by Madeline Lane-McKinley and Marija Cetinic
for Chris Chitty
- “Postpartum depression” describes an embodied experience of labour.
Postpartum depression takes place in the body. Postpartum is a biological condition for which the scientific or psychological explanation is nevertheless insufficient. Postpartum cannot be anticipated, it cannot be prevented—it is often apprehended at a moment of crisis. The experience of postpartum can be traced hormonally and neurologically, while being immeasurable as a physiology or a psychology. The experience of postpartum consists of psychic and embodied contradictions—of sudden vacillations and bizarre simultaneities of joy and misery, fulfillment and panic, engagement and withdrawal. It is an experience of profound confusion, indivisible affects, and estrangement.
Postpartum depression naturalizes the mother’s body as a site of labour. As a result of this naturalization, the mother’s relation to the infant is mediated by the social conditions of labour. The fact of the child becomes paradoxically both irrelevant to the experience and unavoidably central to it—in the sense that Marx describes “the object which labor produces—labor’s product—confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer,” such that “the product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor.” This logic forms an epistemological limit between mother and child.
- Postpartum depression demands a discourse of symptoms, rather than a narrative of causation.
The mother is a labourer. As labourer, the mother doesn’t have “permission to feel low or depressed [just] because they are exhausted and disillusioned with the conditions of motherhood”; as Paula Nicolson explains, “they are expected to suffer from a recognised ‘illness’ before they are permitted to have their behaviour ‘excused.’” Postpartum depression is thus a socially necessary “illness,” which serves to further naturalize the mother’s social status through a discourse of symptoms.
The symptoms of postpartum depression include “agitation or irritability,” feeling “withdrawn or unconnected,” experiencing a “loss of concentration [and] energy,” “problems doing tasks at home or work,” or “trouble sleeping.” Such diagnostics contribute to the disembodying experience of postpartum. Postpartum is a set of symptoms that refuse causation. In each instance, postpartum appears individuated and circumstantial—rather than structured by the experience of childbirth. In this sense, postpartum is conceived as a problem with a solution: something personally surmountable, to be managed and controlled by habits and “self-care.” To fail at finding a solution for postpartum becomes a reflection of personal shortcomings, instead of social conditions.
- Postpartum depression is structural to breastfeeding.
While offering a highly variable set of symptoms as a diagnostic basis for postpartum depression, the medical health profession imposes a unilateral set of cultural expectations around the practice of breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends “that babies be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months of life,” meaning “no additional foods [or] fluids unless medically indicated.” Along with this recommendation, the AAP specifies that newborns should feed “as often as every 1.5 hours,” between eight to twelve times a day, adding that “if your baby isn’t waking on his own during the first few weeks, wake him if 3-4 hours have passed since the last feeding.”
Facing such expectations of waking as frequently as 1.5 hours, expending 300-500 extra calories a day, the breastfeeder takes on the set of symptoms associated with postpartum depression as part of their continual labour. The labour of breastfeeding can only be an experience of failure in relation to these expectations—to “succeed” is to endure this disembodiment in secret. To meet these expectations requires a particular class status, which allows for breastfeeding to be engaged as a form of labour in the first place.
The end of breastfeeding does not resolve the contradictions inherent in nursing as a form of labour. Weaning the child is neither discrete—even if it is abrupt—nor an isolated act. Regardless of whether the process is sudden or gradual, it remains a process. Weaning is an experience of withdrawing from one form of labour and material attachment, and developing new rhythms and patterns for the labour of feeding, of consoling, of sleep, and of intimacy.
Like breastfeeding, the possibility of and time committed to weaning are contingent on class status. The result is that the process of weaning unfolds as relation between the weaning woman and her child and as a class differentiation among women. While a handful of women exempt themselves from the labour force while breastfeeding, the vast majority of mothers simultaneously labour for a wage and for the daily reproduction of her child’s needs. Woman remains a coherently gendered form of labour, but the class character of gender is further divided.
As it marks a cessation of an activity, weaning is seen as unremarkable, barely registering in the discourse of postpartum. The silence surrounding weaning isolates the mother with what is often an experience of sadness, loss, and ambivalence toward the child. Weaning is a deepening of the mother’s disembodiment rather than the culmination of her endurance of it.
- “Postpartum depression” describes the social conditions of motherhood under late capitalism.
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) provides a set of warning signs for postpartum depression, including “feeling sad, worthless, hopeless, guilty, or anxious a lot of the time; feeling irritable or angry; losing interest in things; withdrawing from others; [finding] it hard to focus on tasks and remember information; [finding] it hard to concentrate, learn new things, or make decisions; a change in eating and sleeping; physical health problems; not enjoying the baby and having frequent thoughts that they’re a bad parent; having scary thoughts around harming themselves or their baby.” In pathologizing these “warning signs,” postpartum is rendered internal to the mother, severed from external conditions which naturalize motherhood as a “labour of love.” Whereas the mother’s disembodiment remains natural, the mother’s ambivalence toward patriarchy under capitalism is conceived as pathological. Providing an explanation for this ambivalence, the diagnostic of postpartum depression works as a mechanism of disempowerment.
