On the one hand, motherhood may seem like one of the most natural things in the world. On the other, it all seems like hard work when the popular benchmarks for motherhood success are ‘yummy mummies’, backyard blitz homes and bouncy, shiny children. While the lived reality of mothering might lie somewhere in between, we rarely hear about what it’s like from women who experience motherhood within the messy middle. In particular, women with antenatal and/or postnatal depression can be doubly silenced by their emotional distress or by fears that their experiences will be written off as ‘lack of maternal instinct’ or failure. If you’re a woman from a migrant or refugee background, an additional form of silencing can come in the form of social and cultural isolation.
Tragically, the three recent cases of Akon Goude, Sofina Nikat and Umal Abdurahaman, mothers who have caused the death of their children, demonstrate that mothering can’t be separated from the complex circumstances of women’s lives. All three women were also immigrants who had experienced hardships beyond those typically associated with the ‘baby blues’: lack of a partner and social support, domestic violence, mental illness, adverse life events, unplanned pregnancies and past pregnancy complications. It should not be surprising that in a recent systematic review, all these socio-cultural factors were found to be most readily associated with antenatal depression and anxiety.
Highlighting the challenges and difficulties these women experienced should and does not excuse their actions. We feel a collective horror in the face of stories like these, not only because the victims are children, but because it challenges our beliefs about what a mother should do and be. However, when it comes to identifying women at risk of both maternal depression and domestic violence, the examples of Akon, Sofina and Umal highlight the importance of considering a women’s maternal context – not just individual pathology – in preventing adverse and fatal outcomes for both women and their children. If we are to improve the experiences of women who mother, then we need to ensure that we look beyond merely biological and clinical explanations, and recognise women’s experiences of mothering intersect with many other factors and contexts in her life experience.
MCWH presented at the Victorian Family and Community Development Committee Public Inquiry into Perinatal Services today. You can read MCWH’s Submission here.