Falling Into The Postpartum Mood Disorder Abyss: A Personal Story

By Deb Wachenheim
Guest Contributor

Over the past two days, The New York Times published a series of articles about postpartum depression and other related mood disorders. The first article looked at the science and policy on this topic and highlights a few women’s stories.

Today’s article is about my sister, Cindy Wachenheim, who took her own life in March of 2013 after struggling for six months with postpartum mood disorders. I say mood disorders because it was not just depression (and the fact that there are other postpartum mood disorders in addition to postpartum depression was something about which I was previously completely unaware). She had extreme anxiety about, and obsession with, her baby’s health and she was depressed because she believed she caused him to have serious health problems. Also, according to what I have been told by experts, she may have been psychotic: she was so convinced that something was seriously wrong with her baby — despite doctors telling her otherwise — that she strapped him to her chest when she jumped out of her apartment window, believing, I can only assume, that this was what was best for him. Thank goodness, he survived and is thriving.

Beyond what is written in the article, I think it is important to give more detail and information on some resources and policy activities in Massachusetts, in the hope that this could possibly help others who are facing similar struggles. As is mentioned in the article, I reached out to Cindy’s son’s pediatrician after Cindy had gone to see her multiple times about her concerns.

Pediatricians are key to screening for postpartum mood disorders and making referrals for needed treatment. Most women see their OB a few weeks after giving birth and if everything seems okay at that point then they are sent on their way until the following year’s annual exam.

However, woman bring their infants to see the pediatrician many times over that first year. It is pediatricians who could notice if something seems to not be right with the mother. Continue reading

Mother’s Day Memo: Don’t Forget Women Who Can’t Have Kids



By Karen Shiffman
Guest contributor

Last year, even days afterwards, I was still recovering. (And no, this isn’t a rant against Mother’s Day. I salute Moms. Hooray for flowers, manicures, homemade cards. I bought my mother earrings with blue lapis to match her eyes. I hope to borrow them, soon.)

But for me, Mother’s Day is the hardest date on the calendar: I can’t have children and will never be a biological mother. Bad genes, bad luck and a huge cancer scare a while back left me without a womb and a few other body parts.

But at least I have no cancer; I dodged the big one — twice. After my surgery, friends danced around the fertility issue, but I shut them down with this effective retort: “I’m lucky to be alive.” Looking back, I think they were just projecting their own anxieties about their biological clocks. I, on the other hand, was fine.

And I continued to feel fine for a while. I looked at condos. Got back in the pool. Went back to work. Everyone marveled at how quickly I’d bounced back. Then Mother’s Day came, and I fell apart. Bam. I couldn’t even buy my mother a card that first year. It was ugly.

The following year, as Mother’s Day approached, I didn’t do much better. My family went out for a celebratory brunch; I stayed home. I said it was too painful to be out with all those happy moms and families. I took my mother out to dinner later that week.

I confided to a friend about my struggle. He listened, comforted me and then did something extraordinary. The Sunday after Mother’s Day he lifted the chalice at his church, and spoke these words to the congregation:

“I light this second candle for all the special women for whom Mother’s Day last Sunday brought pain and anguish. For those women who are infertile or medically unable to conceive a biological child.”

He went on to talk about women who had suffered miscarriages or were estranged from their children by divorce or misunderstandings. He ended the blessing this way: “May our prayers and concerns be with all of you, this day.”

He got it. He heard me. I wasn’t alone. Continue reading

The Girl Who Went Naked For A Month: A True Sensory Disorder Tale

Hillary Frank is a busy mom who, in her spare time, blogs about life with an infant and interviews other moms (and dads) about the “surprising struggles of early parenthood.” A while back Frank, a longtime radio producer based in Montclair, NJ, got this pitch from another mother, Joyce Slaton, who wanted to tell her story:

“Joyce just basically told me that she had a toddler who went naked for an entire month and during that time they never left the house,” Frank writes on her blog, The Longest Shortest Time. “I had to know more. Wouldn’t you?”

That’s how “The Emperor’s New Onesie” — the video — was born; a multimedia collaboration between Frank and Rekha Murthy, a former radio producer now at PRX who received a small grant from the Knight Foundation to develop an existing public radio piece into a video.

It’s the poignant and somewhat disturbing tale of Violet, a 15-month old who obliterates her clothes-loving mother’s fantasy of  a “fancy vintage baby” adorned in butter-yellow blouses, cute tops embroidered with puppies and striped jumpers with matching frilly panties. Instead, Violet suffers from a sensory processing disorder, which compels her to pluck and tear at all those pretty, hand-sewn blouses and skirts in agony “like she was being electrocuted,” according to her mother. Ultimately, Violet refuses clothes altogether — for a month.

The piece, which you should watch immediately, is beautifully illustrated with paper-doll cut-outs by Jen Corace and clever animation by Joe Posner (notably, a sequence with brightly-wrapped candies raining from the sky). Murthy, writing today on the Knight Foundation blog, says she was drawn to “Onesie” because it resonated with with her personally:

“By the time I found The Longest Shortest Time, I was expecting my first child. I had been dodging most of the annoying mommy media out there, full of whitewashed, rigid, and oversimplified characterizations of what’s an incredibly complex experience. LST felt like an antidote.” She adds this: “My baby Asha is 6 months old now, and when she protests while I dress her I immediately think of Violet. My next thought is that Violet’s story has fanned my new-parent paranoia, yet I still feel the need to comfort myself by thinking that if, in the unlikely event that it is a sensory disorder, thanks to the power of storytelling I’d recognize it and know what to do.”

