Date of Award

5-5-2012

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Sociology

First Advisor

Wendy Simonds, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Phillip Davis, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Ralph LaRossa, Ph.D.

Abstract

Postpartum Depression: Standardizing Motherhood?

by

Pamela J. Regus

Under the Direction of Wendy S. Simonds

ABSTRACT

An expansion of the medicalization of Postpartum Depression (PPD) is evident in increased screening for maternal depression that begins in pregnancy and continues in the postpartum period, and in the growing number of medical professionals alerted to watch for signs of maternal distress. Although a definitive etiology ofPPDremains elusive, the scientific and medical fields – highly imbued with authority to create knowledge in Western society – promote essentialist views of motherhood that espouse “natural” attributes such as maternal instincts and tendencies to nurture. Mothers who struggle with these standards of motherhood are then defined as being ill and become patients under the care of the medical profession until they can perform adequately in their motherhood roles, or they face social condemnation and legal repercussions for being “bad” mothers. Because characteristics of the “normal” postpartum period are said to be similar to symptoms of general depression, how do some women come to identify their postpartum experiences as depression while others do not? Does the choice of traditional obstetrics or an alternative, such as midwifery, make a difference in the incidence of postpartum depression? And what changes in the social support network occur in a woman’s life as a result of a diagnosis ofPPD? Using Foucault’s theory of docility, critical constructionism, and postmodern feminism as the theoretical focus, and in-depth interviews as the research method, I compare the postpartum experiences of mothers who have been diagnosed with postpartum depression with mothers who have not been diagnosed. The sample includes mothers who gave birth with the assistance of obstetrics and mothers who gave birth with the assistance of certified nurse-midwives. In order to examine the differences in approaches to and treatment of postpartum depression, I also interview a sample of obstetricians and certified nurse-midwives. Findings show that medical professionals use gender-normative assessments, such as physical appearance, language, and nurturing tendencies to determine whether the mother is performing as expected; if not, she is defined as ill and treated with antidepressant medication. Although the majority of mothers in the sample experienced feelings of depression in the postpartum period, many resisted diagnosis and medication. Mothers found the greatest support in their peers, rather than those closest to them, citing the ability to talk candidly about the struggles they face in their motherhood roles as the way to avert or heal from PPD. This finding highlights the enforcement of normative motherhood within the social institutions of the family and medicine; thus, cultural change from ideological representations of motherhood may come about through peer relationships.

INDEX WORDS: Postpartum depression, Motherhood, Medicalization, Expansion of medical control, Maternal behavior, Childbearing years, Normative motherhood

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