Things You Probably Don't Know About Postpartum Depression: Maternal Investment Theory and The Drive to Abandon

Monday, August 11, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression affects up to one-fifth of women and has a wide range of symptoms, including anxiety, guilt, depression, intrusive thoughts of infant or self harm, numbness, anger or irritability, trouble sleeping and issues with focus. As opposed to being a simple "after birth" phenomenon, PPD may start during pregnancy or emerge up to a year following birth (though it is more commonly reported in the first month postpartum). It can be a nightmare for women whose vision of early parenthood is shattered by distressing symptoms, hopelessness, helplessness and fear.

But, postpartum depression may be a biological necessity. While symptoms of postpartum depression can make anyone feel like they are losing their mind, a growing body of research supports the idea that postpartum depression is a part of a beneficial mechanism as opposed to dysfunction.

I know it doesn't feel normal, not one bit. But it might be.

First a quick overview. 

What Are The Symptoms of Post Partum Depression (PPD)?

  • Trouble bonding or feeling disconnected from your child
  • Extreme sadness, hopelessness or helplessness
  • Loss of (or increased) appetite
  • Anhedonia (or a loss of pleasure in things you used to enjoy)
  • Feeling empty or hollow
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Guilt  
  • Fear or anxiety, which may include panic attacks
  • Racing thoughts which may include fear of hurting your baby or yourself, worry that something is wrong with the baby or you, fear that if anyone knew what you were thinking they would take your baby or arrest you. These can also be related to postpartum OCD which will be discussed in future posts. 
  • Anger or irritation (this may also be related to lactational aggression)
  • Insomnia, or fitful rest
  • Trouble with focus 
  • Other depressive symptoms

Those are pretty distressing symptoms to have. So how could they ever be useful?

Anthropology and the Drive To Invest

Like infant drives to attach to caregivers, mothers come equipped with a drive to invest. In her book Mother Nature, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy notes that every birth for an ancestral woman was a cost-benefit analysis that subconsciously took into account the fitness cost to both the mother and all other children she had1. The brain then used this information to decide whether to invest in (or take care of) a new child, leave them behind or practice infanticide. 

This sounds gruesome, but it's important. Because if an ancestral woman found herself in a highly stressful situation--say alone on the savannah--the risk of caring for the kid might not outweigh the drive to leave them there and seek out a new mate, or provide scarce resources to children she already had. While Hrdy argues that the resource expenditure during pregnancy makes infanticide or abandonment undesirable, caring for a baby unlikely to grow up to reproduce is less ideal still, particularly if it makes your own survival less likely.

What would trigger such a thing now? Obviously most of us are no longer alone on the savannah. And if you are reading this from your solitary savannah wi-fi, you might want to rethink your shit before you attract a lion with all those cat videos. 

But it doesn't take a savannah, or a lion, to trigger the drive to abandon. High levels of stress in the postpartum period--whether from lions or finding yourself alone--may alert innate systems in the brain that the environment is not ideal to raise a child. If the subconscious mind believes that where you happen to be is too stressful to lead to the child's success, our brains come equipped with a mechanism that allows us to walk away from a less than ideal situation: the drive to cease investment.

What the drive to cease investment looks like:

1. Detachment:

Mothers with attachments to their children are unable to embrace abandonment as a possibility, therefore detachment from the child is necessary. This can take the form of:

  • A lack of positive feeling towards the child
  • A hatred of the baby
  • Feeling numb or ambivalent (loss of pleasure)

2. Infanticidal Thoughts or Thoughts of Abandonment: 

These thoughts are critical because eventually, mothers had to actually respond to the drive to abandon with action. There is a reason that the thought of hurting a child is one of the most common among women suffering from postpartum depression. However, even in ancestral times, abandonment or infanticide was a last resort. As long as the thought still bothers you, you're not likely to actually do it.

3. Anxiety and Panic

Anxiety can be useful in the decision-making process, as it drives necessary action. However, if the brain is leaning towards abandonment due to a lack of support, and social constructs prevents this, anxiety may result due to this discrepancy. In other words, a woman driven to abandon but without a socially acceptable choice to do so, may have anxious symptoms. It makes sense that unwanted pregnancy is yet another risk factor for PPD. (Anxiety and panic may also arise from hormonal imbalances which are very common following childbirth.)

4. Depressive Symptoms

Depression is the opposite of new mother protection mechanisms like lactational aggression. According to Hrdy, though the decision to cease investment may have been biologically wise, it would not have been undertaken lightly simply based on the amount of resources needed to complete a pregnancy.  

" want me to eat for two for nine months and then waste all that food by leaving this kid behind? Oh, hell naw."

Depression at a loss, or the expectation of an upcoming loss, is a hardwired and evolutionarily responsible outcome. It tempers emotions and movement which may allow a mother faster recovery in order to attempt another pregnancy. It also allows a mother to function more capably (albeit more slowly) than a mother still in the anxious throes of decision-making. Running back across the savannah for a child alone because an ancestral mother feared the choice may have been wrong would have been unwise. Depressive acceptance makes more sense, and may have increased the likelihood that ancestral mothers would survive even if they were forced to do it childless. 

Investment Drives and PPD

The drive to cease investment looks a lot like postpartum depression complaints, and with good reason. In some women, what we now call postpartum depression might be triggered by underlying mechanisms that evolved for a specific purpose: higher rates of survival for moms when the environment would not sustain both her and a child. 

"Oh dear god, that means we might actually do it! It's an evolutionary imperative!"

Um, no.

Because while that mechanism evolved for a reason, we have stronger drives towards self (and infant) preservation if at all possible. And today, we are able to recognize that it is possible, even when our older brain systems are freaking out. Today we rarely have to pick one child over another or our survival over that of a baby. This is supported by the fact that women with postpartum depression rarely harm their children. It isn't until a lack of judgment or delusional system like those present in postpartum psychosis enter the picture that the risks for infant harm increase, though even then the odds are low. (Please read more in the post: Postpartum Depression is NOT Postpartum Psychosis: What Women Need To Understand About Infant Harm, because this is a completely different condition.) 

So in those who are not experiencing psychosis, and are logically able to see that they can care for their children, what would cause this drive to abandon to be triggered? And why is it so hard to escape from? 

Today's women don't want to abandon their children. They may instead be victims of a lifestyle that does not support mothers in the  way their brain expects. Some of these mechanisms and environmental contributors--such as isolation and lack of social support--will be discussed at length in the next post: Things You Probably Don't Know About Postpartum Depression: Spousal Support and the Benefit of Sister Wives. Yes, we're going there. 

By understanding what triggers these unconscious mechanisms, we may be more able to do something about it and reduce the stigma for those who suffer. Because no one should feel that they have to tackle postpartum depression alone. 



Topic-Relevant Resources

Mother Nature
Women, sex, competition, cooperative breeding and monkey heirarchies.

The Postpartum Husband: Practical Solutions for living with Postpartum Depression
A concise, practical guide full of useful information for the loved ones of those suffering with PPD

This Isn't What I Expected [2nd edition]: Overcoming Postpartum Depression
A great guide on combatting postpartum depression. You're not alone.

The Mother-to-Mother Postpartum Depression Support Book
A book on postpartum depression written by mothers, for mothers.

Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience
Beautiful insight into the postpartum experience, this book uses personal essays to explore postpartum depression.