lived experiences, Mothering, Publications, therapy

The Unspeakables: On mothers (not)talking about depression

In my previous post I opened the topic of the “perfect pregnancy” myth with the concept of Unspeakability, a favorite of mine and for many reasons.

Here, I will delve further into it sharing my thoughts around a paper I recently published in the Journal of Feminism & Psychology.

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

Although mothers tend to be particularly vocal about their experiences on and off-line, there are certainly topics that remain under strict embargo. A taboo, fueled, obfuscated and reproduced by its own weird (but understandable) premises –  the topic of depression. Actually any negative experiences, that sit either on the margin of the “perfect mother” or outside of such ideal are a no-go for mothers, pregnant and postnatal women. Depression, anxiety, psychosis, mental illness, ambivalence, anger, resentment, regret – all of these are firmly planted outside the realm of “Speakability”.

It is easy to argue that the juxtaposition of binary labels such as ‘bad’ vs ‘good’ mother plays a key role in women’s meaning making around their experiences. The precarious nature of the good mother, or The good mother is a happy mother social norm, has been identified by feminist research as particularly oppressive. It plays along the happiness duty (see Sara Ahmet’s work) around the cultural expectations to be always happy.

As a result, social spaces (and I argue inner spaces too, i.e. the internal voices in which we talk to ourselves) become inundated with happiness jargon and glee paraphernalia that appropriates all mothering speech. Motherhood becomes an equivalent of Happiness, and vice versa.

If we go with such premises, it’s only natural that all other experiences, different to the happy glow, are immediately allocated to the opposite team. That othered and antagonistic emotion is automatically classified under badHence, a bad mother is a label that women automatically identify with when they cannot recognize their experiences within the pool of available cultural tags.

When I got to interview women, who experienced various levels of depression and anxiety during their pregnancy, I was initially struck by the emotional incongruence that I personally was feeling. The words just didn’t match the energy, the tone of voice, the long pauses, the bitten lips, the evasive and uncomfortable eyes. Women were reaching out with silent gestures to be heard, in between the words, during those gaps. And my role was to make sense of the narrative debris after each conversation. I realized this after some interviews and took this knowledge into the remaining ones. It did make a difference. It reduced the intensity of the rhetorical strategising that women were engaging with, it allowed for wider and stretched spaces, new labels, new opportunities to speak up.

And this is what I believe is the most valuable aspect of allowing women to speak UP and to speak OUT. Making sense of one’s negative experiences without the gaze of social judgment, without the bad mother labels is ‘like a balm to my soul’, as one woman described it.

In the paper I have explored a couple of rhetorical devices that women used to explain their distress that allow for the good mother co-existence. This brings me to my main point about disrupting binary and antagonistic labels and creating much more useful and meaningful ones when it comes to describing such complex phenomena as mothering.

We, mothers, contain multitudes. We are all of it: bad and perfect, fabulous and distressed, happy and resentful, blissful and regretful, we are good mothers and we are depressed and anxious, and more…so much more.

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