Research on Postpartum Depression

Resiliency and Vulnerability to Post-partum Depression – Elke Schlager, Ph.D.

What was the purpose of the study? This study examined personality characteristics (e.g., anxious or avoidant attachment) that might provide resiliency or vulnerability to postpartum depression. I looked at first time mothers who were experiencing high levels of stress due the transition to another culture to see how they were able to adjust to being a first-time mother. I also examined women’s perceptions of their relationships with their own mothers as it relates to how they are able to use support systems and adapt to motherhood in a foreign land.

How was it done? I conducted in-depth qualitative interviews in conjunction with a quantitative measure of PPD (Postpartum Depression Screening Scale). I developed a coding system to analyze common themes and relationship patterns, verbal and nonverbal (e.g., body language) forms of emotional experience, as well as defense mechanisms to avoid emotional experience.

Key Findings

  • Most women who were geographically and/or emotionally distant from their own mothers developed surrogate relationships with older women. These relationships provided attachment experiences that helped them heal from the ones they experienced with their own mothers.
  • Many of the women in the study had avoidant styles of relating as a result of growing up quite independent without much support from their primary caregivers. Women who had more stable relationships with their mothers appeared to be in a process of individuation from them, yet found themselves once again clinging to their mothers for support during the early stages of motherhood.
  • Most women in the study had self-critical personality traits. They forged their identities with the idea that they did not need the assistance of others to handle stressors. As a result, they tended to be independent and high achieving, but placed excessive demands on themselves. This independent style may interfere with a woman’s ability to regulate anxiety, nurture her infant, or to receive sufficient support during the postpartum period, thus putting her at risk for depression.
  • Many of the women were preoccupied with fears of repeating the mistakes of their mothers. They attempted to distance themselves from dysfunctional parenting patterns in which they grew up, yet also saw themselves as carrying some of these traits in their personality (for example, inability to self-soothe or regulate anxiety).
  • Women who saw themselves as independent, high achievers perceived the baby as an obstacle, which produced a lot of guilt. For others the baby appeared to represent a watershed event in which they had the choice of focusing more on the present and recommitting to better relationships and a better life. In general, mothers appeared to perceive their babies in ways that resolved a deficit or conflict in their own upbringing.
  • This study has implications for other mothers who may be geographically distant from their mothers and culture (for example, military mothers).


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