Blame it on the "baby blues"

Mothers with postpartum depression produce "emotionally negative" children, says a new study.

Published May 10, 2007 7:18PM (EDT)

Talk about insult to injury. Now women suffering from postpartum depression need not only worry about their own mental health but also the possibility that their mental state will have a long-term negative effect on their babies. Such were the conclusions of a study by researchers from Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Iowa, which interviewed women who had suffered from postpartum depression. Although the women responded well to therapy and recovered from depression, they were more likely to view their babies as "very fussy" than mothers who had not suffered PPD. The researchers interviewed the women again when their babies were age 2, only to find that the children of women who had suffered PPD still were rated as "emotionally negative," had more behavioral problems and were less closely bonded with their mothers.

What drives me nutty about so many searching-for-links studies is the lack of context. Where do these women live and how isolated are they? What's the role of the husband both as a parent and a source of support? Finally, there is no information or even discussion about the fact that children have their own personalities and some children are harder to parent than others. The implication is that the mother's mental state is the determining factor in a child's development: It's all her fault.

"A mother's view of her child remains surprisingly constant over time -- like a self-fulfilling prophecy," said the study's lead researcher, David Forman. "If she finds her newborn difficult that baby can grow up to be a difficult child or teenager."

Well, sure there are those mothers (and fathers) whose unremittingly dark picture of their children seems to put the kids on a fast train to hell. But what if the babies of the women with PPD actually are fussier? I know we're all supposed to regard our children through the soft-focused lens of our love, but as someone who had an average baby who cried inconsolably only 40 minutes every night, I can barely imagine the psychological effects of a child who cried for four-hour stretches (completely within the bounds of normal according to my pediatrician). Would it surprise us if these babies (combined with a bad case of hormonal imbalance and a husband who works long hours) could drive their mothers beyond the occasional weep-fest to something darker and more disturbing? Would it be terribly heartless to suppose that some of these squalling chitlins will hang onto their cranky ways and continue to be difficult to parent?

In any case, it looks like postpartum depression and her nuttier sister postpartum psychosis are going to be the subjects of a lot more studies -- hopefully some that look at the broader reality of many mothers' lives. On Tuesday the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee debated a new bill that would fund more research on the causes and effective treatments for postpartum pathologies. That is, if the whole bill doesn't get sucked into the pro-life black hole where the laws of science no longer apply. Republican Nathan Deal of Georgia, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, suggested that the bill should cover research on "postabortion depression." If a screaming baby doesn't push us over the edge, we can always count on our leaders to finish the job.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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