Postpartum Depression & The Pain of Perfectionism

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On a common risk factor for postpartum depression: perfectionism …

It’s been widely reported over the last several years that Utah–where I live–has the nation’s highest incidence of depression per capita, and that antidepressant use is widespread across the state. When I first heard this (before I was ever diagnosed with postpartum depression), I scoffed at the data and attributed the results of the study to correlation, not causation. Perhaps women here are just more likely to admit to depression and medication, and therefore the rates look higher than other states, I told myself. While that may be true, after living through postpartum depression I started to believe the statistics.

One of the main driving forces behind the culture of motherhood in Utah is perfection. Many who visit the state remark upon its generally good-looking residents, and I agree that there is a significantly large population of well-groomed, easy-on-the-eyes people here. Although it could be said that this is due to the Mormon church’s influence, which is very strong in Utah and promotes clean-cut hair, modest attire, and well-being due to abstinence from potentially unhealthy substances, I think the reason for the glut of beauty here goes even deeper than that.

Maybe it all started with the LDS church, which is relatively well-known for having high, some say unattainable, expectations of its members. LDS women are extremely important to the church’s function, since they are at the center of the church’s most fundamental element: the family unit. Although the organizational structure of the Mormon church has been criticized for being patriarchal or even misogynistic, those who actually belong to the church know that women hold vital roles both within the family and within the church at large.

In fact, the role of women in the church is so crucial that it can sometimes lead them on a pointless quest for perfection; pointless because perfection cannot be achieved in this life. Although the church does encourage its members to strive to better themselves every day, the pressure to be flawless is mostly self-imposed. In addition, it seems the pursuit for spiritual perfection has, in our time of rampant materialism and doubts about the worth of society as a whole, transformed into a journey toward secular perfection.

So while this idealistic view of motherhood and womanhood in general may have its roots in the influence of the LDS church, it has devolved into something far more sinister. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for improving one’s body, mind, and spirit. What I don’t advocate is the message being sent here in Utah and all over the U.S. that in order to be good enough, we must be faultless. Doing one’s best is no longer adequate, especially if one’s “best” isn’t quite as good as their neighbor’s best.

This need to measure up to the expectations of friends, family, and self is damaging to the mind, especially in a new mother already doubting her abilities as a caretaker. One of my fondest memories of my son’s infancy was having my late grandmother, who had seven children and always-perfect nails, tell me that I seemed so together for a new mom. And I probably looked that way, from the outside: I always put on makeup and clean clothes before leaving the house, my son wore cute outfits, I had a diaper bag packed full of the contents of an entire convenience store, and I never said no to anyone who needed a favor. At home, though, I was a wreck. I sobbed constantly, flinched at the sound of my son’s crying, and dreaded phone calls from friends and family who might ask me to come out of my house to do something with them. But as long as I was able to deceive the outside world that I was Supermom, I felt like I was doing my job.

However, as I continued to maintain a facade of poise and self-confidence, I was quickly unraveling in the hours I spent at home alone with my son. I could barely stand to hear him crying, not because I felt sorry for him but because the sound made all the hairs on my arms stand on end; I resented him for the demands he made on my time, body, and mind; I could barely manage to contain my frustration and feelings of futility enough to prevent myself from doing harm to myself or my home. But I was able to put aside all those red flags because everyone kept telling me how great I was at this motherhood thing. If no one else can tell I’m drowning, I thought, maybe I’m not. My pathological need to measure up to others, at least externally, was being fulfilled, and so I was able to convince myself that all was right in the world.

I eventually sought treatment after experiencing suicidal thoughts, but it took a long time for me to get there. Now that I’ve made it through the worst of my second encounter with postpartum depression, I see the world a lot differently, and this altered perspective has been a huge blessing in my life. I now see the danger of using others’ lives as a measuring stick; I of all people can understand how different life is behind closed doors. There’s no way for me to know whether or not that model-thin mother with the 6 month-old twins, perfect hair, and an $800 stroller is really happy, but I can know whether or not I’m really happy. And that’s my idea of perfect, at least for right now.

Alexis Lesa

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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Comments

  1. Hello, thank you for writing this, I agree with all your thoughts. It is the cult of perfection that really drives post-depression deeper. The need to measure up and appear that you are succeeding in your starring role of motherhood.
    As we try for a second child I feel so excited about it but also a little worried that this urge will kick in again. Hopefully I'll be a bit more aware of the stages of early motherhood and post-natal depression.
    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post.

  2. I was so glad to come onto the site tonight and see a post about LDS perfectionism and PPD. I am LDS and I think you hit the nail right on the head – about Utah and everything. I gain SO much weight when I am pregnant and I am SO hard on myself afterwards. Like, why am I still so fat?!?!?!? I have major anxiety about body image. And sometimes in my culture, I feel like it's a just a fashion show all the time and I am the frump at the party.

  3. You write so well about this topic. It's not just in Utah, or not just the result of the Mormon church — it's everywhere in society. Photos in magazines show impossible beautiful, fit, perfect looking mothers making the most amazing snacks for their children, whipping up a delicious and nutritious dinner (guaranteed to be kid-friendly — NOT!), ready to care for their husband's every need. The reality is that being a new mother is hard, hard work and that nobody — NOBODY! — does it perfectly. We all do the best we can with the hand we are dealt. We need to accept being "perfectly good enough" rather than "perfect".

  4. Thanks for writing about this. I understand how you feel. I am LDS and I live in NC and suffer from PPD and PPA. I can't begin to tell you how hard this can be when you live in a church culture where it seems like everyone can have 6 kids and every thing is perfect. I often compare my life to other friends from church that seem to be so perfect. I really need to stop doing this to myself and realize that no one is perfect. And I don't really know what other people life are really like. I just need to fine the happiness in mine.