From “The Emperor’s New Onesie” by Hillary Frank

The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation defines the condition as one in which “sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses.” A 2009 study by the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group suggests that “1 in every 6 children experiences sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions.”

Readers, are any of you dealing with this? What works? What doesn’t? Please let us know.

Moms On The Edge: The Fine Line Between Overwhelmed Caregiving And Criminal Acts

Kristen LaBrie, the depressed, single mother found guilty of attempted murder after failing to give her nonverbal, autistic son his cancer medications, will be sentenced tomorrow. What a sad, tragic case — not only for the poor, terribly ill boy who died at age 9, but also for the sorry state of so many mothers, who feel completely overwhelmed, trapped and unable to give and give and give some more to their children.

If you think this is an isolated case, think again.

On Tuesday, 25-year-old Lashanda Armstrong drove a minivan with three of her four children — Landen Pierre, 5; Lance Pierre, 2; and Lainaina Pierre, 11 months — into the Hudson river, killing them all. Her oldest son, La’Shaun, 10, escaped, according to a report in today’s New York Times.

The story doesn’t detail Lashanda’s state of mind, except to quote a neighbor saying she’d been looking for a job but was having trouble finding childcare so she could work. And that she’d just had a bad fight with her children’s father (who worked in a fast-food joint and didn’t live with them) about his infidelity, and told a relative she was going to “do something crazy.” One can certainly envision the perfect storm of factors contributing to the craziness: four children, three under five, relationship stress, unemployment, minimal income.

I can’t help thinking about these women, and understanding, on some level, that while killing your kids is obviously unacceptable and abhorrent, something’s got to give. And I know I’m not alone.

In 2001, after Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub, the author Anna Quindlen was moved to write a piece in Newsweek called: Playing God On No Sleep.

It begins like this:

So a woman walks into a pediatrician’s office. She’s tired, she’s hot and she’s been up all night throwing sheets into the washer because the smaller of her two boys has projectile vomiting so severe it looks like a special effect from “The Exorcist.” Oh, and she’s nauseated, too, because since she already has two kids under the age of 5 it made perfect sense to have another, and she’s four months pregnant. In the doctor’s waiting room, which sounds like a cross between an orchestra tuning loudly and a 747 taking off, there is a cross-stitched sampler on the wall. It says GOD COULD NOT BE EVERYWHERE SO HE MADE MOTHERS.

THIS IS NOT A JOKE, and that is not the punch line. Or maybe it is. The woman was me, the sampler real, and the sentiments it evoked were unforgettable: incredulity, disgust and that out-of-body feeling that is the corollary of sleep deprivation and adrenaline rush, with a soupcon of shoulder barf thrown in. I kept reliving this moment, and others like it, as I read with horrified fascination the story of Andrea Yates, a onetime nurse suffering from postpartum depression who apparently spent a recent morning drowning her five children in the bathtub. There is a part of my mind that imagines the baby, her starfish hands pink beneath the water, or the biggest boy fighting back, all wiry arms and legs, and then veers sharply away, aghast, appalled.

But there’s another part of my mind, the part that remembers the end of a day in which the milk spilled phone rang one cried another hit a fever rose the medicine gone the car sputtered another cried the cable out “Sesame Street” gone all cried stomach upset full diaper no more diapers Mommy I want water Mommy my throat hurts Mommy I don’t feel good. Continue reading

Why Don’t New Moms Nurture Themselves?

Study: Young moms have higher BMI's and consume more sugar-laden drinks than their counterparts without children

A study in the journal Pediatrics this week found that new mothers exercise less and consume more sugary drinks and high-fat foods compared to their childless counterparts. Essentially, they don’t take great care of themselves while taking great care of their kids. Which begs the question: We needed a study for this?

On Radio Boston today, a sleep-deprived Meghna Chakrabarti (who has a 7-month-old daughter) and I chat about why new mothers don’t practice self-care very well, and what the long-term impact of this might be on families (not good)!

Moms — chime in here. Are you grabbing a quick soda for energy during the day when water might be a better option? Do you settle for your kids’ leftover mac & cheese, instead of preparing a nice organic chicken salad for supper? When do you squeeze in time to exercise with a kid under one?

Will anyone with effective tips on better self-nurturing for new moms please speak up?

It’s Official: Working Moms Do Far More Wake-Up Duty Than Dads

Sometimes I get peeved when I see my tax money funding federal research that tells us things we already know. But once in a while, it gives me great gratification to see the imprimatur of official science stamped onto a well-known phenomenon. Such as, for example, that even when mothers work outside the home, they tend to be the ones who get up when the baby cries or the toddler demands comfort in the middle of the night. And that therefore, they tend to get extra-exhausted just as life is asking the most of them.

Here’s the report from the University of Michigan, on a federally funded study soon to appear in the journal Social Forces:

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Working mothers are two-and-a-half times as likely as working fathers to interrupt their sleep to take care of others.

That is the finding of a University of Michigan study providing the first known nationally representative data documenting substantial gender differences in getting up at night, mainly with babies and small children.

And women are not only more likely to get up at night to care for others, their sleep interruptions last longer—an average of 44 minutes for women, compared to about 30 minutes for men.

“Interrupted sleep is a burden borne disproportionately by women,” said sociologist Sarah Burgard, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). “And this burden may not only affect the health and well-being of women, but also contribute to continuing gender inequality in earnings and career advancement.”

Let me translate: It’s awfully hard to get ahead when you can barely drag yourself through the day. Continue reading