“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change. The sun might shine or the clouds might lower, but nothing could appear to me as it had done the day before. A fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness; no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man.”
It isn’t hard for me to imagine that childbirth, from start to finish, could be the premise of a great horror story. When I was ten years old, my mother gave birth to my little sister. During the first months of my sister’s life, I noticed my mother spent a lot of time at the shopping mall near our home. She would go there to walk around, not speaking to anyone—busying herself, browsing through clothing racks, and rarely buying anything. She was only there to be somewhere that didn’t have any windows so she wouldn’t be able to see the sun go down. However, despite these hours spent at the mall, on her inevitable walk through the parking lot to the car, she’d be faced with the physical darkness that mirrored how she was feeling on the inside. The panic would wash over her, and she’d return home to us, crying.
The first time I learned of Dr. Frankenstein’s postpartum depression, I overheard my professor mention it offhandedly to another student as I was leaving the classroom. This occurred right before my third readthrough of Frankenstein, with my first dating back to a high school literature class. I’d never heard of this perspective before, largely because this reading of Frankenstein has been buried underneath years of men dictating what makes good literature and what doesn’t. While Frankenstein is usually presented as a story of creation, of playing God, and of feeling like an outsider, when looked at through the lens of postpartum depression, these all fall under its umbrella.
When considering the history of the novel—now, but especially in the 1800’s—nothing could beat the horror of childbirth, and no one knew that better than the author, Mary Shelley. Her own mother died only a few weeks after she was born because one of her doctors forgot to wash his hands. By the time Shelley sat down to write Frankenstein at 18 years old, she’d already experienced the premature loss of her own child. It makes sense that she would win the infamous scary story competition with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. She had what they did not—the horror of childbirth to reflect on, to shape into one of the greatest Gothic novels in literary history.
The fears of pregnancy and childbirth complications that Shelley explores in Frankenstein would still be completely valid today. Even with the advancements in reproductive healthcare, the risks of fatal childbirth complications remain prevalent, especially for women of color regardless of income and privilege. Recently, Beyoncé shared with the world her struggle with preeclampsia and how her baby’s heartbeat paused in the womb several times. Serena Williams has been open about her near-death experience immediately following giving birth in which she had to insist on having a CT scan done following her C-section. American women today are 50% more likely to die in childbirth than women in other developed countries. It remains the sixth leading cause of death for women, perhaps due to the lack of follow up care that women receive immediately following childbirth, on average spending less than 48 hours before being forced to leave the hospital.
During Shelley’s time, doctors were notoriously hands- off when it came to reproductive healthcare, as all of them were men and it was viewed as improper for a man to be involved in such practices. While medical professionals are seemingly more involved in the childbearing processes now, the physical and mental trauma of childbirth is largely handed back to the person who has just given birth as something they should just go home and deal with on their own.
My mother experienced postpartum depression after giving birth to me, and has admitted she didn’t expect it to be an issue while carrying my sister. She’d already been through it before and knew what to expect. I’ve heard the story several times of my grandfather walking out onto the porch, only to find my mother holding me in her arms weeks after giving birth to me. She was crying and apologizing to me for not being a good mother. My grandfather told her that it’d be fine, and my grandmother later assured her this was just something all women go through. We all laugh about this now, knowing my mother was just young and terrified and, on top of it all, forced to function with and take care of a very dependent and needy infant after enduring the trauma of childbirth.
Throughout the novel, we see Dr. Frankenstein experience every single symptom of postpartum depression. In chapter four of the novel, Dr. Frankenstein begins the private rituals of creating new life. He withdraws from family, friends, and his professional work to devote his entire being into the creation of another creature. However, in chapter five, at the first glimpse of the creature, all hope and devotion that he’d previously felt is gone and replaced by the need to get away from it. The real horrific experience of the novel is not at the ghastly image of the creature, but in the idea that the creature is inescapable—always waiting, wanting, and needing something more from him.
After the creature is born, chapters five and six revolve around Dr. Frankenstein’s mental breakdown. He struggles to sleep and is bedridden for months with anxiety. He also completely isolates himself aside from his caretaker, Henry Clerval. However, despite having months of recovery compared to the average American woman who is only federally offered 12 weeks of maternity leave unpaid, he still struggles to keep himself composed whenever he is reminded of the creature. When he returns home and must face the reality of the creature’s existence, he is put right back into a negative headspace that haunts him for the rest of the novel.
Despite what she thought, my mother’s postpartum depression was more severe the second time around. Shortly after my sister was born, several times a week, I heard the backdoor open and close at odd hours of the night after everyone had supposedly gone to bed. Sometimes, I’d sneak out of my room, into the kitchen, and peer through the window with the best view of the backyard. From there, I could see my mother pacing back and forth, walking the edge of our pool in hysterics. She would cry and scream and sometimes sit down on the concrete from pure exhaustion. Sometimes, I’d go outside and ask her if she was okay. She’d send me back to bed, often saying she was just having trouble sleeping.
