Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Postpartum depression is one of the most common complications of childbirth worldwide, affecting nearly 20% of mothers globally in the first year after birth. In addition to anti-depressants and therapy, one of the main recommendations that clinicians in the US make to mothers suffering from this illness is increase “self-care” by making time for sleep, meals, and socializing. Self-care is difficult to come by for new mothers, however, who are expected to provide around-the-clock intimate and embodied care for newborns while they themselves are recovering from childbirth (which, in the case of a C-section, involves major surgery), and adapting to their post-pregnant bodies and post-baby lives. Pediatricians recommend that in the first few months of life mothers hold and feed their babies on demand, around the clock. For some mothers this involves having a baby at her breast for up to 12 or 16 hours a day, with sleep only possible in 1-2 hour intervals. Many mothers, especially those suffering from depression, find it difficult in these circumstances to undertake even the most basic self-care practices such as using the bathroom, taking a shower, or eating meals. This paper draws upon ethnographic fieldwork in the homes of postpartum women in both China and the US to examine how women who suffer from depression experience the physical and mental exertion of caring for a newborn while inhabiting a postpartum body. What is the toll that newborn care expectations take on women who are struggling to care for themselves?