Research Notes: Postpartum Depression by Mauve Perle Tahat

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It occurred to me while watching all the seasons of Ozark back to back that Wendy Byrd’s story arc would have been significantly changed if she had reliable child care around 2007. Sure, the Byrds are a fictional family, with Michael Bluth as the dad [sorry], but the American tradition is clear. The show, as it seemed to me, was an indictment of America’s brand of racial capitalism’s brutality. It showed what characters, real or fictional, emerge as survivors. At times this depiction was gruesome (especially when Ruth dies, as you might agree), but where did that brutality come from–to lie, dissociate, murder? Well, for me, it started with Wendy Byrd’s postpartum depression. See, Wendy was an ambitious person, and she caved into the social pressure that wraps around birthing people to be everything, do everything, with no help, in isolation. There are a few flashback scenes which capture this, not only when, but also when she has a miscarriage. Ask yourself what would happen if Wendy were allowed to be both a mother and a gifted campaign manager as Obama’s star rose after Chicago. To me, this was her villain [anti-hero?] origin story, and I understood her brutality. Interesting enough, around the time of the show’s airing, Michelle Obama was bringing attention to the issue of miscarriage nationally. For me, Ozark wouldn’t have worked without this underbelly of social history surrounding birthing people.

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When I was giving my dissertation talk, the introduction for my committee and spectators, I still feel I got cut off when I started talking about the story of Lisa Montgomery, one of the most recently executed people on America’s death row. I started exceeding my time and got flagged down by my advisor, who I appreciated for pulling me back into the present moment. Yet, if I had gone on, I would have discussed the correlation I found between the behaviors exhibited as postpartum depression and psychosis relative to death row inmates. Plainly, I found a link between severe postnatal trauma and the subsequent life path of the child leading them to carceral structures, however that might occur. Montgomery’s sister made a few remarks around the time of her execution that might strike you in terms of Montgomery’s position as an executed blip in America’s treating of symptoms to social problems. In specific prepare yourself for a story of preventable child abuse and the idea that our neglect of children is deliberate, targeted, and multi-generational.

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In 2019, while I was more heavily involved with TERSE., Micaela Walley submitted an essay called “Frankenstein’s Postpartum Depression.” Incidentally, I had just given birth 6 months prior and was coming into knowledge about postpartum mental health and its long, fraught history. Wiley made an argument which connected Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to a collective unconscious current of postpartum issues in society. Shelley, and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, part of a feminist iconography, are woven through the historicity of being a birthing person. This, by the way, is a violent history, and one which is taken for granted, minimized, detrimentally so for both parents and child, but also for society at large. Walley made connections with her own mother, too, as she witnessed her struggle with postpartum depression, which I appreciated.

Three months after publishing Walley’s essay I would quit my job because of postpartum depression and the associated effects of a mental illness surrounding the challenges of being a birthing person, feeling tasked with the work whole communities used to feel responsible for.  

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I suppose this is the part of the notes where I should try to define postpartum depression for a lay audience, so I will. 

Many philosophers and educators who rally against a misogynistic, racist, Eurocentric, homophobic, xenophobic worldview are speaking about the very issue I find when doing any bit of research on postpartum depression. The average person, when using Google, will find a definition of postpartum depression which obscures many things. It does this mainly by listing some “symptoms”: weepiness, general sadness, tiredness, “unexplained” pain, to the point they may as well just say “prevalent existential despair.” This is not helpful at all, I find. Maybe you feel the same. 

As a researcher who specializes in prisons and the language surrounding them, I can tell you “criminal” language is the same. The symptoms of a racial capitalist society are “crimes” against disenfranchisement and poverty. Stealing, selling drugs, other violences of survival, which, by the way, are also carried out by the monied classes with no jail time, are the symptoms of racial capitalism.

“Assorted Weepiness” is like a sample swatch in the painting of the house that is postpartum depression. It can come from varying levels of abandonment birthing people experience while they struggle after major surgery, fresh wounds healing, lack of reasonable sleep per night, and the feeling that this new, important human being is going to be neglected if not for your own vigilance. It comes from the experience of quickly losing your status as a person who moves freely, while everyone around you still might. “Assorted Weepiness” then becomes a new way of saying “Hysteria,” which we know was a way to attach the uterus to “madness” or “illogical” thinking. A way to institutionalize people with a uterus, away from personhood, away from power of their own. 

