Things You Probably Don't Know About Postpartum Depression: Spousal Support and the Benefit of Sister Wives

Friday, August 15, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression sucks, but it might be biologically relevant as a mechanism to regulate investment drives, AKA The "Awww he's so cute we should totally keep him until he can have kids of his own" drive. (Read more about it here in PPD, Maternal Investment Theory and the Drive to Abandon).  However, according to evolutionary psychologist Edward Hagan, there might be another reason for postpartum depression symptoms: negotiating greater care from others1

A theory otherwise known as, "Look, you help me do this, or I am not doing it at all, dammit."

But, you know, subconscious. Edward Hagan thinks we’re all as manipulative as our mother-in-laws.

Spousal Support and Postpartum Depression

Hagan may be on to something. According to one study cited by Hagan, postpartum depression creates considerable burdens for other family members, including financial issues and trouble with marital relations, in addition to affecting social activities for all members2. More recent research agrees, one study going so far as to encourage the branding of postpartum depression as a family issue as opposed to a maternal one, based on the disruptions to other members in the household3

“Hey, mom, knock it off! Your severe, debilitating, depression is disrupting my soccer schedule!” 

Clearly PPD affects others in the household just as any mental health issue does, so there may be some merit to the argument. Regardless of how you feel about it, if we’re being honest, relabeling it as a “man issue” will get it more attention from researchers. Just typing that makes me want to give someone a high five. In the face. With a chair.  

Anyway, the symptoms of postpartum depression may have evolved to be severe enough to force others in the immediate vicinity to  assist, not due to sympathetic reasons, but because they wished to reduce their own discomfort.  Kind of a dick move, but this in turn still may have decreased the need to abandon an infant, thus benefiting everyone. 

But the ones who would have been in our immediate vicinity in times past were less likely to be males. Sole reliance on spouses may be more a construct of modern society than biological imperative. 

So if less spousal support isn’t the most influential factor in PPD or the drive to cease investment, what is?  

What Mothers Really Need: Social Support and PPD

While support from a husband has become of critical importance now that we live solitary lives away from other families, men have not always been our go-to for connection or for assurance that our environment was conducive to childbearing. We needed other women. Period. 

Sorry fellas, but our mental health is not all tied up in what you're packing. 

On a related note, I want a sister wife so bad, guys. I mean, help with the kids, a built in someone-to-drink-wine-with and the potential to reduce PPD? What more could one want?  

Sister wives aside, mothers on the savannah had a number of criterion for fitness. Food and water scarcity may have been one such trigger to infanticide or abandonment. Lack of reliable paternal support may have been another. 

But according to anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, female social support may have outweighed these factors4. Though scarcity would have made things more difficult, humans could (and can) survive on low food rations. Mothers could also do without fathers, provided there was someone else available to assist her. 

In her book, Mothers and Others, Hrdy claims that social support structures, specifically women helping women, would have been the most reliable method of attaining infant and maternal fitness4. In her description of hunter-gatherer societies, Hrdy indicates that cooperative breeding patterns, which included communal child care-taking behaviors among tribal women, would have been the most effective way to stay alive. This may also have triggered the evolution of the "Tend and Befriend Response” to panic

This theory is backed by mountains of contemporary research on PPD, which generally indicate strong associations between lack of overall support (not specifically spousal) and increases in PPD symptoms. 

Okay, so we really, really need good support from those around us. Got it. But what else causes stress? 

What New Mothers Do Not Need

Extra stress during the childbirth process or during the postpartum period are both associated with postpartum depression, and with good reason. Abandonment drives can be triggered if the mother perceives too much danger in the environment, regardless of whether this stress is related to a lack of support, a lack of control or financial issues. Therefore, a childbirth system that hinges on birth being a scary and dangerous process may not be the most ideal situation for maternal mental health. And the additional financial burden doesn't fucking help either.


The higher rates of PPD among those with traumatic births speaks to this issue. The loss of control inherent in many of these situations are also conditions ripe for psychological upheaval. Positions where mothers are made to feel helpless, hopeless or otherwise less empowered can trigger a cascade of hormones on its own, independent of internal drives or childbirth, all of which lend themselves to depression and anxiety.

Our current system of caring for new mothers is lacking in major ways.  American societal norms seem to be that, following birth and a hospital stay, women are expected to return to their independent homes and care for their infants while fathers return to work and friends care for their own families. New grandparents may provide casseroles or do the dishes, but this is generally short-lived. Most days during the infant period, mothers find themselves in the least ideal circumstance when trying to invest in an infant: solitary confinement. 

Admit it. You want a sister wife too. 

In our ancestral past, independent child-rearing was not a possibility. If you found yourself alone with a baby, your days were likely numbered. No wonder we're so fucking nervous.  

But there's more. Because no matter what those around us are doing, we have other internal mechanisms to help us release the hormones that keep PPD at bay. Unfortunately these are some of the most controversial and least discussed elements in contemporary society, primarily because of the potential for offense. Luckily, I have no such filter when it comes to education for the sake of maternal health. Don't miss the next post: PPD, Breastfeeding and the Influence of Hormones

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Topic-Relevant Resources

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

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers

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.

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

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.