Let Moms be Moms!

DSC_4283 by incurable_hippie (Philippa Willitts), on Flickr. Used with Creative Commons license – Attribution, noncommercial.

DSC_4283 by incurable_hippie (Philippa Willitts), on Flickr. Used with Creative Commons license – Attribution, noncommercial.


One day I’ll read something that doesn’t set me off, but it seems this day has yet to come.  It certainly wasn’t the day when I spotted an article circulated on the Science Daily list summarizing research on what was being called “obsessive-compulsive” problems in new mothers.  Apparently, researchers studying post-partum women found some were worried more than others about the new baby and checked (frequently) to see if she or he was breathing. Or perhaps the new mothers appeared unusually “obsessed by germs.”  The researchers who made these observations presented them as potential harbingers of a “psychological disorder” if these “symptoms” affected their functioning.

(a) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130304151807.htm

If this really is a “disorder,” and that’s a big “if,” it’s likely to be promoted (and proposed for drug treatment) some time soon, albeit a formal label for it may have to be deferred until the next edition of the psychiatrist’s bible, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) appears: it’s too late for inclusion in version 5, which was just released in May 2013.   But perhaps some preventive anticipation is warranted to protect new mothers from one more harmful label.  We can think of this as doing “pre-emptive” or “precautionary” work for this and sure-to-come future DSM entries under development, maybe creating a “waiting in the wings” (WIW) annex to the DSM from which people can get ideas for action.

So getting back to new moms, my nomination for a WIW list is what this new research suggests and what specialists seeking “sicknesses to sell” might call PPOCD (post-partum obsessive compulsive disorder).

Suggesting that new moms are obsessive-compulsive, even if this is qualified by saying these features must interfere with “normal functioning” for the label to apply, leaves too many openings for diagnostic maliciousness and further use of the kind of symptom checklist that Pharma loves too well. How many times did you check the baby during the night to see if she was breathing? How often do you wash her in the tub? What do you do with strangers who want to touch her when you’re out for a walk? etc, etc.

How many times will be “too many” before the label of PPOCD will stick? And then some drug treatment suggested. With serious side effects: new mothers made into wrecks as they question all they do and risk losing faith in themselves?

And then there’s the other “side” of the sword: How many times will “rarely” or “never” as the answer to that symptom list be “too few” before the mother is labeled as uncaring, rejecting, or just an overall bad mom?

And at risk of having the baby taken into custody by government agencies — especially if the mom is a racialized woman or one living with disabilities. “Guilt feelings,” if these are aroused — and what new mom doesn’t at some time feel some responsibility when the baby cries too much, nurses too little, fusses when strangers are around, etc. — also can now lend themselves to pathologizing — and state intervention. And medical treatment prescribed.

It could be that I’m looking at all this backwards, of course.  Maybe what was described in the Science Daily story is actually an example of some serious ailment of physicians, one we could label PNMD — pathologize new mothers disorder.  I’m not sure if the DSM has a special section on MD-specific iatrogenic conditions, but if it doesn’t, maybe there should be such entries.  And, in fact, I can think of lots of symptoms that physicians with PNMD express as well as some potentially therapeutic interventions for those afflicted.

But for now it’s the labeling of women who’ve recently given birth with the necessarily vague symptoms of PPOCD that is very troublesome.  Women have been mothering quite well for centuries, and well before even the first version of the DSM set out to “fix” them. Using their instincts, the advice of their own mothers, grandmothers, and other female family members and friends, women generally find the  balance between doing and not doing that’s comfortable for them and good for the baby.  Sure, things can seem difficult or scary, especially with firstborns, but social and societal supports that provide needed resources for mothers and for mothering are probably all that’s needed during (or even to prevent) the rough(er) times. Best to pass by this label, PPOCD) entirely — and let moms be moms as they feel is best for themselves and their babies. And those of us who really want to support them can work to promote social and reproductive justice to ensure all the resources women need so they can raise the children they want how they want are securely in place and accessible to all.

Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women's health and women's health policies. She has one foot based in academia (specifically at McGill and Concordia Universities) and the other, the foot she favors, involves her in social justice and reproductive activism with community groups in Montreal and beyond its borders.