Perhaps the hardest thing for people to understand is how a mother can want to kill herself and her gorgeous new baby, and it is almost unthinkable to most mothers. To a woman experiencing postpartum depression, however, suicide can seem like the only way out, and there is no option for her but to take her child’s life too.
Clearly, these thoughts are delusional, and the result of postpartum depression that has slipped into psychosis. Women experiencing postpartum depression may strongly resist the idea that they need treatment until they have become extremely ill and suicidal. This is not because they are stubborn, but rather because of the prevailing social imago of motherhood and their perceived failure to meet this standard.
In many cultures, the role of mother is revered. Mothers represent all that is good in the world, a source of unfailing support and love, a protector and creator of new life. All of these things are valid and true, but they can go too far so that women are held to an impossible ideal of giving and nurturing.
After a woman has given birth, her body is very busy adjusting to a new hormonal profile, as well as physically recovering from the birth. The demands on a woman’s energy can seem endless, especially when she has other children or other responsibilities and little or no support. In modern western society we often move away from family and friends for work or romance, leaving behind the support systems that are so essential after having a baby.
When a woman has a desire to be a perfect mother yet keeps making mistakes, and has no group of understanding women and men to reassure her and give her practical help, she starts to feel very alone. Having a baby to care for means that she must put all of her own needs and desires second, and she may feel that no-one understands what this is like for her, and moreover no-one cares.
Add severe and prolonged sleep deprivation to this skewed perception, and perhaps we can begin to understand how women are pushed into depression. Once the depression takes hold, the need to care for the infant means there is no time to do all the things normally advised to depressed people, like exercising, good sleep hygiene, eating well, meditating or praying, and socializing.
Things look very dark once the woman realizes that there is no end in sight; although the infant will grow and become less demanding, it is very hard to imagine what that might be like. At the end of her adaptive ability, exhausted, and abandoned, she does not want to carry on, and the world has already shown itself to be an unloving and harsh place that she cannot trust with her child.
Women may begin having suicidal thoughts for many reasons; the above is just one explanation of what can happen from someone who has been there. The only way to be sure that women do not reach this terrifying place is for everybody who knows a new mother to keep reaching out, offering to help however they can, reminding her she is not alone and praising her care of this precious new life.