I was rich when I gave birth to both my children. Twice I arrived home from the hospital, infant in tow, welcomed by baby nurses and doulas and full-time nannies.
In case you were not the mommy dilettante that I was, you may not know what some of these people do, exactly.
Baby nurses live with families 24/7, up to three months — or more — after the baby is born. They wake up at night with a crying infant and handle the feeding. They bring him to the mother during the day for her to breastfeed. They change the diapers and wash the baby’s clothes.
Doulas take care of the mother, preparing her meals, massaging her feet, and providing emotional support when post-birth hormones take hairpin turns.
When I had trouble breastfeeding my son, I hired a lactation consultant who made a home visit. A maid cleaned the house. During the day, I strolled blissfully through the neighborhood, my baby nestled inside a sling. When I got home, I’d breastfeed him, rock him in the rocking chair, then hand him to the baby nurse…or the doula…or the nanny (frankly, I can’t remember what on earth the nanny had to do at that point) and crawl back into bed.
I had married into a rich family, so
my in-laws were able to pay for these services, which in hindsight seem laughably over-the-top. I mean, I was not Beyonce, for the Lord’s sake. What was I doing, other than being pampered?
It turns out that I was “Doing the Month,” without even knowing it. Doing the Month is a custom started in Asia 2600 years ago that is still practiced by some traditional Asian women. Asian cultures recognize that the first month following the birth of a baby is a critical period during which a mother needs to regain physical and psychological stamina.
In the first 40 days post-partum, a new mother’s relatives cater to her so she avoids stress. She rests in bed as much as possible. Her relatives bring her meals designed for a lactating mother. They keep the baby in another room, taking the infant to her when it’s time to breastfeed. This process of mothering of the mother supports her so she can get back on her feet, both physically and psychologically.
UCLA OB-GYN Michael Lu believes that this kind of support network “has a lot of impact on [the mother’s] long-term mental health.” So much, in fact, that he credits “doing the month” with warding off post-partum depression.
I did not have post-partum depression (PPD) after the births of my children. I felt immensely fortunate and slightly embarrassed to have enough staff in my house to fill a separate wing.
However, I do remember struggling to right myself against a feeling of being unmoored. A feeling that originated, I believe, from my experience as an adoptee.
Although my birthmother is in my life and visited shortly after both children were born, she hadn’t raised me and wasn’t able to pass on the stories of my babyhood and childhood, the stories that give new mothers an existential context for embarking on their own child-raising journey.
My adoptive mother was the one with the stories, but she had died two years before my first child was born. I do not have many close extended family members, and none near by, so there were no grandmothers or aunts to rally around and regale me with family anecdotes or bequeath me with the bassinet that had been in the family for generations.
I remember rocking my son in the the rocking chair when it hit me: I would not be raising him in the religion in which I had been raised. I had caved into pressure and converted when I married my first husband, and now I realized, really realized, the loss of part of my heritage.
Religion had never seemed important but suddenly it was. And then I started thinking of all the other things I’d lost, or couldn’t legitimately claim: my birthfamily, my adoptive family, a sense of belonging.
Without standing on a secure base of my own, I panicked: what would I have to give to my child?
If I had not had a squadron of surrogate female relatives to make me feel special and cared for, I think I would have had plunged into post-partum depression.
And I would not have had that squadron of surrogate relatives without money.
I don’t mean to generalize and say that PPD never strikes rich mothers. I remember being stunned when Brooke Shields went public with her struggles with PPD. We are close in age and I’d felt vaguely connected to her via friends of friends, growing up. I also was once in a store when she came in to use the bathroom and I was impressed by how utterly gracious and unassuming she was. My sense of Brooke was that she was perpetually upbeat and sunny, her mood thermometer fixed at 75 degrees.
Which is remarkable considering that she comes from a long line of childhood trauma. Her grandmother Theresa was orphaned at age ten and became the surrogate mother for her many siblings, one of whom died at thirteen. From Brooke’s account, her grandmother grew up to be a sad and bitter woman who transferred her grief onto Brooke’s mother Teri, who ran away from home to escape abuse.
From the moment Brooke was born, Teri displaced her own trauma and dashed dreams on to her daughter, and determined to make her a star…which, as we know, is exactly what happened.
Teri also became a florid alcoholic and apparently such a troubled individual that Brooke cut off contact with her for awhile.
Given Brooke Shield’s psychological heritage, it is a good bet that whacked-out hormones were not the only cause of her PPD. Becoming a mother brings the intrapsychic chickens home to roost, along with the baby.
Being affluent may not stave off PPD, although it can buy help that women need. Besides sleep deprivation, past trauma and/or social isolation seem like the greatest triggers of post-partum depression. Remember the horrific case of Andrea Yates, whose post-partum psychosis led her to drown her five children? It’s worth noting that her husband Rusty purposely left her alone with the children in a sadistic plan to bolster her mothering skills.
So, does being rich protect women from post-partum depression? Certainly being able to afford staff who care for your infant and fix you food and enable you to rest helps. But the thing that most staves off PPD, I believe, is being rich in family: psychologically healthy relatives, or friends, who surround you with the awareness that families are safe, relationships endure, and your touchstones are there for you when you need them.