Postpartum Depression as Initiation
I was recently reading the book Belonging by Toko-pa Turner. She recounted the process of initiation, especially through the mythology of Inanna.
In the myth of Inanna, although her reason for embarking on the journey of visiting the underworld is not clear, she was called to visit her sister Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld. Inanna is the ‘Queen of Heaven’, and in her preparation to visit her sister she adorns herself with symbols of her power, her finest clothes and jewelry.
On her descent into the underworld, she has to go through 7 gates. At each gate she is asked to surrender one piece of clothing or jewels. By the time she reaches the underworld she is naked and stripped of her powers.
Her sister is still not happy with this offering, and in her wrath kills Inanna and dismembers her. In her grief of what she had done, she agrees for Inanna’s consorts to take her back to world and put her back together. This myth is symbolic of the process of initiation, and the aspect of descent that is involved in which one has to surrender aspects of their ego and become completely undone in order to be put back together as a new being.
This inspired me to reflect on my own experience of postpartum depression. Within every major life initiation or rite of passage there is a descent. A point of dissolving, dissolution, disorientation, a stripping away of once was and of the ego. This complete dissolving is much like the process of metamorphosis, in which an insect has to be dissolved into complete goo in order to become its next highest vision of itself.
As I thought about what I call my ‘postpartum illness,’ and the experience I went through, I see how the process of becoming a mother, or what is now called matrescence, has this element of descent. In many traditional cultures, where the practices of postpartum care are still intact, there are very specific rituals and traditions on how a postpartum mother is taken care of. This often includes a period of confinement or ‘lying-in’ for the first 20–40 days after birth.
The newborn mother is given time to rest, recover, and is deeply held and supported during these first few weeks.
All of this got me thinking about what if what we call ‘Postpartum Depression’ might just be this aspect of initiation where one has to fully dissolve in order to complete the transformation into a new self. Cultures where initiation is still held as a practice honor that the initiate needs a lot of care and guidance in preparing for this process, as well as during and after. What if what many modern mothers are going through is this initiation, but without the support and guidance of elders who can hold and care for them in the process.
If the process of becoming your new mother self requires a complete dissolving and surrendering of the ego, and of all that you were before you were a mother, it makes sense to me that some may have to go through more intense ‘initiations’ in that journey. That there might be some of us who have more to be stripped away, like the gates Inanna had to face in which she had to surrender some piece of her clothing and jewels. Inanna’s final initiation was death and dismemberment. And so too, some of us become dismembered in the process.
But here is the thing… if we are comparing the process of becoming a mother to the rituals of initiation, there is one glaring difference in our modern world. Mother’s do not have the support and guidance of elders or wise people to prepare them for the journey. And they often do not have anyone holding them and supporting them while they experience this initiation.
So what happens? This process of dissolving, disorientation, and disillusionment becomes traumatizing and overwhelming to their systems. And depression is one of the natural mechanisms that happens when our systems are overwhelmed.
This ‘depression’ may also be a necessary piece of the descent. However instead of deeply holding mothers in this process and seeing it as a part of this necessary stripping away in order to grow up into the highest vision of mother, many mothers are medicated.
This is because our culture ignores the important processes that initiation is. Possibly because it is a process that supports us to fully mature into adults and become self-empowered beings. Instead, we are not allowed the space to fully dissolve and die on a metaphorical level and instead must put on a happy face and proceed as “business as usual.”
I am curious about how many mothers miss fully completing their rite of passage into motherhood because of this. I am also curious about how many mothers are traumatized in the process because of the lack of support in preparing for and during the postpartum period.
My vision is for all mothers to be deeply held and supported after birth. For mothers to have the mentorship and guidance to prepare themselves for the journey ahead. For the practical stuff, as well as for the deeply psychological, emotional, and spiritual transformation it is. To have their tool belts packed full of tools that will support them to navigate this major life initiation. To be deeply held so that they can allow themselves to fully dissolve and come undone, so that they can be put back together into this new higher version of themselves. And where this rite of passage does not have to be a traumatizing experience because they are and they have all the they need to complete the journey successfully, feeling empowered on the other side.
I see myself as a mentor, companion, and source of support to people going through the process of matrescence, the initiation into motherhood. As a Postpartum Educator, Care Provider, and Wellness Coach, I support mothers to be prepared and empowered on their journey.