Moving away from a discourse that pathologizes postpartum depression, the CMHA’s description could be pursued as a broader diagnostic of motherhood as a social condition. What is most dangerous about the diagnostic of postpartum depression is the psychologization of social struggle—the isolation of the individual from a collective experience. The dominant culture around postpartum depression moralizes a political problem, approaching what should be a site of shared critique and resistance as a form of competitive self-discipline.
Although the diagnosis of postpartum can feel liberating—providing a relief from self-blame in the form of a psychological disorder—it also imposes a set of challenges to the mother’s self-discipline. In terms of treatment for postpartum depression, the AAP suggests exercise and the help of a licensed mental health provider, and they advise mothers to “try not to worry about unimportant tasks—be realistic about what you can really do,” to “cut down on less important responsibilities,” and to “get as much sleep or rest as you can even if you have to ask for more help with the baby.” Successful treatment is a measurement of class but is coded as a matter of personal responsibility. The advice for self-management directly contradicts the instructions for the devoted breastfeeder; women are at once told to be “perfect” labourers, endlessly breastfeeding, but are also instructed to take care of themselves, to relax from the work of mothering. The solution for one set of “problems” produces a new failure to overcome. The regimen of self-care is nothing but an instrument of self-blame.
The disciplining of the postpartum experience reduces conditions of labour to a matter of individual habit and lifestyle. This disciplining must be understood as masculinizing the conditions of feminization. While describing the feminized, unwaged, immaterialized forms of labour integral to “motherhood,” the cultural discourse of postpartum depression compels the masculinist, competitive, individuating forms of sociality structural to capitalism.
- As a social and medicalized construct, postpartum depression pathologizes precarity and moralizes privilege.
As a pathology, postpartum depression localizes a set of “symptoms” that correspond with social marginalization and economic disparity. The CMHA sets apart “social inequalities like poor housing or inadequate income” and “isolation” as factors that put one at higher risk of postpartum. Postpartum depression renders the labourer’s class and social status an illness. The pathological category of postpartum depression naturalizes the family, such that the labourer’s experience of “family problems” is psychologized and institutionally managed as a diagnostic. The sickness is in the family structure itself.
The retrospective narrativization of postpartum depression on public internet forums, blogs, or self-help books is a privilege of class. While offering a forum for advice and the articulation of common experience, such sites are not a form of kinship. The narrative of postpartum produced and proliferated on blogs is an instrumentalization of it.
The dominant approximation in medical discourse is that “up to 10% of new mothers living in cities in economically developed countries like Canada experience clinically significant postpartum depression. The rate in the rural US and in developing countries is two to three times higher.” In the United States, more than one in seven women do not have access to the health care industry and remain illegible to this discourse. A public health care system, such as that in Canada, does not eliminate the class character of medicine.
- The social condition of postpartum is a feature of the historical processes of precarization and feminization.
As a discourse of symptoms, postpartum depression reproduces the dominant affects of recent capitalist development. The Institute for Precarious Consciousness (IPC) makes a compelling case for anxiety as the reactive affect of contemporary capitalism: “Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread [to] the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.” Postpartum depression localizes this affective condition, with the doubleness of what IPC calls a “public secret,” where the system’s violence is individualized such that the subject is made responsible for structural conditions.
Postpartum depression—as an articulation of the social conditions of motherhood—has become generalized with the feminization of labour. This shift can be understood as the diffusion of the woman’s working day, as Silvia Federici and Nicole Cox describe:
For as soon as we raise our heads from the socks we mend and the meals we cook and look at the totality of our working day, we see clearly that while this does not result in a wage for ourselves, we produce the most precious product to appear on the capitalist market: labour power. Housework, in fact, is much more than house cleaning. It is servicing the wage earner physically, emotionally, sexually, getting him ready to work day after day for the wage. It is taking care of our children—the future workers—assisting them from birth through school years and ensuring that they too perform in the ways expected of them under capitalism. This means that behind every factory and every school, behind every office or mine is the hidden work of millions of women who have consumed their life, their labour power, in producing the labour power that works in that factory, school, office or mine.
With the dissolution of the family wage, and the incorporation of women into the workforce, the working day under contemporary capitalism has come to reflect this perpetuity and repetition of housework. Rather than forge feminist solidarity, however, the generalization of feminized labour has only intensified the precarity of motherhood today. The stakes of postpartum depression are most acute once the feminization of labour strips it of its specificity and thus depoliticizing the experience of motherhood, as it is now the outcome of an economic relation as much as it is an embodied experience.
- The intensified precarity of motherhood demands forms of radical kinship.
“Radical kinship” requires strategies of disalienation. Radical kinship does not pose an alternative to the family, but aims to expand and modify the terms of the familial form away from a dynamic of property to a relation of communality. Radical kinship is an immanent critique of the family: it negates property relations through the cooptation of marriage. While the property relation of the family is ideologically legitimated by the state through marriage, this relation can be undermined and reimagined as a form of mutual aid and comradeship.
