Recently, as I listened to leading researchers grapple with the question of how to design a feasible study of intervention for postpartum depression, I held in my mind an image of a particular moment in my office.
I was sitting on the floor with 10 month old Madison and her mother Nancy, who was struggling with postpartum depression. Nancy spoke of the strain Madison’s refusal to take a bottle and her frequent night wakings were placing on her marriage. Madison contentedly played with the toy her mother had brought and then began to expand her exploration to the other toys in the office. We proceeded through the history, beginning with Nancy telling me about her pregnancy. Then I asked about her family. “My mother was severely depressed and frequently suicidal,” she said. Tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t want Madison to go through what I did.” As she spoke, Nancy was freely crying.
Madison stopped her exploration of the toys. At first she sat completely still, observing her mother. This only made Nancy cry harder, as she saw the effect of her tears on Madison. Then Madison crawled up on to her mother and help on tight. They were both quiet for a bit. Madison began to fuss and reach for Nancy’s breast. Nancy got her settled to nurse, and very soon Madison fell fast asleep.
I understand the need for what is known as “evidence based medicine” to advance our knowledge of effective treatment. But given the constraints of research design, I could not help but wonder how to capture the complexity of this tiny moment. The researchers who spoke that weekend were trying to design interventions that would affect not only the mother’s depression, but also the mother-child relationship.
In that moment I was literally inside in the mother-child relationship and witness to its enormous richness. I saw how Nancy was using the nursing to protect Madison from her depression. I understood that if I were to help Nancy her find time for herself and her marriage, I would need to help her find an alternative way to comfort Madison when her depression threatened to overwhelm her. I could only understand this by actually being in the moment of interaction between Nancy and Madison. By listening to Nancy and recognizing her experience as a mother, I could support her efforts to think about Madison’s experience and how she could help Madison manage these difficult moments.
I struggled that weekend with the question of the relative role of research and clinical experience in advancing knowledge and promoting the healthy emotional development of children and parents. Upon my return home, my sixteen year old daughter handed me a paper she had written. The assignment was to write a daily theme on a subject of her choosing. That day she chose to write about the power of books. In her conclusion, she said:
Reading has power. A good author has the ability to craft words from his thoughts and change lives without even leaving his desk. A book is timeless, and can be read over and over by generation after generation and never lose its charm. A book is timely, and can erupt a change in the thoughts and opinions of people in the time period.
I believe she is right-that a book, or stories, have the power to change the way people think. Interestingly the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post Graduate Certificate Program, that I have written about in previous blog posts, brings together leading researchers with a group of fellows who are primarily clinicians immersed on a daily basis in the complexities of struggling families. I hope together we can join forces to make the world a better place for children.