So, are, as Google would say, people who’ve had postpartum depression “more likely to develop major depression over the course of their lives,” or have they had an awakening much more severe than medical professionals give them credit for. Have they experienced the violence of society in a particular way which isolates them, causing despair, rightfully so?

And what to say about people who’ve had a “psychotic break” post-birth, or, “postpartum psychosis,” so called? Perhaps the load becomes so heavy that blackout rage and other curiosities become a way of coping?

On my end, I’d say two blood transfusions worth of blood loss, an “almost hysterectomy,” and a nurse who said after my second birth, a c-section, after day one of cutting through 7 layers of flesh, told me I could probably “get it myself” when I asked for my baby’s bottle, is enough for a lifetime of trauma. Though I’m comforted by the “fact” everyone tells me this happens to birthing people all the time. Sometimes we even just die.

What do you call the emotion of not knowing if anyone cares whether your kids thrive except for you? Of wondering if people will fail your kids, or, maybe worse, if you will fail them?

All of these things constitute postpartum depression.

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“Even if Jose thinks she did it, his stance is against the death penalty, so he will defend her on those grounds.” 

My friend I graduated from college with moved to Colorado and was pursuing a paralegal certificate. It was 2011 and I was thinking through the Casey Anthony trial, and, moreso, the death of Caylee Anthony. 

“In the law I’m learning there’s a lot more to consider than just is a person guilty or no…or more like it if they actually did something or not.” 

I recall us talking a long time on the phone in those years. Hanging on to that time of possibilities college promised us. The Anthony trial was in our discussions. Nancy Grace, Jose Baez, Xanax, Caylee, children. 

Did we drift apart for a specific reason or just a feeling? Well, we did, for whatever reason. Did I miss her, or did I miss New Jersey? Did I fuck up for acting like I never saw her social media again, that she had cancer, that she voted republican in every election in her district. Did her being a “Let’s go Brandon” republican absolve me from the years of lost friendship? I saw she got married, adopted a daughter. You can find out a lot online these days. 

Did I miss her, or did I miss living in an apolitical present, excused by my youthfulness? Did I miss her, or did I miss dressing up in the high altitude of Denver? 

I find people who major in English, perhaps as much as people who don’t major in English, can have difficulty understanding the field does not consist of defining words, building a vocabulary for the sake of it. It’s defining the words relative to your culture, environment, relative to ethical considerations which make us human beings. This was an unspoken part of the fellowship I had with this friend, the silences where we learned how certain words connected people to a type of plane where despite the nuances of life someone was either guilty or not in the eyes of a jury.

Did I miss her, or did I miss curling my hair extensions to blend in with my regular hair, or my midnight blue wrap dress draping the bar stool in the place where we danced?

Was I fucked up or was she fucked up, or were we both just swimming in the infinite sea of fuck ups we call community, or, living, or consequences?

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It’s 2023 and we’re talking about Casey Anthony again. Society is showing how little we care about birthing people, about mothers, about parents, about children, however you’d like to slice it open. I’m reading tweets like “the bitch is lying and everyone knows it!” Once called “tot-mom,” Casey Anthony continues to exist and this angers people, but more, I think it confuses them. I think people are confused about Casey Anthony because they refuse to fathom postpartum depression. I think they refuse to fathom that someone could make a terrible choice based on the pressures placed upon them by a personal responsibility narrative, a purist philosophy of parenting, a world that is hard enough to exist in. 

I want to pose something else to people in the Casey Anthony discourse: what if making a terrible choice is what parents are set up to do in this culture? What if we’ve built a parenting trap, a parent trap, if you will, that tries to trap parents into making violent, harmful, deadly choices, and every day we have to be strong enough, for our kids, for our kids’ future to resist those choices. And what if some people simply cannot, for whatever reason, mount a resistance?

Was Ozark just a critique of capitalism, or, are we supposed to aspire to Wendy’s level of brutality to ensure our family “makes it”?

Characters, real and fictional, ordinary and sensationalized, old friends and acquaintances we see in passing, struggle, many alone, with the failing infrastructure for the American parent. It has been since the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty that American people have seen a government that inspired a hopeful future for children (one of the best programs that came from that era, arguably, was Headstart, which is still around, albeit struggling, today). 

Being a parent is inherently political, even just the idea to bring a new generation, and parents need a community which recognizes the charge to raise children and the responsibility we all bear in doing so.

Mauve Perle Tahat has a PhD in carceral literary studies. They are a founding editor of TERSE. Journal. Tweeting @mauveyperle

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