The practice of radical kinship begins with the expansion of parental responsibilities, the un-imagining of the child as property, and the de-naturalizing of the mother as labourer. In radical kinship, the child experiences love and support from a community that undermines the property relations of the family. In collectivizing this project of loving a child, practices of radical kinship attempt to work out of models of “self-sacrifice” and improvise strategies for communal-care. Increasingly, the practice of kinship can be premised upon love more than labour—in degrees and indirectly, we make contact with a different set of social possibilities. As a practice, this kinship must always insist on more, while meeting the immediate needs of children and their caretakers, and renegotiating the divisions between them.
The project of radical kinship negotiates between different feminized temporalities. On the one hand, radical kinship demands an orientation toward the slow, ongoing temporality of carework—a form of work that captures the past, as generations of labourers. To practice radical kinship means to adopt the repetitions and longevity of reproductive labour. This is an orientation towards time that moves between minutes and generations. Radical kinship takes already existing frameworks of solidarity and communality and seeks to broaden them. This is to inhabit the slow-paced temporality of carework while reaching toward a future of transformed social relations exceeding an individual lifetime.
On the other hand, radical kinship must be pursued with a sense of urgency. The labour of mothering demands a revolutionary practice grounded in the present, as a site of potentiality and futurity. The child’s imagination demands this sense of urgency, as it becomes steadily colonized by the logics of capitalism through experience. The labour of mothering entails mediating this process, while seeking a radical practice that directs the child toward lines of flight and modes of escape. While constrained by the repetitious temporality of carework, the mother also has access to this temporality that insists on futurity through the imagination of radical difference and transformation.
- The distinction between mothers and non-mothers must be radically challenged.
What would it look like to collectivize around postpartum as a social condition? This would require a radical disengagement from current discourses of mothering, which use motherhood as a vehicle of liberal feminism. Instead, this would require reframing postpartum as part of a feminist struggle which includes the full extent of our embodied experiences of trauma under capitalism.
- On postpartum and abortion
To say that abortion is about a fetus and not a child—about “some cells” and not “a life”—has been an important rhetorical instrument to radical feminists in the struggles of the last several decades. However, this distinction reproduces a violence upon the pregnant person who chooses an abortion, who lives through something that, to a great extent, must remain silenced and invisible beyond the experience of the body. It is this silence that is most oppressive, in its control over social spaces and the social relations therein.
The discourse of postpartum fails to make legible the loss of abortion as a concordant loss. These connections exist as arrays of disconnection. Nowhere are these connections between women made visible, or felt as solidarity. We are surrounded by connections that together form the latent possibility of a different social life.
The difference between postpartum and abortion should be destabilized by the diachrony of these experiences. These are not antithetical experiences, nor are they continuous—rather, these are thresholds of transforming radical feminist sociality. At stake is not “choice” but the necessary de-isolation of the woman who chooses. At stake is her location within the commonality.
- On children
The child constitutes the distinction between mothers and non-mothers, and as such the child must be central to the process of forging new kinds of relationships among radical feminists. Too often the child is set aside in radical feminist articulations of motherhood. “Problematically,” as bell hooks writes, “for the most part feminist thinkers have never wanted to call attention to the reality that women are often the primary culprits in everyday violence against children simply because they are the primary parental caregivers.” As a feminist practice, radical kinship must resist male domination of females, but also, as bell hooks contends, “adult domination of children.” To pursue such a practice means to un-work the logic of mother and child: to care for the mother and make visible the mother’s struggles means to care for the child and make possible the child’s liberation from the social conditions of domination. This entails challenging “sacrifice” as the logic of maternal care—a logic which compels the kind of domination always already operative in the labour of caregiving.
- On the abolition of gender
To radically transform the distinction between mothers and non-mothers and between mothers and children is to attempt to think and imagine the abolition of gender in the present. To insist on a solidarity which triumphs over the patriarchal relations of capitalism is to pursue what Shulamith Firestone calls the “ultimate revolution,” of “[freeing] women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available, and [diffusing] the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole.” Such transformation must subvert the gendering of maternal care, but also the gendering of children. With the diffusion of childbearing and childrearing, the child is not abandoned with the logic of maternal care but instead experiences a fuller form of love—an actually existing communism of which we catch glimpses in the child’s imagination. To have a child in one’s life is to inspire and materialize such imaginings as a practice.
Madeline Lane-McKinley is a writer living in Santa Cruz, California.
Marija Cetinic is a writer and academic labourer living in Hamilton, Ontario.
“Breastfeeding Initiatives,” American Academy of Pediatrics.
Silvia Federici and Nicole Cox. “Counter-Planning from the Kitchen.”
Shulamith Firestone. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.
bell hooks. “Feminist Parenting,” Feminism is for Everybody.
Karl Marx. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.
Paula Nicholson. Post-Natal Depression: Psychology, Science, and the Transition to Motherhood.
“Psychology Works Fact Sheet: Post-Partum Depression,” Canadian Psychological Association.
“Postpartum Depression,” American Psychological Association.
“Postpartum Depression,” Canadian Mental Health Association.
“Postpartum Depression,” MedilinePlus.
“We Are All Very Anxious,” Plan C.
“Theses on Postpartum” is from our MOMS issue (spring 2015)