Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Danger of Postpartum Depression in 1800s America: Guest Post by Loretta Miles Tollefson, Author of Not My Father's House

Please join me in welcoming Loretta Miles Tollefson back to Let Them Read Books! Loretta is celebrating the release of her new novel, Not My Father's House, and she's here today with a guest post about postpartum depression in early America.

Suzanna hates everything about her New Mexico mountain home. The isolation. The short growing season. The critters after her corn. The long snow-bound winters in a dimly-lit cabin.

But she loves Gerald, who loves this valley.

So Suzanna does her unhappy best to adjust, even when the babies come, both of them in the middle of winter. Her postpartum depression, the cold, and the lack of sunlight push her to the edge.

But the Sangre de Cristo mountains contain a menace far more dangerous than Suzanna’s internal struggles. The man Gerald killed in the mountains of the Gila two years ago isn’t as dead as everyone thought.

And his lust for Suzanna may be even stronger than his desire for Gerald’s blood.

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The Danger of Postpartum Depression in 1800s America
by Loretta Miles Tollefson

There were a lot of different methods for treating depression in America in the early 1800s. 

Water immersion, which involved submerging the patient as long as possible without actually drowning them. 
A specially designed spinning stool, intended to bring on dizziness and to reorganize the contents of the patient’s brain into their proper positions. 
An early form of electroshock therapy that Benjamin Franklin had introduced.
Physical restraint. 
Bloodletting, a therapy that was apparently thought to cure just about everything. 
A course of enemas. 
Induced vomiting. 

If none of these worked, drugs were always available. These included opium and calomel, a white tasteless powder that was also called mercurous chloride and used as both a purgative and fungicide. Later in the century, institutionalization in an insane asylum was also an option.

So when a new mother showed symptoms of what is today known as postpartum depression, she could expect to be subjected to any one of these options.

Fortunately for Suzanna, the late-1820s protagonist of my novel, Not My Father’s House, she doesn’t live in the United States. She lives in New Mexico when it was still owned by Mexico, where there were no insane asylums and the type of science that recommended electroshock and spinning stools hadn’t yet made inroads.

Suzanna lives in an isolated mountain valley with only her husband, Gerald, and his business partner for company. She suffers from seasonal affective disorder brought on by long snow-bound winters cooped up in a small cabin with no real windows. 

When Suzanna’s first child is born in December 1828, the weather is already making her miserable. And then the postpartum depression hits.
Suzanna doesn’t have what we now think of as the “baby blues,” the sadness that hits fifty to eighty percent of new mothers. She’s experiencing something much more intense, what clinicians today describe as middle-range clinical depression. This level of postpartum is characterized by deep sadness, mood swings, intense irritability, fatigue, and difficulty bonding with one’s newborn, as well as guilt for not doing so. 

If she’d lived in the United States instead of New Mexico during the late 1820s and early 1830s, Suzanna would almost certainly have been placed under a doctor’s care, with all the potential cures available at the time.  

Fortunately, she lives in New Mexico. The men in her life provide her with the only options they can think of—plenty of rest, help from others, and physical activity—the kind of non-medicated approach often prescribed today. 

With this regimen, Suzanna slowly recovers. There are still plenty of problems in her life, but she’s not disabled. She’ll face and overcome them, though not without difficulty. 

It’s a good thing she didn’t live in the U.S. 

About the Author:

Loretta Miles Tollefson grew up in the American West in a log cabin built by her grandfather. She lives in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, where she researches the region’s history and imagines what it would have been like to actually experience it. Visit Loretta's website and follow her on Facebook.

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