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The Meaning of New Mother

“I’m worried I’ll get postpartum.” I’ve heard many women say this during pregnancy and I know exactly what they mean. The word “postpartum” has come to stand for “postpartum depression.” Technically, “postpartum” simply describes the time period after giving birth. It comes from the Latin post (after), partus (birth).

Tribeca Parenting childbirth educator, Jayne Freeman, describes this confusion, “Whatever class I’m teaching I make sure to define the word and mention that this confusion is normal. Nearly every time, there will be some dad elbowing his partner saying, ‘See, I’m not a total idiot!'” She continues, “A few years ago I was talking with a hula-hooping expert about hooping during pregnancy and I mentioned something about the activity improving core strength and tone postpartum.  She paused and sounded confused, finally saying, ‘Hmmm, I’ve never heard that hooping can help with depression, but I’m sure it can’t hurt!’ That was the first time I thought, ‘Ah…she just assumed I meant PPD because honestly, who learns the word ‘postpartum’ unless you’re pregnant or in the birth world?'”

Does this mix-up of vocabulary matter that much? After all, it’s a good thing that more people are talking about postpartum depression. But what does it mean when the one word we have for the period of new or early motherhood has come to immediately connote “depression”? 

The transition to motherhood is rife with contradictory feelings—you’re exhausted and disoriented but thrilled but worried but in love but concerned about work but happy to be home but shocked by the isolation…  It’s a major life transition. One might say that being “postpartum” is like being “adolescent,” this is one of the most spectacularly charged times of a person’s life, a time of emotional and physiological change and upheaval.  On its own the postpartum period, like adolescence, doesn’t require “treatment.”

I spoke with Dr. Jessica Zucker, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, who specializes in the transition to motherhood, and here’s what she had to say about this confusion, “Yes, postpartum depression is a very real diagnosis that is fully treatable with professional help. But for those who experience the expectable roller coaster in new motherhood, who do not have a diagnosable experience, there needs to be a less binary and more colorful way to reflect the spectrum of challenges women face. The maze of motherhood is often made more confusing by the lack of cultural conversation that accurately reflects the inevitable peaks and valleys and everything in between. Motherhood is messy and the sooner we adopt a language and cultural stance that encourages women to feel uncomfortably comfortable in this new identity, the better off we will be.”I don’t want to be a complete ninny about the correct use of language. But since words can come to define us, we do well to properly define them.New MotherCeridwen Morris is co-author of From the Hips: A Comprehensive, Open-Minded, Totally Honest, Uncensored Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Becoming a Parent. She teaches childbirth classes at Tribeca Parenting