An exhausted young woman tells me that she must be a bad mother. In her mind, good mothers feel joy, not despair. I assure her that she is not to blame; she has been betrayed. Capitalism celebrates mothers in theory and deprives them in practice.
Across the globe, malnutrition and lack of medical care cause more than three million babies to die at birth every year. Every year, more than half a million women die in pregnancy or childbirth, and millions more are crippled.
Poverty and inequality cause most maternal deaths. In 2000, the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 women was 2 in Sweden, 17 in the United States, 330 in Asia, and 920 in Sub-Saharan Africa. If any nation can lower the maternal death rate to 2 per 100,000 women, then that should be the expected standard everywhere.
In the United States, mothers get little or no support. The arrival of a child turns life upside down. Frequent night feedings exhaust parents who are expected to work the next day. Despite talk about “family values,” Americans are not entitled to paid parental leave.
Financial uncertainty adds to physical and emotional stress. Family expenses rise at the same time that the mother’s pay check is reduced or discontinued. How long can a new mom afford to stay off work? Will she lose her job? Will she find another one? Will there be affordable childcare? Americans are not entitled to childcare support.
Lack of social support causes more women to be hospitalized for psychiatric problems around the time of childbirth than at any other time in their lives.
About 85 percent of new mothers experience “baby blues,” the fatigue, sadness and irritability that commonly follow childbirth or adoption. From 10 to 17 percent of new moms suffer clinical depression due to changing hormones, sleep deprivation, social isolation, financial stress, a difficult or traumatic birth, difficulties breast feeding, low social support, financial problems, inadequate housing and relationship problems.
Approximately one in 800 new mothers develops full-blown psychosis. In Texas, Andrea Yates suffered from hallucinations that compelled her to murder her five children. In Toronto, a family doctor jumped in front of a train, killing herself and her infant son.
Society demands that mothers manage without support. When they cannot cope, they are presumed to be inadequate. Postpartum depression and psychosis are under-recognized and under-treated because most women feel too ashamed to seek help.
Every child is a gift to humanity. Yet, lack of social support makes the child-raising years the most stressful for men and women. Parents of both sexes suffer more depression than non-parents.
This is the heartless reality behind celebrations of Mother’s Day. Talk is cheap. Parents and children have a right to real social support. Cards and flowers are not enough.