on a daily basis. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, and my desperation used to lead me to sharing just how awful I was feeling with anyone who chose to read about it.

It used to be easier to do that.

I’ve had some rough days lately and part of me wanted to just stay silent and pretend that everything was hunky dory. Maybe that’s because I don’t want to admit that I can’t prevent bad days with baby #2 just by sheer force of will. (Okay, that’s a big part of it.) But it’s also partly because I don’t really want to get into it. I don’t want my mother worrying that she’s going to have to talk me off the ledge again. I don’t want to appear vulnerable.

Feeling vulnerable sucks.

But feeling like I’m not being true to myself sucks as well. I know – I don’t have to share anything here if I don’t want to. But this blog is part of my path through this whole experience so I’m okay with sharing things here.

The good news is that the last couple of days have been better. The extra good news is that I haven’t had any more conversations with the steam cleaner. (I would, however, like to point out that my husband mistook the steam cleaner for Connor the other night too. He didn’t actually talk to the steam cleaner, so he maintains he’s clearly more sane than I, but I’m not convinced. I think he’s just less inclined to talk to inanimate objects in the middle of the night.)

In any case, I hate feeling like I spilled my guts and then went radio silent. So here’s a picture of some old-fashioned toffee tins.

Pretty, don’t you think?

Deep Breaths and Thank Yous

I do have a tendency to barf things out there, don’t I? Sometimes it just helps to put it out there instead of pretending things are okay and silently screaming.

So, thank you. Thank you for listening and commenting and sending me messages to let me know you’re out there. It helps. It really does.

One of the worst things about this is feeling alone. And none of us is, which is the lovely thing about writing here. I get reassured that some of you have been here and know what this feels like, and some of you reading this realize it’s not just you either.

We’re not alone.

Second chances tip jarThe good news is that today was better. We’ve adopted a new strategy for dealing with nights because, while I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing with this whole getting-babies-to-sleep thing, I do know one thing: My very chunky baby does not need to be fed two or three times a night. So I’m currently living in that weird place where the air is mostly filled with hope but the scent of desperation still lingers, and I’m afraid that if I breathe too deeply I’ll inhale the fear lurking outside. It’s the fear that this won’t work, because if this doesn’t work I have no earthly idea what to do next. But for now fear shall not rule; I’m going to keep taking deep breaths.


Let’s talk about something else for a minute. Speaking of thank yous, I so appreciate your support for the stuff I’m writing elsewhere. I’m in full swing with my new Yummy Mummy Club blog, starting with a post about second chances and a bit of a thank-goodness-it’s-not-me post about babysitting my brother’s twins. I’ve got another one coming up this week where I’m looking for advice on helping a four-year-old make friends and I’d love it if you’d look out for that one too.

And, since it’s one of the most common search terms that leads people here, I’ve shared a version of my postpartum rage story on Huffington Post. I just think we need to talk about that more.


Grey Skies and Runaway Trains

It rained yesterday.

We don’t get a lot of rain here. We get snow, which is mostly accompanied by brilliant sunshine, but grey skies are rare. It’s one of the reasons I love living here.

Last week spring made a valiant effort to overtake winter. The sun shone, the temperature rose, and the mounds of snow by the sides of the roads melted. I was living in the sunshine and loving it. But over the last few days the skies have turned grey.

train wreck circa 1900

Click for image source

Life is not always sunny, of course. But for me it has been sunny more often than not, and I’ve been able to pause in those catch-your-breath moments and really soak it in. But my ability to see the sun can disappear as quickly as the sun itself.

I don’t function when I don’t get enough sleep, and I’m not getting enough sleep. And I’m losing hope that I will suddenly, miraculously start getting enough. After a long week followed by a couple of rough nights, the rain entered my life yesterday – both literally and metaphorically.

I’ve been here before and I know exactly where this sleep deprivation road leads. And I have no desire to take that path again. I don’t want to feel that way and I don’t want to have to say, Actually, it happened again the second time too. 

I want, with every fibre of my being, to be able to push the emergency button and make this runaway train stop. But I’m feeling the desperation an engineer must feel when he knows the train is going to hit something in the tracks. It’s there, it’s in front of me, and the momentum feels like too much right now. It’s bigger than me and I’m not in control of the outcome.

I was hoping today would be better, but instead I woke up to snow. It’s time to hit the brakes.

Wish me luck.