Post-partum depression, 40 days, and The Yellow Wallpaper

I was talking with students in clinical yesterday about post-partum depression.  One student shared the experience of talking with a Hmong woman about the tradition of remaining in-house for 40 days after the birth.  For this woman this was incredibly difficult and sank her into depression.

It brought to me the memory of an essay I had read about 13 years ago called The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Like I shared with my students, it was written in the late 1800’s by a woman who was suffering from post-partum depression and was prescribed to shut herself in the house and not read or write.  This drove her deeper into her depression, and it was only writing (which she had to do secretly) that brought her out of it.

Unfortunately I mischaracterized it to my students somewhat, as I remember it as a sort of journal of this woman’s actual thoughts and fears.  As I read about it again, I realize it was not a journal.  It was in fact a fictional piece, written by a fiction author, at the time of her true depression because of the “treatment” she was prescribed.

Gilman describes her reasons for writing the essay in this follow up Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper and readily states that she did not have hallucinations as the woman in her story did.  The blog to which I’ve linked to above calls it “Fiction with a purpose” (though you will see it described as non-fiction in some places on the Internet).  There is no doubt that this “Fiction with a purpose” has had an impact on how the treatment of post-partum depression is viewed.

The 40 day (6 weeks) time frame has significance in many cultures, not just Hmong.  It can be an amazing time of support.  Communities are supposed to shower the new family with support (food, help around the house, caring for older children) so that the mom and baby can recover and bond.  You might hear it called a “babymoon”, or in old American terms “confinement” (as in ‘estimated date of confinement’).

What I find interesting is the definitive difference in connotation between these two words.  Babymoon, like honeymoon, has the feel of a wonderful time of adjustment and bonding.  Confinement, of course, sounds dreadful.  Many women these days are advocating for babymooning, though what that truly means varies (Google babymoon).  Ultimately I think its a desire to that ‘back-to-basics’ true community feel which provides otherwise busy women the opportunity to rest and be supported by a circle of friends and community.

Other women, like the Hmong women initially described above and reflected in the word “confinement”, find the tradition a burden causing more mental distress than support.  I would have to echo this in my own experience as a first time mom.  The first day I felt human again was when my son was 8 days old and we went to the Festival of Nations (see photo below).  Many there were shocked to find out how young he was and to see me walking around, but for me, getting out was what I needed to do.

I guess my point is that there is no one best way for women to recover after the birth of their baby.  What is important is for each woman to be allowed to find her own way.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman showed us that she knew what she needed:

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?

Let’s always remember to listen to people.

Please share your stories of post-partum traditions, depression, or your thoughts or insights on The Yellow Wallpaper.

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One Response to Post-partum depression, 40 days, and The Yellow Wallpaper

  1. Julie says:

    Hi Carrie. It’s great you started a blog on post-partum depression. I wish I had had this information 20 years ago when I had my children. I was not aware and suffered in silence just trying to get through those first few months. Its great to just talk about it and let people know it is normal and something to be aware of…something that can be treated! I know when my children have children I will be prepared with information on this particular subject.

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