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Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain

A new book by Dr Hilary Marland, Director, Centre for the History of Medicine

It is estimated that one in ten mothers suffer from postnatal depression leaving them feeling depressed, anxious, unable to cope, tearful, and exhausted. Despite the frequency of the disorder, postnatal depression has only recently been recognised as a genuine and treatable illness. Meanwhile around one in 500 hundred women develop the more severe and distressing condition puerperal psychosis after giving birth; there is little consensus on how this is caused, who is susceptible and how it should be treated. However, the relationship between mental disorder and motherhood is not a recent development; nor is the debate about who is likely to suffer or how they should be cared for.

Taking as its main focus the early and mid-nineteenth century, a new book, Dangerous Motherhood, traces the creation of a new category of mental breakdown, one linked closely to ideals of maternity and domestic ideology.

By exploring the relationship between women, their families and their doctors, Marland reveals how explanations for the onset of puerperal insanity were drawn from a broad set of moral, social and environmental frameworks. However, the timing of what was a genuine explosion of interest in puerperal insanity coincided closely with the tendency to present childbirth as ever more risky and potentially physically and mentally damaging to mothers.

Puerperal insanity was no discriminator between social classes, striking the wealthy as much as poor women, turning gentle mothers into disruptive and dangerous women, and in the worst cases child-murderers. The horror of this devastating disorder was magnified by it occurring at a time when it was anticipated that women would be most happy in the fulfilment of their roles as mothers.

Though Marland argues that the apparent prevalence of this disorder owed much to Victorian conceptions of maternity and women’s social role, puerperal insanity has strong associations with the current reporting of mental breakdown involving new mothers and powerful echoes with recent cases of infanticide.