Divided Opinion: Postnatal Depression


EDIT: I mixed up the wording – I had put “neonatal” instead of postnatal depression. This has now been corrected, so thank you to the friend who pointed it out to me.

I don’t often do so, but here I feel it prudent preface this piece by acknowledging the fact I am a male, and in this case also childless – hence I would defer any and all serious discussion on this topic to females, particularly mothers, and especially those who have experienced postnatal depression. I observed a conversation a few of my friend’s family members (all female) had, which was quite tense, relating to a family friend who took custody of a child due to the mother having had postnatal depression. I’ll leave out most of the details and stick to the relevant ones for this piece – spoiler alert, the man was entirely in the wrong here.

Many of the institutions that we have are inherently patriarchal, regardless of how individuals or even societies more generally have come to improve the lot of women. To deny that fact is to be blind to how our society was initially built and run, to cling to a system that has well passed its time of usefulness (if it had one at all), and to (knowingly or unwittingly) subject the oppressed demographic to further injustice, even if by “law” people are “equal”. I put the quotations there because in the scenario I overheard, the courtroom is where (what I believe to be) a major injustice occurred.

I am hazy on the details, but essentially a woman and her partner had split, with the man almost immediately having found someone else. The woman had a child (from what I could gather, it was not with this man, whom she had her first child with, but that’s not entirely relevant), but he now has custody of both children while the mother has been left abandoned by the courts. She had postnatal depression after giving birth to this second child, and the ex-partner told her she had three months to basically “get over it” or he would fight for full custody – sickening if it was his child, wretched if it wasn’t; again, that fact, in my opinion, is pretty irrelevant.

I am not an expert on postnatal depression, but having been surrounded by people with mental illness for almost my whole life, depression is a fucker that does not give its poor recipients much respite, and time is not always a factor in “getting better”. It simmers, it surges, and even good bouts can drastically turn into suicidal episodes if something triggers it. Not every person has such extremes, but the idea that depression is something that just dissipates with time can only be believed by someone who has not had first-hand experience, either with it or with those who have had it.

In this case, the woman had only had postnatal depression for three months, and in that time had been living with her mother (the maternal grandmother of the child in question) and getting support. Three months, even with a good system in place, is not always going to be enough time to recover, but that’s all the time she had, apparently. The ex-partner was able to win custody of the child, so now he has a new partner, both children, and seemingly a clear conscience in his mind, whilst the mother has had her children removed and, I can only imagine, a deteriorating mental state given the ex-partner’s actions and the court’s decision.

This is wrong. It is also where my friend’s family got heated, because the sister – training, unsurprisingly, to be a corporate lawyer – immediately said it was entirely fair. The mother had depression, it wasn’t a good environment for the child that needed support, the mother can’t provide well enough for it. My friend’s mother, on the other hand, who dealt with a similar situation with her third child (a custody battle over mental health) called it, justifiably, a “dick move” by the ex-partner. My friend, studying midwifery, agreed wholeheartedly.

The child’s mother was receiving support to improve herself and had a network – including the maternal grandmother – to help care for the child. Unless the child was being neglected or abused – which it absolutely wasn’t – I see no grounds whatsoever to have them torn from their mother due to her mental health. The mother was not incapable of raising the child, and the environment was safe and loving. This was purely the ex-partner, in my view, lashing out for whatever reason, crushing the mother even further while she is vulnerable – with the help of our courts.

My friend’s sister, the rather cold, empathy-lacking lawyer-in-training (if you happen to read this, nothing against you personally, but your amiability is pretty non-existent) took the man’s side, agreeing with the arguments used to remove the child from their mother. I would tentatively suggest that as a young woman who has not had children, has an extremely limited, oft times ignorant, knowledge of mental health, and has been learning in an environment based around inherently patriarchal systems, that she is a case of women “making it” in a “man’s world” and calling it “equality”. I do not begrudge her achievements – in fact, she is a sharply intelligent student, from what I have seen – but believe her views have been shaped purely on “logic” and “law”, with no quarter given to empathy or the woman struggling.

Data from 2010 has shown “1 in 5 mothers of children aged 24 months or less had been diagnosed with depression,” equalling “an estimated 111,000 mothers being diagnosed.” A decade later, I have no reason to believe this statistic has gone down; in fact, I would not be surprised if it had increased, although that cannot be proven. I have enjoyed hearing my friend talk about her midwifery content at university – it gives a lot more perspective on how pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood can affect women.

With that statistic in mind, and recalling that depression is not necessarily a “short-term” issue, any system that can remove a child from their mother after three months on the basis of her having depression is barbaric. Where is the justice in that? What are you trying to achieve? If for any other reason we were to remove the children of 1 in 5 mothers (specifically, single mothers), would that be acceptable? How is this any different to the wretched practice of removing Indigenous children from their families – an act “justified” by saying it was best for the children.

I kept my mouth shut during the tense conversation, leaving to the mother who handled similar circumstances and the woman studying midwifery to refute the lawyer. I didn’t wish to embroil myself in familial drama, and while I am voicing my opinion now, at the time theirs’ was more important. I don’t think the sister was convinced, and the topic was changed swiftly.

One doesn’t need to be an expert on mental health, childbirth and motherhood, and the court system to look at this scenario and call it out for being blatantly wrong. All systems, being patriarchal by nature, need an overhaul, as Jessa Crispin loudly proclaims in her book Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. This is but one situation I happened to hear about – I can only imagine the untold stories out there, and I sincerely (but perhaps ignorantly) hope it is not too common. 1 in 5 is no small number when it comes to depression – we could all use a bit of understanding and empathy when handling these delicate topics.


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