All That Glitters

“My uncle wants to come,” Jasmin announced as she sat in the hard wooden chair by my desk, looking worried. She was almost due, and as her obstetrician, I was seeing her for what she hoped might be her final prenatal visit. She wanted to know how many people could be present in the delivery room at the hospital for the birth.

I nodded encouragingly -so far, only her husband and mother were expected to be present.

“Uncle Jonathan used to be one of my favourites when I was younger.” She smiled at the memory. “He was so smart!” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “He was –is,” she corrected herself, “a professor of Philosophy at the university.” She stared at something behind me for a moment. “I was so impressed that he had even published a book… I remember trying to read it,” she added, rolling her eyes for effect, “but it was too abstruse for me in those days.”

I smiled at the idea of anything being too difficult for her -she was a PhD candidate herself, although not in Philosophy like her uncle. “You seem a bit concerned that he wants to be present for the birth, Jasmin.”

She shrugged and glanced nervously at her lap again. “I haven’t seen him for a while,” she admitted. “We… we kind of fell out a few years ago.”

I sat quietly and waited to see if she wanted to explain.

“He… I mean, I don’t like the way he treats his wife –treated…” she qualified her tenses again. Then she sent her eyes over to explore my face to see if she should explain further. “Even Mom was upset with her brother…”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I suppose she could see my curiosity.

“He expected her to have a meal ready for him when he came home…” Her eyes never left my face, but had perched on my cheeks as if they were resting. Waiting. “She had to do all the work around the house, you know. He always said he was exhausted from lecturing and writing at work.”

I nodded again, but she could sense I was trying not to judge.

“Mom said it was abusive…” she said in answer to my unasked question. “I… I refused to believe her at first. I always knew he was arrogant, but if anybody deserved to be arrogant, it was him. He was such a brilliant thinker… is, I mean…”

Jasmin seemed genuinely conflicted. I could see it was difficult for her to accept what she saw as imperfections in a childhood hero.

And yet, any hero-worshipping can be fraught, can’t it? I discussed some of the ramifications of this in a previous essay entitled Life’s Fitful Fever https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/?p=10396 , but I continue to be intrigued by the subject…

We all have subsurface faults that could weaken our glossy reputations if exposed. After all, each of us is a book of stories, only some of which we prefer to read -even those exemplary figures we choose to pedestalize.

None of this is a surprise, of course, but it is sometimes important that it be reconsidered in times like this when we are busy tearing down statues of people whose past is not as monolithic as we once assumed -or, at least, not as we wanted to remember it. An essay by the British philosopher Julian Baggini in Aeon provided an interesting counterbalance to our resurgent iconoclasm: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexist-and-racist-philosophers-might-still-be-admirable

‘Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

‘We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left… However, the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are.’

Historical revisionism is an interesting phenomenon: the belief -no, the assumption– that our present day ethos is, by default, the gold standard against which to compare all other eras, and all other societies. But, ‘why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment… The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.’

‘Accepting this does not mean glossing over the prejudices of the past. Becoming aware that even the likes of Kant and Hume were products of their times is a humbling reminder that the greatest minds can still be blind to mistakes and evils, if they are widespread enough. It should also prompt us to question whether the prejudices that rudely erupt to the surface in their most infamous remarks might also be lurking in the background elsewhere in their thinking.’ And yet, ‘Many blindspots are remarkably local, leaving the general field of vision perfectly clear. The classicist Edith Hall’s defence of Aristotle’s misogyny is a paradigm of how to save a philosopher from his worst self. Rather than judge him by today’s standards, she argues that a better test is to ask whether the fundamentals of his way of thinking would lead him to be prejudiced today… But there is a very important difference between the living and the dead. The living can come to see how their actions were wrong, acknowledge that, and show remorse. When their acts were crimes, they can also face justice.’

But, as Baggini summarizes in his essay, ‘The dead do not have such an opportunity, and so to waste anger chastising them is pointless. We are right to lament the iniquities of the past, but to blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today is too harsh.’

Memories of that visit with Jasmin re-surfaced after I read the article.

“Is Jonathan’s wife going to come to the birth as well?” I remember asking.

She stared at her lap briefly. “No, unfortunately she passed away last year.”

I could see it really bothered her, but I sat in silence for a moment. “Were you two… close?”

She nodded and then sighed as she looked at me again. “I just don’t understand, though,” she suddenly blurted out. “The two of them seemed happy, you know… Happy. Content with each other…” She took a deep breath as she tried to expunge the thought. “I suppose he was just a man of his time –is, I mean: his attitude is fairly typical of that era, I think…” Then, after she considered it briefly, she added “But I don’t know how she could stand it: being a slave in the house, I mean.”

She kept scanning my face to see if I agreed -after all, I was probably the same age as Jonathan. Subject to the same biases, the same unrealistic expectations of a wife.

It was my turn to sigh. “You said the two of them seemed happy…”

She nodded. “They loved each other.”

I smiled. “Then perhaps she, too, was a woman of her time, Jasmin.”

She thought about that for a while and then her whole demeanour changed. “I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She smiled and sent her eyes to my face to thank me. “I’ll introduce you two in the delivery room. I think you’ll like him,” she said and winked at me as she stood to leave.

 

 

 

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Give Sorrow Words

It is fairly intuitive to suspect that parental mental health has an effect on both infant and childhood development. Indeed there is a widespread attempt to address the issue with the use of evaluative tests such as the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale to identify or even anticipate and take action to ameliorate the problem.

