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Women, Depression and Mothering

What has depression in women and the recent article about feminisim and mothering by the writer Erica Jong got to do with each other? We all know that the depression rate for women is higher than in men. The complex dynamics of this situation is a mixture of social, psychological and biological factors. Socially, dominant society nullifies the feminine aspect in public life in many ways. In comparison to other industrialized nations, the USA has a high Cesarean-section rate, low family leave options, no public childcare network to speak of, and no public health care system. Spiritually, the country remains influenced by the long-ago decisions at the Council of Nicene, where God was developed as a masculine deity. Psychologically, teenage girls are urged to be independent. But gender consolidation is a powerful socialization process that kicks into high gear in adolescence. As they are socialized into their roles, girls struggle with the feeling that the future plans they make will inevitably be modified when they start a family. This psychological duality which girls and women struggle with as a matter-of-course needs to be surfaced.

In her WSJ article, Jong criticized the Attachment Parenting movement as a new way to tie women to a certain way of being, a way of life. The article touched off a lot of emotions and conversation around the web. I remember reading her first novel, Fear of Flying, when it came out in 1973. I was in high school. The book was considered shocking. Isadora Wing, the heroine, was shown as a woman outside of traditional mothering and wife roles. She just wasn’t your usual suburban person. She was off on her traveling and sexual adventures. Maybe in the year 2010 that’s not so ground-breaking. But back in the seventies, women were in the thick of fighting for a voice in society, and FOF was an unusual saga. Remember, the seventies were only twenty years after the fifties. Many of us were the first women in our families to go to college.) And many of our generation were told that it was a waste to send a girl to school, as she was just going to get married and stay home with the kids. (Of course, this attitude is still with us.)

Fast forward to 2010. Thirty years later, there are generations of girls who never question they should or could go to college Today, women are commonly in the work force in many roles, although salaries are not yet equal. One recent poll has said that girls outnumber boys in college attendance.

But the USA still does not offer enough options and ways to continue working without sacrificing your attachment to one’s family. There is still a disconnect about how society really feels about women and families. In the popular culture, music vids depict women as extreme sex objects, at younger ages and thinner than in previous generations. And on the other hand, the attachment parenting movement offers women extreme mothering roles.

How do all these disparate images fit into the current feminist discourse, or is there is a feminist discourse anymore? Women are once again being shown almost unattainable models to which to aspire. Without a partner providing financial support of mom and children, attachment parenting is not possible. For a certain population of moms, such as single Moms and those in poverty, who struggle to make ends meet, it is an unattainable ideal. The media has created a new “should” for us. We should be attached to our children and home again, rather than being a part of the larger world. Media glorification of celebrity motherhood is just another way we are all duped into thinking that motherhood is easy and always joyful. As Jong says, Angelina and her children are never pictured with a nanny. And we all know that she gets help, as she can afford it, behind the scenes. Intellectually, yes, we know, but emotionally, do women know that?

My point is that I think that women should not be shoe-horned into any particular role. Women need choices in how they live their lives. For my personal situation, I practiced attachment parenting. I personally believe that breastfeeding is the best option for mothers and babies. However, in clinical practice, I have seen women who need more separation and emotional space from mothering than others. And the contradictory feelings of wanting to be a good mother and also needing some space causes enormous guilt and actual physical and emotional suffering. There is an enormous psychosocial adaptation as a woman develops her maternal identity, which is shaped by her personal history and social factors.

As long as our society is structured along capitalistic and patriarchal domains, with inflexible career paths and limited family leave options, women need to modify their identity multiple times in their lives as they go along. Some move from career woman to stay-at-home-mom to part-time worker, sacrificing personal financial security along the way. Some weather these changes seamlessly; others become depressed as they try to adapt. Some women are not able to conform to the stay-at-home model, because they are single parents, or perhaps they do not want to conform. Sometimes these women, too, become depressed and anxious as they try to adapt and perhaps wonder if they are causing their children harm in some way. We need to give women/people/children space to do develop as individuals. Some need more space and freedom than others to function without depression and anxiety. And some children need more attachment than others.

And I have one more question, can we afford to lose the feminine/female voice in government positions, in corporate offices and in our courtrooms? In social discourse, women are again being asked to be super-people via their children rather than through their husbands, and rather than simply being “good-enough.” Good-enough moms are normally attentive and sensitive to their infants. Good-enough moms know to hold their infants in what is called maternal preoccupation but step back as the child is developmentally ready, thus allowing the child to slowly develop the sense of individuation. There is room for normal error and inattentiveness in a good-enough household. There is room for mom to be a person, too.

So, here’s to good-enough moms, good-enough people and good-enough families.


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