“I felt detached, like I was in a black hole. I didn’t want to see people but I didn’t want to be alone. The panic attacks were strong and made me feel like I was going to die,” she’d explain to me, years later.
My step dad, for the most part, ignored these episodes, thinking it was something she’d eventually grow out of. This would not be the case. By the time my sister was two years old, my mother had lost all of her baby weight and then some. Her postpartum depression grew into a permanent state of anxiety that often left her unable to eat whole meals or sleep more than one hour at a time. This is not an uncommon occurrence. If left untreated, postpartum depression often develops into other severe mental illnesses
By chapter nine, Dr. Frankenstein is so disturbed by the creature’s existence that he considers suicide, another symptom of postpartum depression. Then, the novel diverges into an allegorical narrative of the creature figuring out its own personhood by itself. We hear the creature literally call itself an “abortion” and struggle to find people who will accept it. Before writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s premature daughter died within two weeks of being alive. No doubt, as with any mother who has experienced child loss, the thought “What if my child had survived?” likely haunted Shelley, leading to this idea that her child, like the creature, would have had a lot of trouble doing so—especially without her unwavering love and affection. Ten chapters later, in chapter nineteen, when the creature demands a companion, we see Dr. Frankenstein hesitate to once again make new life now that he knows how challenging, dangerous, and potentially ugly the end result will be.
Postpartum depression can last for months or, in my mother’s case, years, and affects 3 million American women per year. My mother still struggles with a panic disorder that she developed from that time period of her life. She did not have any more children following the birth of my sister, and has told me about friends of hers who had similar postpartum experiences and also made the decision to not have any more kids because they do not want to go through the mental turmoil again.
“That feeling of not being enough has never gone away. I always feel like you and your sister deserve so much more,” my mother admitted to me.
The guilt and shame that my mother, as well as other mothers, experienced with her postpartum depression directly coincides with Dr. Frankenstein’s experiences. In fact, secrecy is a major theme in Frankenstein, with major plot points circulating around the issue of keeping everything quiet and concealed while, in reality, the creature is wreaking havoc on Dr. Frankenstein’s life. People suffering from depression and anxiety face a lot of stigma when choosing to seek help—but for new moms, that stigma is even heavier. Chrissy Tegan, one of the most transparent celebrities around right now, even admitted that she wanted to hide her postpartum depression for as long as possible for fear of what people would say. With the trope of glowing pregnancies, the miracle of birth, and the happy, doting new mom—it’s difficult for a new parent to admit that they are not immediately attached to their child. This is why it is widely believed that postpartum depression actually affects more mothers than what is reflected in statistics. While Frankenstein is known to belong to the science fiction genre, there is nothing unnatural about the sentiments it explores in relation to postpartum depression.
Despite extremely high infant and mother mortality rates in the 1800’s, pregnancy and childbirth were considered to be Eve’s punishment, passed down to women directly from God. This made it difficult to overtly discuss the trials and tribulations of what to expect before, during or after childbirth, thus resulting in a coded story of a mad scientist creating a being that he ultimately detests. Shelley knew that Dr. Frankenstein could not be a woman struggling to show compassion toward another living creature—a female character struggling against her maternal instincts would have been less acceptable than a male character struggling against his paternal instincts, which is still relevant today, two centuries later as 1 in 4 children live without a father in their homes. If Dr. Frankenstein had been a woman, the novel would’ve ended as soon as she walked away from the creature the first time because everyone would’ve known exactly who the monster was. Instead, Dr. Frankenstein is a man, allowing for more time, space and debate on the complexities of bringing life into the world.
What is more of a great and sudden change than childbirth? Followed by the death of a child, it is no doubt Shelley was affected by both the physical and psychological effects of postpartum depression—while also knowing that she’d have to face them again soon. Due to the lack of birth control during her time period, women often experienced multiple pregnancies, with their likelihood of survival decreasing after each one. In this regard, access to birth control directly coincides with the improvements made since then in reproductive healthcare. Shelley would in fact endure five pregnancies, with only one child living into adulthood.
Frankenstein was once a story I could not connect to largely because of the macho, push-the-limits-of-humanity, show-no-empathy-to-those-who-are-different-to-you dialogue surrounding it. Now, I know it to be an earnest representation of reproductive issues that largely go unspoken and were completely unheard of during its time of publication. Women like my mother need this classical representation of postpartum depression. They need to know that it’s an issue that has been around since the beginning of time, and that it does not make them a bad parent. Anyone capable of giving birth understands the horrific outcomes that could potentially occur with bringing forth new life. While having a child can be an ultimately rewarding experience for many, the psychological and physical effects of pregnancy and childbirth are nothing less than terrifying.
Micaela Walley is an MFA candidate at the University of Baltimore. Her work can be found in Oracle Fine Arts Review, Gravel, ENTROPY, and Huffpost. She currency lives in Hanover, Maryland with her best friend–Chunky, the cat. Follow her: @micaela_poetry