It was designed, of course, to deal with the disastrous effects a mother’s depression, especially a postpartum one, might have on the health of the newborn -everything from bonding, to breast milk production, to the safety of the baby itself, could be jeopardized with an untreated depression. But, aside from the obvious issues of domestic violence, the father’s mental state is seldom accorded the same vigilance -after all, he is not the one who has undergone profound physiological and hormonal alterations as the pregnancy progresses, he is not the one who has experienced the rigours of delivery, and he is certainly not the one whose hormone levels change so drastically once again in the postpartum period.

And yet, merely to assign the paternal side of the parental equation to a largely supportive role is perhaps to assume there are few mental consequences of the changes that this newly acquired responsibility entails. It is the woman who is under the watchful eye of the accoucheur, and not the partner -even if he attends most of the prenatal visits. And postpartum period is likely even more of a black-hole for partner surveillance.

But the man, too, can undergo psychological changes after the birth, as an article in the Guardian newspaper reports: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/nov/13/can-men-get-postnatal-depression

Although not adequately investigated, previous studies suggested that only  between 4-10% of men developed recognizable post-partum depressive-like symptoms, whereas a Swedish study found that ‘28% of men had symptoms that scored above mild levels of depression. Overall, 4% had moderate depression. Fewer than one in five fathers who were depressed sought help, even though a third of those had thought about harming themselves.’ The discrepancy is likely because, unless it is serious, or obvious, the men are less frequently assessed in relation to their spouses pregnancy.

But the answer might not be as easy as asking the father-to-be to fill in the Edinburgh Depression Scale like his partner. ‘The lead author of the Swedish paper, Elisa Psouni, from the department of psychology at Lund University, says the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) used for both women and men is not so accurate in picking up depression in fathers. Her research showed higher levels of depression in dads because it added in a score more reflective of “male” symptoms of depression such as agitation, anger, irritability, working longer hours and drinking too much.

‘Depression in fathers may be rising not just because researchers are looking for it, but because more new dads are struggling. Psouni believes fathers increasingly face the same dilemmas that mothers do – including trying to combine parenthood with working. Fathers who got depressed often had external pressures, such as job issues, and if their partner was depressed, their own risk of depression doubled. Lack of sleep, having twins and conflict in the relationship can all contribute.

‘A depressed dad will play and smile less with his child. Children are deeply affected by paternal postnatal depression with studies showing poorer measures of wellbeing and more behavioural problems at the age of seven.’

I suppose we are all children of our eras, though, aren’t we. We usually see the world through societal eyes. Indeed, I wrote an essay in my weekly series about this back in 2013: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/08/09/postpartum-depression-just-words/

I was focussed, as were most obstetricians, on the mother of course, but even then I wondered about the effects of pregnancy on the dads.

*

Julie was sitting in the waiting room fussing with her new baby cradled ever so carefully in her arms. I recognized the older woman seated beside her -I’d met her mother several times before the delivery, and as a watchful guardian in the corner during the delivery- but I’d never seen Julie without her husband, Andrew. He’d come to every prenatal visit, and had hovered over her like a tent during her entire labour -at least those times when I was present, anyway.

They were a team, and as inseparable as a shirt from its tie -too inseparable, I sometimes thought. Each decision she had to make throughout the pregnancy -everything from prenatal supplements, types of analgesia in labour, to when to cut the umbilical cord after birth- was made after lengthy consultation between the two of them. She never seemed to be given the option of deciding for herself and yet she seemed to welcome his input. She basked in his concern; she waded in his eyes.

That day, I remember she insisted her mother stay in the waiting room with the baby while she had her routine post-partum check; it seemed a little unusual.

“You’re looking a bit tired, Julie,” I said, when I had finished my post-partum examination.

She nodded pleasantly, but she looked preoccupied. I assumed it was the usual new-mother state, though, and I was happy that her mother had agreed to stay with them for a while.

“Where’s Andrew,” I asked, more to change the subject than out of curiosity.

Her eyes suddenly surfaced from her lap and flew to my face. “Andrew?” she replied, a little too quickly, I thought. “Oh, he’s… at home…”

But there was hesitation in her answer -as if I was being invited to question her some more. “At home…?” I asked, gently. I could see some tears beginning to well up in her eyes. “Is he okay…?”

She sighed and fixed me with a melancholy shrug. “He’s been stressed a lot at work, I guess -he’s taken some time off…”

I leaned forward a bit on my desk to show her I was listening and her face collapsed.

“Soon after we got home with the baby, he began sitting around pretending to read, but he never turned the page. He didn’t want to go for walks with us, and he only played with his food… He started to argue…” She closed her eyes for a moment before resuming. “And even the baby didn’t seem to interest him anymore…” She stared out the window behind my desk, obviously uncertain how to proceed. I offered her some tissue from the box I keep on the desk and she wiped her cheeks. “He said he was afraid of hurting her…” she blurted out, uncoaxed.

Suddenly, she stared at me. “Can you imagine -he was afraid of hurting his own daughter..!”

I must have looked concerned, because she quickly sat back in her chair and almost smiled. “Yes,” she said, as if trying to reassure me. “I realized he was depressed -I’m a nurse, remember- so both of us went to his doctor a week or so ago. He was referred immediately to a specialist who put him on medications as well as enrolled him in some counselling sessions.” Just getting it off her chest seemed therapeutic, and the shadows of a tiny smile began to surface on her lips.

But nonetheless, she looked uncertain, and also perhaps a little bemused. “I didn’t think men could get post-partum depression, doctor.”

I smiled and relaxed in my chair while I riffled through my head for an explanation. “A new baby changes things for both of you, don’t you think? Only, he just doesn’t have the same hormones, Julie…” I added, not certain what more I could say about it.

She actually chuckled at the thought. “Damn! I was hoping you’d tell me he could do some of the nighttime breast feeding…”